Alice Coltrane’s Jazz Maps – Hugh Govan on jazzpianos, harpsichords and Eygptian mummies in Alice Coltrane’s music
The music of Alice Coltr ane just needs to suggest a place name to transport the imagination elsewhere. Pieces such as Journey in Satchidananda, Galaxy in Turiya, Stopover Bombay or Lovel Skyboat allude to Hindu philosophy in a way that connects names of places or people with flights to almost otherworldly states. No surprise, then, that the link between late sixties free jazz and Eastern religion has the ability to strike the record browser as a bit of a minefield: a fad of fascination for artists to ground their increasingly elongated jams and drones with some promise of transcendentalism. And with that too, connotations of forgettable soloing filling out otherwise empty, unimaginative codas.
Harp player, pianist, composer and band leader, Coltrane set herself ambitious aims. Suggesting the pursuit of pure consciousness through her band’s playing was one but, more pressingly, she attempted to expand upon and experiment with the free approach to modal jazz playing, for which her late husband John had been seen as a true innovator. Rather than revive or continue in the rut of his lineage, the eighteen records she made between 1967 and 1990 (she died in 2007 shortly after a series of well received comeback shows) carefully and meditatively diffuse the straining against the confines of the scale that her contemporaries (Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, the early work of Ornette Coleman) had so furiously performed a decade before.
In this sense, the j azz musician played in an outwardly expressive way, the attainment of another possible melody within the dominant scale being a gesture of their virtuosity, backed up by a group providing a stable framework for their exploration. In other words, transcending the theoretical musical confines set the individual against a structure designed to be in thrall to their playing. What, then, might the suggestion of consciousness unaffected by presence or absence of material objects and the self, independent of mind or body, do to this idea of expression?
To generalise about Coltrane’s playing pays no tribute to the varied approaches to improvisation and composition which colours her music. However, it is worth considering a few characteristics that show how her spiritualism allowed her to map a new take on improvisation.
The traditionally free-roaming jazz bass line drops to a slow walk, providing an almost endless tuneful refrain throughout many of her works. Over this meditative pulse Coltrane can often be found either sweeping over variant harp chord patterns, or sitting within heavier incantations of piano chords. Amidst these patterns, melodies merge with one another, rather than ring out in a single display of ability. The track I Want to See You from her debut A Monastic Trio gradually suggests a melody resembling its title after the establishment of the loose, interchangeable mode of playing itself. The lurch between the weight of the focused, mantra-like repetition and ethereal recurrences of harp shows Coltrane sitting within, rather than detaching her playing from, the way improvisation meets composition.
This might not be a fully formed reaction to the gestural playing of her male contemporaries. It can be speculated that in the title of her Isis and Osiris, the Egyptian legend of a mummy searched for but not found in his tomb, only to be resurrected by his wife who gives birth to his son, provides an analogy for Alice’s assimilation of John’s project for free-improvisation. Whether biographical or not, the piece shows the retained importance of melody, especially as a wordless way of describing a narrative in the instrumental work (as opposed to its abstraction by individuals striving to establish a signature ‘voice’ for their soloing).
Providing an Eastern reference for such music is also complemented within the jazz scene by the ever-present identification of the music with the advancement of the civil rights movement. By the late 60’s pan-Africanism had established a return to homeland as a central tenet of Black consciousness. Yet, where the militant seriousness of the Black Panther movement had damaged the response to musicians such as the Ayler brothers, other artists such as Sun Ra’s Arkestra, or George Clinton’s Parliament (a Detroit funk band) parodied these earthly utopian interests by insisting, aesthetically and musically, that their sounds were from outer space. Coltrane’s conversion to Hinduism and spiritual teaching provides another alternative to the characterisation of black artist’s music as universally African.
Lastly, the 21st Century reception of her music is fascinating. Both freelance improv drummer Chris Corsano and experimental folk guitarist Ben Chasny have confessed to attempting to record their own “Alice Coltrane-style” albums. Metal bands Earth and Om have also acknowledged a great respect for her work, perhaps the slow cycles of bass being the most noticeable parallel. Australian instrumental rock band The Dirty Three are vocal admirers of hers, and she was scheduled to play at a festival the band curated, before her sad departure. In their music the use of melody to compensate for the lack of singing takes the metamorphic form that Coltrane used in her compositions to scale between the rhythmic and the tuneful.
Indeed, the droning strings of her pieces and repetition are by no means out of place alongside other contemporary indie ‘influences’ from the late 60s/early 70s such as the Velvet Underground, Neu or Silver Apples. From this viewpoint then it is possible to realise how her work connected with other experimenters in a way which was not strictly limited to the jazz avant-garde. Perhaps, then, the standards set in her work hinting at the ultimate end of a spiritual journey are what has led other musicians and music fans to continue searching and listening within her music.