Shameful confession: by the time I finished graduate school, my exposure to Alice Coltrane literally amounted to one song from a live recording with John Coltrane. I didn’t perceive it to be a gap in my historical awareness any more than not having any Yoko Ono records might limit my awareness of the Beatles’ musical contributions. In my mid-20s I got to know Franya Berkman, who was doing her Ph.D. at Wesleyan when I moved to CT and writing a dissertation on Alice’s life and music. It was at that point that I began listening and I went from skeptical to curious to intrigued to won over. Alice’s music has since had a significant influence on my own, something that has happened fairly infrequently with music I have discovered after my so-called formative years. Alice’s multi-faceted skills are inspiring, as she was an excellent pianist, harpist and organist (playing the Wurlitzer organ, very different from the more common Hammond B-3) and her compositional and playing style encompassed modern modal jazz, avant-garde, gospel and Eastern mysticism.
The more shameful thing (not shameful, really, just sad) is that I never got to fully express to Franya how much that exposure meant to me, as did her friendship. She passed away a few days ago from breast cancer, leaving behind a husband, 3 young children and a legacy of people who she touched (among other things she also got me my first job in a school and was Kate’s first yoga teacher). She also wrote what is at least for now the definitive book on Alice Coltrane, Monument Eternal (from Wesleyan University Press – do check it out!). I’m still processing that and thus am unprepared to turn this into a eulogy for the esteemed Dr. Berkman, so let’s focus instead on some of my favorite moments in Alice Coltrane’s discography.
1 ) “Jaya Jaya Rama” (from Huntington Ashram Monastery)
This is probably my favorite example of Alice’s piano playing. In a trio with Ron Carter and Rashied Ali, she gives a hard-swinging performance that is hip, assertive, soulful and harmonically daring. All diversity aside, she was just a brilliant pianist.
2 ) “Tranesonic” by John Coltrane (from Stellar Regions)
It’s hard to pick among the numerous inspiring collaborations between Alice and John Coltrane. I chose this fiery one as a good example of Alice both soloing and comping in that setting (and also to throw a bone to any suspicious readers looking for something short enough to be available as a single-song download). It’s also a bonus that we get to hear more than one take!
3 ) “Blue Nile” (from Ptah the El Dahoud)
I’m not going to lie – before I heard this song, I was very skeptical about the harp as a jazz instrument. But her playing here, alongside Joe Henderson and Pharoah Sanders (both on flutes), bassist Ron Carter and drummer Ben Riley, really blew my mind and I’ve never had the same bias since (except maybe when it comes to bebop harp). This album was, for what it’s worth, central to my decision to use both Carter and Riley on my own Patch Kit sessions ten years ago.
4 ) “Affinity” (from Transfiguration)
My discovery of Alice’s work on organ has been even more recent than my exposure to her work on piano and harp, as it wasn’t until later in her career that she began using this instrument. This live trio recording is significant musically for showing her absolutely burning on organ as Roy Haynes crackles and prods with stunning energy. It’s also historically significant, marking her transition into a spiritual life and away from life as a recording artist.
5 ) “His Blessings” by McCoy Tyner (from Extensions)
This record is probably my favorite to feature Alice as a sidewoman (save for the John Coltrane material, which is a category unto itself) and it’s one of my favorite of McCoy’s albums as a leader. It’s also historically fascinating to me to hear Alice alongside McCoy and Elvin in a sort of Coltrane-continuum. I was tempted to pick the track “Message From the Nile,” as it features the grooving rhythm section work of Ron Carter and Elvin Jones and the authoritative soloing of Wayne Shorter and Gary Bartz, but the selfless and meditative interplay on this track is irresistible to me.
6 ) “Altruvista” (from A Monastic Trio)
This solo piano piece, though released on Alice’s first album as a leader, was recorded at the sessions for the John Coltrane album Expression. Her touch, harmony and mastery of texture are very much on display here on a performance that is at times edgy and at other times tender. To my ear, you can also hear aspects of her conception that would lend themselves well to her subsequent work on harp.
7 ) “Govinda Jai Jai” (from Radha – Krsna Nama Sankirtana)
Alice’s electric piano underpins a song revolving around soulful vocals and handclaps. Really, if not for the lyrics it would be easy to mistake this Hindu devotional hymn (bhajan) for a gospel rave-up. If you want an indication that soul and spirit transcend religions and cultures, this session (and this tune as an example) gives some strong supporting evidence.
8 ) “Leo” (from Translinear Light)
This track is gorgeous in its own right, intense and passionate all around, with Alice on organ alongside son Ravi and drummer Jack DeJohnette. It gets a boost as well from the interplay between her and Ravi, who also produced the album (can you feel the love? I can) and for proving that her long hiatus was due to the level of her commitment to living a different kind of life, and not because she had lost anything as a player.
9 ) “Going Home” (from Universal Consciousness)
In the 1970s Alice began working a fair amount with strings, but unlike most “jazz with strings,” this made the music edgier, not sweeter. This is one of the “catchier” tunes from her last Impulse! album; it’s not exactly easy listening, but her harp and organ alongside the strings are quite moving.
10 ) “Angel of Sunlight” (from Illuminations by Alice Coltrane and Carlos Santana).
There are a number of examples of Alice as a guest on rock musicians’ albums, including Laura Nyro and the Rascals (typically on harp). This session with Carlos Santana, though, is a far from a pop record. Much of the album is ethereal and reflective, but on this track, following a hard-rocking guitar solo by Santana, Alice utterly RIPS on organ. Oh yeah, having Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette in the rhythm section doesn’t hurt either.
Honorable Mention “Shaine Une Zees (Pretty and Sweet)” by Terry Gibbs (from Terry Gibbs Plays Jewish Melodies in Jazztime)
This 1963 recording doesn’t make the Top 10 but warrants mention due to the historical significance of getting to hear Alice in a more traditional setting. This performance begins and ends, like most of the tunes on this 1963 session, as a fairly traditional Jewish performance, complete with trombone and clarinet. However, the initial klezmer vibe quickly gives way to a relaxed swing groove and an extended marimba solo by Gibbs, with some nice comping by a young Alice McLeod (not yet Coltrane), who then takes a short but authoritative and rhythmically aggressive solo. There aren’t many later examples of her playing over changes and with a relaxed swing groove like this, but she nails it and you can hear some of what would be her characteristic nuances amidst the bop vocabulary.