Written by Anastasia Tsioulcas from NPR
Multi-instrumentalist, composer, spiritual leader and the wife of John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (1937-2007) long stood in her husband’s shadow. Some certain number of more casual jazz fans, if they have known her name at all, only know it from sidewoman credits on some of his albums, and not for her own performances and recordings.
But even many more ardent fans who know her string of recordings for Impulse and Warner Bros. in the 1970s don’t know the music she created in the last two decades of her life — music that was not necessarily meant for widespread consumption: the Hindu devotional songs that she recorded as a spiritual leader and the head of an ashram near Los Angeles.
John and Alice had fallen in love in 1963; in short order, they married and had four children together: Michelle, John Jr., Ravi and Oranyan (also known as Oran). Within four years of their marriage, however, John Coltrane died of liver cancer. He was just 40 years old. Like her husband, Alice Coltrane was a spiritual seeker; not long after his death, she met Swami Satchidananda — the guru who opened the Woodstock festival — and became his disciple. Her own compositional language evolved during those years into an intoxicating, highly unusual blend of jazz, blues and Indian instruments and tonalities. Her life as a spiritual leader also grew during those years, and she founded The Vedanta Center in 1975.
Coltrane’s life took another sharp turn when, in 1982, their eldest son, John Jr., was killed in a car accident at age 18. With her religious beliefs for sustenance after that tragedy and with a growing following of her own, she founded the Sai Anantam Ashram the following year, which became a 48-acre compound in Agoura Hills, Calif.
Despite Coltrane’s withdrawal from her secular career, music was still at the heart of her religious practice. Even the Hindu name she took on — “Turiyasangitananda” — has music embedded in its core. Sangit, or sangeet, is “music” in Sanskrit; she translated her adopted name as “the transcendental lord’s highest song of bliss.” (Her followers and friends simply called her “Turiya” or “Swamini,” the title for a female teacher.)
It was a good match between spirit and spiritual path. In the Hindu tradition, the entire universe — the cycles of birth, life, destruction, silence and renewal — are all encompassed with the sound of “aum” (or “om,” as it’s more commonly transliterated into English) — and there is a deep, long tradition of expressing love for the divine through songs, whether bhajans (individual songs of devotion), kirtans (call-and-response worship songs) or even in the classical tradition, in which ancient devotional poems are the texts for sung ragas.
In the music she created for her religious community, Coltrane – unsurprisingly – did not simply mimic Indian tradition when it came to singing praises to Hindu deities at her ashram’s mandir, or temple. She created something wholly new, and completely her own. The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda is a powerful and indelibly personal mix of the soulful gospel cadences that Coltrane had been steeped in since her church-going childhood in Detroit, and the brimming, collective energy of the call-and-response kirtans. At the ashram’s Sunday services, “She would start playing music and everyone else would join in and they might go two, three, four hours of doing that,” recalls Coltrane’s nephew, musician and producer Flying Lotus (birth name Steven Ellison), in this collection’s extensive liner notes.
The songs on this compilation are culled from four recordings Coltrane made in the 1980s and ’90s on a series of self-released cassettes that were meant primarily for an audience of her followers. (The label for this reissue, Luaka Bop, calls it the first volume in a series called World Spirituality Classics.) Texturally, these compositions exist on several planes simultaneously: they are grounded by Coltrane’s rich, darkly hued, deeply resonant voice (which she had never deployed on her secular recordings); swept along in the currents of her followers’ voices, their hand-held percussion, and her harp and organ; and lifted straight into the cosmic stratosphere by the synthesizers that she came to love in her later years.
It’s already been argued that a new generation of listeners will be tempted to delve into these devotional songs as zone-out sounds, “ambient music with a purpose” that squares nicely with our era of yoga studios and pressed juices for sale on every block. But this is music that – just as in both the traditional gospel and Hindu devotional styles – demands participation: The particulars of what or who you believe in (or don’t) may not even matter. Either you’re going to be using your voice to sing along, or your heart.