Alice Coltrane and the Death of a Giant

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

Alice Coltrane replaced McCoy Tyner in John Coltrane’s lineup in 1966. After her joining, the group’s output became even more spiritual in context and Coltrane’s personal playing kept pushing boundaries. There was an undeniable symbiotic relationship and mutual influence between John Coltrane and his wife, Alice. Coltrane took on the role of teacher in the ways of his brand of music and its relationship to Eastern mysticism. Religion had become an overt part of Coltrane’s music ever since 1964’s A Love Supreme.

There was an undeniable symbiotic relationship and mutual influence between John Coltrane and his wife, Alice.

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John Coltrane, saxophones. Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images.

Coltrane’s highly-creative, cart-blanche tenure with Impulse! Records aided in his musical and religious journey, producing a varied and vast body of work in a relatively short amount of time. As Coltrane put it, he was in search of a “universal sound”. I believe it was in Alice Coltrane that he found his “musical compass”. His late-career recordings such as the posthumous Expression and Cosmic Music display the raw vigor and spiritual connection that his deft unit was known to typify. There was a new sense of urgency in Coltrane’s sound, his avant-garde leanings, along with frontline partner Sanders, were oftentimes brutal. A question which resurfaces time and time again is with regard to the direction of Coltrane’s music — what did he have in store?

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Cosmic Music, 1968

After the dust settled from her husband’s untimely death in July of 1967, Alice Coltrane returned to the studio to cut her 1968 solo debut, A Monastic Trio. Dedicated to Ohnedaruth, John Coltrane’s mystic pseudonym, this release teems with brooding and reflective tracks sometimes expressing anguish, other times promise. Some believe this release may have hinted at John Coltrane’s musical direction, a jumping off point of sorts. After all, Alice Coltrane was closest to the master and may have had the best insight to what made him tick.

On A Monastic Trio there is a heavy use of percussion, namely bells and shakers, which creates an Eastern-inspired drone effect. An effect that would be further developed by the addition of classical Indian instruments on later sessions. Alice Coltrane divides her playing equally on piano and harp. She tends to focus her piano on either upper or lower registers based on the mood of her composition.

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A Monastic Trio, 1968

The first two tracks are from a prior John Coltrane posthumous release, Cosmic Music. A fiery Pharaoh Sanders belts out angry solos on the opener, “Lord Help Me To Be”. Alice Coltrane rambles beneath the fire with thick, bluesy chords while Jimmy Garrison lays down a melodically strong bass line. On “The Sun”, we hear the band, including the late John Coltrane, on a vocal intro repeating a mantra: “May there be peace and love and perfection throughout all creation, oh God”. It eerily sets the stage for a composition of remembrance where Alice Coltrane plays a restless, searching piano. There are very lucid moments in her soloing with cascading notes that follow.

“May there be peace and love and perfection throughout all creation, oh God”.

The composition “Ohnedaruth” comes off as a requiem for the late saxophonist. The longest track, at just under 8 minutes, as well as the darkest, with its lower-register piano, droning percussion and menacing saxophone. John Coltrane is definitely top-of-mind in the frenzied voice of Sanders’ oblique playing. The following track, “Gospel Trane” most assimilates to John Coltrane’s bluesy modal work from earlier dates. As the most accessible track, we hear a more upbeat piano from Alice Coltrane as well as an orthodox drum solo from Rashied Ali. And Jimmy Garrison walks his bass, adding to the feel of a track from years past.

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Pharaoh Sanders, tenor saxophone. Photograph by Francis Wolff © Mosaic Images.

“I Want To See You” is the last track where Alice Coltrane plays piano. Again we hear a pervasive use of percussion. Her playing is comparatively brighter and shows off her exquisite right hand approach on keyboard. Based on its title it’s a heart-wrenching personal reflection by a still-grieving widow.

Although I’m a bigger fan of her unique and gospel-inspired abilities on piano her harp playing lends itself to the dreamlike quality of her compositions.

“Lovely Skyboat”, “Ocean Beloved” and “Atomic Peace” all feature Alice Coltrane on harp. These tracks are a precursor to her many subsequent albums on the Impulse! label. Although I’m a bigger fan of her unique and gospel-inspired abilities on piano her harp playing lends itself to the dreamlike quality of her compositions. The steadfast Jimmy Garrison continues to ground the bottom end of these tracks with his rich, ever-present notes.

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Jimmy Garrison, double bass

It’s still up for debate whether Alice Coltrane propagated her husband’s musical direction — in effect becoming an extension of his own vision. And although nobody can claim to play anything like John Coltrane we do have Pharaoh Sanders on several more recordings as a reliable and sincere follower on saxophone. With all the acclaim and idol worship surrounding John Coltrane and his other-worldly abilities you just have to wonder if he really was on loan from another planet. He stood alone. And now that both he and his wife have been taken from us that vision, that unique musical direction, will forever remain a mystery to his legions of adoring fans and disciples.

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