The Jazz Universe Inside My Head

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Alice Coltrane

Alice Coltrane

On January 13, 2006, a strikingly warm winter Sunday in Massachusetts, I woke to the chilling news that Alice Coltrane had passed away the day before of respiratory failure. At that moment many thoughts shot through my head. I’d lost someone who spiritually led me forward in life.

I first heard A Trane back when I was working at a small tavern. They had a bunch of shit CDs, mostly smooth jazz and some snobby Sinatra. The management told me they were trying to manufacture that comfortable dining atmosphere. I wasn’t comfortable.

Before I discovered that I could bring my own arsenal to the stereo, a jazz sampler was my savoir. It had a Miles’ tune and some other nice stuff that I can’t remember. My favorite track, though, was this Alice Coltrane number dubbed “Blue Nile.” It was certainly the first time I heard a harp in jazz, not to mention it was the tracks lead instrument. It swirled and I followed each gentle stroke.

I was hooked. I went out and bought Ptah the El Daoud, which had “Blue Nile” on it. What a beautiful album of Coltrane’s warm piano/harp and the always right on playing of Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter and Ben Riley. That album was my impression of A.C. for awhile. Listen to the serenity of “Turiya And Ramakrishna.”

That’s until I got Universal Consciousness a short time after, an album that was heavy on my immature jazz ear. But I listened on like a slaving student seeking musical freedom.

I began to hear Alice’s music as one of a kind, comparable to nothing in jazz that I’d heard. Was it jazz? The Eastern meditative blending of strokes, keys, swirls, drum and tamboura touches made me stop and appreciate the moment.

Universal Consciousness showcases amazing interplay from drummers Jack DeJohnette, Rashied Ali and Clifford Jarvis, bassist Jimmy Garrison and tamboura player Tulsi, along with string arrangements written by Ornette Coleman. But the album does not have the normal competitive feel jazz musicians so often reach for. Coltrane was peaceful, not boastful.

Of course I scattered around and got the rest of her discography and much to my amazement, at around the time I was embracing Alice as a major inspiration in my life, she released Translinear Light, her first album in over 25 years. I remember a friend telling me that John Medeski couldn’t stop listening to it. Then I heard it and I felt the same way.

From the opening notes of the rebirth of “Sita Ram” I was hooked. There aren’t many musicians who put out work past the age of 60 that sounds fresh, but A Trane never lost the loveliness of the music that came through her. It was always there; she just put it into other facets of her bighearted life during her musical hiatus.

“Triloka,” like so much of Alice’s work, is a realization of how graceful the world is even in times of strain, trickling on with beauty. I believe that’s what she wanted us to feel when we turn her on the stereo or the headphones.

I was lucky enough to catch her in performance in Newark, New Jersey just months before she passed away. Although she seemed frail and almost too quiet from afar, the music and crowd response was enormous. I’ll never forget the way she made me feel in my heart. This Trane is bound for glory. Bye Alice.

I've Been Listening and Studying:

Alice Coltrane Journey In Satchidananda
Keith Jarrett Bop Be
Gabor Szabo The Sorcerer
Pharoah Sanders Black Unity
Charles Lloyd Dream Weaver


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