Sunday, June 06, 2010
Echoes of a Past Life - Listening to Alice Coltrane
I started writing The Cahokian blog on a lark back in 2006. I was intrigued with the medium of the blog: on the one hand it could be the inappropriate over-sharer's narcissistic fantasy, on the other it could be a vehicle for self expression, for creativity, for exercising one's own tiny share of the vox populi. For the first year or so I put things up randomly here without presuming anyone else would ever notice. It became a sounding board for my political frustrations, and the intermittent diary of life's milestones. And then I discovered music blogs. A friend steered me to all these amazing blogs where people were just giving away hard to find obscure and lost music I had spent years and years trying to find myself.
In the beginning of 2008 I jumped into the music blog fray and launched Ile Oxumare, and started sharing rarities from my own collection. Wanting neither legal nor moral complication, I made a clear decision not to do anything that could deprive an artist of compensation for his or her work: I posted only items that were out of print and unavailable anywhere else. At first I didn't have much to say about the music I shared: I was humbled by other bloggers I saw whose crate-digging credibility was far deeper than my own. But as the author of the Jazz Supreme web site, there were some things I did know about, and eventually I realized I had a point of view about the music I loved and Ile Oxumare became the place where I not only got to share things with friends, but got the fun of reviewing the music and advocating for my taste and perspective. Also, I got to explore something crucial to me, the notion that there is a message in the music, that music is not just entertainment but a vehicle for spiritual uplift.
Ile Oxumare really took off. Today it has had nearly 500,000 visitors with 1,200,000 page views and a steady daily visits count of about 450. While most of the visitors are looking for free music -- can you blame them? -- I've established friendships with many and found myself part of an international community of jazz music lovers. I post things on Ile Oxumare relatively rarely now, once or twice a month as opposed to many times a week when I started: the music blogging world has so thrived that my well of out-of-print discoveries has grown very shallow. I'm focusing more energy on The Cahokian now, with daily posts, but my music blogs continue.
So for this entry of "Echoes of a Past Life" I'm reposting three essays that first appeared on Ile Oxumare. These were all posted under my blogland identity "ish."
Alice Coltrane died in 2007. She had first recorded as Alice McLeod playing piano with Terry Gibbs. Eventually she met and married saxophonist John Coltrane, and wound up replacing McCoy Tyner as his band's pianist during its last, most exploratory and "out" period. Upon John's death, she pursued twin careers of preserving and deepening the reputation of her late husband developing his catalog of recordings, and following her own spiritual and musical muse through a solo recording career. Her albums on Impulse! and Warner Brothers from the late 1960s through the end of the 1970s playing piano, organ and harp with a long line of brilliant jazz coplayers, while not exactly fixtures on the shelves of most jazz lovers, are well respected and acknowledged for their art and innovation. But when she stopped recording jazz for major labels it was almost as though she had fallen off the edge of the earth. Until the release of her final Impulse! album "Translinear Light" in 2004, Alice Coltrane had moved to the realm of myth.
But in truth she had continued to record. A year after her passing Ile Oxumare shared her extremely rare devotional cassette from 1982 "Turiya Sings" (cover shown above); all I said was "Not much to say about this music, which is not really jazz, except that Alice Coltrane loved God." "Turiya Sings" was the first of four devotional albums she recorded in the 1980s and 1990s. She added synthesizers to her musical arsenal, as well as, quite surprisingly to me anyway, her own voice. While her devotional albums feature a chanting gospel chorus and expert solo vocalists, many of them also feature her own singing of the sacred Sanskrit hymns; and her voice reveals a window into her spirituality even more directly than her instrumental playing. I reviewed her other three devotional albums more thoroughly, and those are the essays now reposted below. Writing these reviews was revelatory to me: in listening over and over again to these albums I learned something about the music and the spirituality contained within. These reviews helped me to develop my own writing voice and I'm happy to re-present them not as an excuse to give away music but because I had something to say about Alice Coltrane's vision and art.
Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, Divine Songs, 1987
(Originally posted on Ile Oxumare 6/14/2009)
"Chanting is a devotional engagement, one that allows the chanter to soar to higher realms of spiritual consciousness. Chanting is a healing force for good in our world, and also in the astral worlds. Chanting can bring the person closer to God because that person is calling on the Lord. When one calls to even a friend, a mother, or any other relative in a kindly way, he gets the response, also in a reciprocal way." --Alice Coltrane/Swamini Turiyasangitananda in the original liner notes
Thus Alice Coltrane matter-of-factly states it: when you call out to a friend, you get a response; and so when you call out to God, you get a response as well. This extremely rare cassette recording is one of Alice Coltrane's calls to God. In the lyrics to "Om Supreme" on her first Warner Brothers album "Eternity," she was similarly up front, and I'm paraphrasing slightly: "When I call you to come to California, you know I will meet you in California. When I call you to the Divine realms, you know I will meet you there as well."
The first Alice Coltrane album I ever bought was her eye-opening 2-LP Impulse! anthology "Reflections on Creation and Space" back in the 1970s. My mind was blown by the music, and I didn't quite know what to make of the bits of what seemed at the very least a highly eccentric philosophy contained in her notes and titles. I was a young college student and not particularly spiritual at the time, and while I found her music irresistibly compelling I set aside its reference points. The cover portraits on this and the rest of her catalogue which I subsequently devoured always unnerved me: She seemed in those pictures unbelievably serene, almost like an iconic saint, if also distant, uncomfortably otherworldly, and frankly, a little kooky.
Now many years after my first encounter with her music, and, sadly now, a couple years after her passing, I have come to understand her a little better. Even though her Hindu spiritual path has not been a specific religious calling for me, the universality of her spirituality is clearly self-evident. I set aside my skepticism about her eccentricities and have come to understand that she was the real deal. Her consciousness indeed spanned the planes of being, and the music was a kind of teaching, not only another way of saying "if you call out to a friend you will get a response" but the actual shout out itself to both God and us, her listeners, her friends, seeking that response.
The music here is not jazz, though it is deeply soulful. Like her other devotional recordings it is mostly Alice Coltrane singing Sanskrit chants against various instrumental backgrounds. As with her later recording "Glorious Chants" also featured here at Ile Oxumare, there is a raw synthesizer whine on a few tracks but unlike that record it's less dominant overall. And her singing, still almost heartbreakingly soulful, is less tentative than it was on "Turiya Sings," also an Ile Oxumare first. On one song she plays her trademark harp. There are strings on many tracks; although the label doesn't credit live strings only synthesizers, they sound in places too sensitive to my ears to be entirely electronic.
The background vocals are mostly sparse and tasteful; there's a couple more rousing chorus-and-Indian percussion numbers that might make the casual listener a little more sympathetic to the robed Hare Krishnas still found occasionally here in NYC.
Take this music as it was meant: not as an artistic statement or bit of entertainment (though it is both), but as the evidence that Alice Coltrane was in fact some kind of sainted holy woman. It's not that this music will cure your aches and pains, protect you against swine flu, nor give you an "e-ticket" into the religious paradise of your choice; and nor should it convince you to give away your belongings and linger about in airports dressed in pastel robes, but let it be your proof that if you call out to the spirits of peace, and wisdom, and serenity, you will be answered.
Alice Coltrane - Turiyasangitananda
The Vedantic Center Ashram's Infinite Chants, 1990
(Originally posted on Ile Oxumare 5/12/2010)
The late Alice Coltrane's least known works are the series of devotional cassettes recorded for her California ashram in the 1980s and 1990s. Between her last Warner Brothers album released in 1978 and her comeback album "Translinear Light" released a few years before her passing, she had largely disappeared from the jazz world. I've tried to feature everything I could find by her from that period on this blog, and here is the last piece I know of, "Infinite Chants."
