Although Alice Coltrane played with Yusef Lateef and Terry Gibbs under her birth name, Alice McLeod, it was as John Coltrane's wife that I first heard her work on 1969's Huntington Ashram Monastery. I was intrigued to hear harp played in an aggressively expressive manner. Jazz harp had been part of "society jazz" ensembles, but Coltrane was now giving voice to the ancient instrument in a much freer setting, requiring expert interpretive skills to weave integral sonic arcs over/against her rhythm section. Her piano playing revealed blues roots coupled with generous exploration.
Later, I heard her work as the replacement for McCoy Tyner in John Coltrane's group. Strictly speaking, Tyner was not "replaced," since McCoy and Alice are starkly different improvisers, and Trane's great quartet is untouchable. But, given the fact that John had brought in Rashied Ali as his drummer and added Pharoah Sanders on saxophone, it was essentially a markedly different ensemble. (Bassist Jimmy Garrison is the sole member in common besides the leader.)
Their live albums from 1966 gigs in Japan and the Village Vanguard are among the most hair-raising imprintings ever to grace vinyl. The energy level is stratospheric (I credit the music with once curing me from an emerging case of flu) and being largely improvised, the gestalt is volunteered to the spirit of the moment. Alice's modal, orchestral, playing, is crucial to the whole. These two records are, safe to say, not for everyone.
But four years later, a calmer melodic aesthetic prevailed. Alice recorded again with Pharoah and Rashied in a couple New York venues and brought us the remarkable Journey in Satchidananda. Among her most accessible albums, Journey is marked by Coltrane's ear for groove, timbre, and surprise, and is rooted in her nascent spirituality.
The addition of Eastern instruments oud and tamboura could have been an empty exercise in exoticism, but under Coltrane's leadership, a delicious mysticism ensues, aided by the likes of percussionist Majid Shabazz and master acoustic bassists Charlie Haden and Cecil McBee.
Here's album's the title track:
Incidentally, Swami Satchidananda, Alice Coltrane's spiritual perceptor and the inspiration for these pieces, is known to the rest of us as the cheerful, white-bearded, orange-robed presence in the movie, Woodstock.
Alice left this plane in the first month of 2007. She had been living in Southern California, leading an ashram and spiritual center quietly in a secluded rural retreat. Despite a long hiatus from recording, only recently revived prior to her death, she left a wide-ranging array of jazz compositions and bhajans (spiritual songs). Thank you, Turiya.