The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda

After the loss in July 1967 of  John Coltrane, her husband, to whose music she’d devoted herself for the past 18 months (she replaced McCoy Tyner as pianist with his group in January the previous year), Alice Coltrane recorded a string of mostly exceptional, often orchestral albums for the Impulse! and Warner Bros. labels. But in the mid 70s she adopted the name Swamini Turiyasangitananda (Turiya for short), and established the Vedantic Centre and Sai Anantam Ashram near Los Angeles, effectively turning her back on the music business.

The four albums from which this compilation draws were all private press – initially cassette-only releases, later CDs marketed directly to the ashram’s members – and have never been widely promoted.

The earliest was released on Coltrane’s Avatar Book Institute imprint four years after her last Warner Bros. album, Transfiguration (1978), a superb live trio recording that reconnected with the spiritual jazz she’d earlier forged in association with her husband. But the ABI tapes are more in keeping with Transfiguration‘s more devotionally inclined predecessors, Eternity, Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana and Transcendence (1975-1977).

The first ABI collection, the cassette-only Turiya Sings (1982) has never been available on CD, so it’s galling that it’s represented here by only ‘Rama Katha’ and a previously unreleased track from the same sessions, and that these are available only on the vinyl edition (which I’m not reviewing).

Six of the eight cuts everyone gets are from the 1987 album Divine Songs, which ABI themselves issued on CD in 1990. That too had eight cuts, so one track apiece from the two later albums have been substituted for the two that got dropped. Infinite Chants (a 1990 cassette reissued on CD in 2003) is represented by ‘Om Rama’, and Glorious Chants (CD only, 1995) by a version of ‘Journey in Satchidananda’, which Coltrane originally recorded 25 years earlier as the title track of her fourth Impulse! album.

So why not a straight reissue of Divine Songs? Anyone with more than a cursory interest in Coltrane’s music, after all, will want to hear each album in full. Perhaps not all of the master tapes are available: Coltrane’s children apparently located the ones that were used in the Coltrane archive, and these have been remastered, producing a much richer sound than I’d anticipated based on previous listening to bootlegs. So despite any qualifications, it’s good to have these tracks officially available at last, especially sounding so good.

Even those who came to Coltrane via the much slicker Translinear Light – her one-off ‘comeback’ album for Impulse! in 2004 – will find themselves on perhaps surprisingly familiar terrain. But the material here is far less subtle than anything Coltrane ever recorded for a major label.

Still, ever a sophisticated arranger of music, Coltrane has remodelled the traditional Vedic devotional songs and chants at the heart of this material, and she leads performances that are infused with the motivational power of gospel and soul, thankfully devoid of new-agey vacuity.

The vibe is communal, and Coltrane paints in appropriately primary colours. Broad-brush late 80s synths swoop and surge around incessant sleigh bells and communal chanting on lead track ‘Om Rama’, before it slows and settles behind the powerful, gospelized lead vocal of one John Panduranga.

Alice’s own vocal is first heard on the next piece, ‘Om Shanti’, and notwithstanding an unsubtle use of echo effects this is an unaffected and emotionally direct performance with choral accompaniment punctuated by reverberant, deep-bass organ stabs.

The sombre ‘Rama Rama’ begins with a harmonic drone played on tanpura, but again that’s swathed in washes of fairly crude digital synth that strikes me as anything but meditational. Coltrane keeps it at an even tempo though.

The compilers favour abrupt segues, so ‘Rama Guru’ transitions abruptly back to an ‘Om Rama’ vibe, this time with off-rhythm synth bass stabs in the mix and a more incessantly hand-clapped rhythm. There’s an earthy raggedness to the Vedantic Students’ backing, but they’re flexible enough to accommodate Coltrane’s Wurlitzer flourishes.

‘Hari Narayan’ sounds like a mix of multiple performances, with both solo and choral singing in varying degrees of ecstasis combined. The tracks have evidently been subject to significant post-production.

‘Journey in Satchidananda’ is given a stately, epic treatment, with raggedly affecting choral singing and churchy organ swells. Indian singer Sairam Iyer, who apparently once performed with Alice Coltrane and Carlos Santana, delivers a nice lead vocal, and Sandhya Sanjana of fusion group Divya takes over during the choral crescendo. At just over ten minutes long this is the longest track here, and it’s interesting and perhaps even moving, but only a shadow of the Impulse! album version.

The album highlight, for me, is the shortest and most beguilingly simple cut, the solo ‘Er Ra’, on which Coltrane sings, beautifully, to her own harp accompaniment. This is essential.

The standard package is wrapped up by ‘Keshava Murahara’, a patient sort of soft-pedal orientalist epic founded on Alice’s breathy singing of a beautifully heartfelt vocal mantra. It’s such a strong track, even the synth-surge at the end can’t spoil it.

That ‘Keshava Murahara’ vocal is hooky enough to become something of a low-key earworm, and it’s Coltrane’s vocal performances that will keep me coming back to this material. Even those cheesy synths aren’t too bad, in context.

Musicians
Alice Coltrane – organ, synthesizer, harp on ‘Er Ra’, vocals on all tracks except ‘Om Rama’ & ‘Journey in Satchidananda’; John Panduranga – male lead vocals on ‘Om Rama’; Students of the Vedantic Centre – vocal accompaniment & percussion on all tracks except ‘Journey in Satchidananda’. On ‘Journey in Satchidananda’ only: Joshua – flute; Sandhya Sanjana – female vocals; Sairam Iyer – male vocals; Students of Sai Anantam Ashram – chorus.

Buy The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda direct from Luaka Bop.

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