Very much in the style of "Glorious Chants" this is far from a jazz recording; and unlike "Turiya Sings" and "Divine Songs," Alice Coltrane does not sing here. She is heard in the background as an instrumental presence, her whooshing synthesizers and noodling organ setting a spacey mood for the exuberant choral chanting. Again the material is all Sanskrit Hindu devotional songs. But I hesitate to call these traditional songs. There are some wonderful new albums of kirtans, sing-along chant albums by American Hindus such as David Newman that meld accessible pop-folk to the religious songs that actually feel somehow more traditional, at least as in the chant-along do-it-yourself-Hinduism new-age bookstore tradition. But the energy of this album is very different than that.
The songs here are flavored more by a gospel sensibility: the massed anonymous voices give way to some remarkable solo moments, and the spiritual fervor communicated is, at least to me, quite affecting. Repeatedly on this album the combination of vocal harmony, percussion, spacey synths, and one of the singers standing out from the mix creates an absolutely sublime moment inside songs that are otherwise, as they are meant to be, repetitious and not particularly melodic or hook-laden. And of course there's the visionary presence of the Swamini Turiyasangitananda, as Mrs. Coltrane came to be called, with its completely off-center, ecstatic, man-overboard commitment to sharing her spiritual quest.
The only thing the All-Music Guide has to say about this album is that some of this music is from a television program called "Eternity's Pillar." I used to have a short VHS clip from that program: it had a bizarre low-budget, public-access flavor, featuring Turiyasangitananda doing her best Sun Ra impersonation, seemingly broadcast from another plane of reality where most of her consciousness was otherwise engaged. Sort of a mesmerizing culty trainwreck at first glance. But as with this album, if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to realize how deeply heartfelt all this stuff is, you can connect not just with its blissful spiritual energy if you're so inclined, but with its musical beauty.
Alice Coltrane - Turiyasangitananda, Glorious Chants, 1995
(Originally posted on Ile Oxumare 5/31/2008)
"these chants are humbly commended into the lotus hands of bhagawan sri satya sai baba to his praise and glory."
if you're looking for alice coltrane's late period hidden jazz masterpiece, you won't find it here. in the mid-1990s she was deep into her life as a religious teacher, light years away from her musical explorations as john coltrane's widow; and she had sworn off secular recordings, not as yet ready for her brief and glorious comeback shortly before her passing. instead, this is a meditative album of devotional songs.
but just like alice coltrane went to far out planes of being to bring back amazing jazz--or literally communed with stravinsky's ghost to learn the art of arrangements for strings--here she goes to some far out plane to bring a distinctive presence to these chants.
i've heard some really nice kirtan albums recently: albums of peppy hindu chants that you can't help but sing along to; the bells and drums irresistibly pulling you in just like pop music does, but joyous and filled with spirit. but here turiyasangitanda, for that is what she went by then, mostly omits the bells and the drums for weird synthesizer noodling, sometimes almost soporific or cheesy, like a cheap sci-fi movie soundtrack, and sometimes howling like an air-raid siren, while the members of her ashram peacefully sing chanted devotional songs, sometimes joined in solo by a pair of singers from india. the songs are slow and long: this is not about musical virtuosity, and these are not jams and certainly no kind of jazz. this is about a state of being: there are highs and lows, some glorious peaks and some valleys where not much happens, like slow slow intakes and outtakes of rarified air. the production is seemingly amateur, which is oddly effecting, as though emphasizing not the presence of musicians but the diaphonous presence of spirit in the silent spaces between the almost muffled sounds.
this is certainly not the best music that alice coltrane ever recorded. but i take it as living proof that she had one foot in this world and one in another, bringing back some wordless secret message for us mere mortals. by the last number on this record, i hope you find, as i do everytime i listen to it, your heart filled with some profound and otherworldly joy.