Alice Coltrane never got the full Yoko Ono treatment, if only because John Coltrane‘s audience was much smaller than the Beatles‘. But there were certainly folks who believed her husband’s music was irreparably damaged when he lost McCoy Tyner and brought his wife in to play piano for him. I’m not one of them, but I will confess to listening to Coltrane records from 1964 and before much more often than the stuff from ’65-’67. I have even scaled the mountain that is the four-CD Live in Japan boxed set more than once, but I don’t foresee going back to it again anytime soon.
Alice Coltrane’s music under her own banner, though, has brought me tremendous pleasure over the years, and this single CD, which presents two of her early ’70s albums, is not only essential jazz, but a terrific introduction to her work.
Universal Consciousness, originally released in 1971, is a towering achievement. Coltrane plays piano, electric organ and harp on the album, and is mostly supported by bassist Jimmy Garrison, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and violinist Leroy Jenkins, plus a complement of strings (their parts transcribed by Ornette Coleman). On one track, “Battle at Armageddon,” though, it’s just her and Rashied Ali, going at each other for seven and a half minutes of surging, crackling fury, more duel than duet. She uses the organ to fire sci-fi zaps at him, and he batters her backward with a sense of timing that’s almost Cubist. It doesn’t sound like jazz at all, free or otherwise; it sounds like the middle section of some epic by Magma or Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The rest of the disc is less energetic, but no less awesome. Coltrane’s spiraling, hypnotic melodies emanate across a field of skittering rhythm, surging strings, and bass that throbs like a heart the size of a two-car garage. There are dashes of Indian music here, and a lot of Stravinskyan fervor, but the cumulative effect is a serene kind of pan-spirituality, undefinably in touch with something larger than life.
Lord of Lords, from 1972, is similar in spirit and intent to Universal Consciousness, but it seems to be operating on a smaller scale, and is consequently less alienating than the earlier disc, more welcoming to a listener unfamiliar with Coltrane’s music. It begins with two tracks, “Andromeda’s Suffering” and “Sri Rama Ohnedaruth,” which find her playing gently rippling piano atop an ocean of strings. These could be excerpts from the score to some Hollywood epic of the 1950s; heard on iPod headphones, they seem to transform the world into a CinemaScope vista. The album’s centerpiece is a five-minute excerpt from Stravinsky‘s “The Firebird,” with the strings playing the composer’s melodies as Coltrane creates a powerful, mind-bending drone on the electric organ. This is succeeded by the nearly 12-minute title track, on which the jazz rhythm section (bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ben Riley) get to flex their muscles the most, setting up a throbbing modal groove atop which Coltrane solos on both piano and organ. And Lord of Lords concludes with “Going Home,” a track which stopped me cold the first time I heard it…because I was already familiar with it via Carlos Santana, who had included versions on his studio album Welcome and the live set Lotus. (In 1974, Santana and Coltrane would join forces on the seriously underrated Illuminations.) “Going Home” is based on a gospel hymn, and sounds like it; it’s got a powerful melody that Coltrane’s organ turns into an epic vamp, bringing the album to a triumphant close.
These albums are essential even on their own; paired in this budget-minded fashion, there’s no argument any serious out-jazz fan can make against buying them.
Stream these two albums on Spotify: