A new live album of unknown provenance is a highlight of Alice Coltrane‘s catalog, though it’s only available as a limited-edition double LP and is probably already sold out. Live at the Berkeley Community Theater 1972 is exactly what its title implies: a previously unheard concert recording from June 23, 1972 with a sextet featuring Coltrane on piano, harp, and Wurlitzer electric organ; Charlie Haden on bass; Ben Riley on drums; Aashish Khan on sarod; Pranesh Khan on tabla; and the mysterious “Bobby W.” on tamboura and percussion.
The set contains only four tracks, one per vinyl side. It opens with a nearly 22-minute version of “Journey in Satchidananda,” continues with a 19-minute interpretation of her late husband’s composition “A Love Supreme,” a 16-minute take on “My Favorite Things,” and ends with a 22-minute version of another John Coltrane piece, “Leo.”
The sound quality on Live at the Berkeley Community Theater 1972 is shockingly high. With only minor tweaks to the mix, this could have been an official Impulse! release. Indeed, it might have been intended for release at one point — the tracks fade in and out, implying the intervention of a professional engineer somewhere along the line. Coltrane’s organ dominates, but Riley’s drumming is both prominent and extremely aggressive; he sounds more like Roy Haynes at times, unleashing barrage after barrage from behind the kit. Haden’s bass is a thick roar, rumbling up from beneath the organ on “Journey in Satchidananda” as the extra percussion — tablas and what sounds like a trap set — combine with Riley’s hard-driving drums to create a stormy sea of rhythm.
Coltrane’s organ playing is wild but masterful. She’s in total control of the instrument, taking it as far out as she wants and doing things that must have seemed unfathomable at the time. But it’s the blend of sounds that makes this music unique. When she drops out for the first time, after about 15 minutes of “Journey,” the group immediately becomes a trio — the Khans on sarod and tabla, and Riley on drums — delivering a performance of wild intensity that combines Indian music with free jazz. And when Coltrane returns, now on harp, things take yet another turn, as her instrument is miked in such a way that it sounds like it’s strung with piano wires; it’s jagged and pinging, with little of the lushness of a classical harp.
The other members of the group are given plenty of room to run; the version of “My Favorite Things” here, which is effectively unrecognizable for at least half its running time, begins with an extended sarod solo from Aashish Khan, but when Coltrane, Haden and Riley come in, the piece becomes a gospel/jazz/funk workout, the organist and the bassist laying down a monster groove as the drummer drives them on with an almost New Orleans parade rhythm. This is Alice Coltrane at her most head-nodding and gutsy. The actual melody of “My Favorite Things” doesn’t appear until more than eight minutes into the piece, and she immediately extrapolates it up and out, taking it straight into the stratosphere.
Despite the wildness of the music, Coltrane is a gracious and friendly presence throughout the concert. She offers brief comments on three of the four pieces, telling the story of her trip to India in 1970 before “Journey in Satchidananda” and explains the meaning behind “Leo” before launching into an absolutely explosive version that rivals the one on 1978’s Transfiguration. Though Live at the Berkeley Community Theater 1972 is a bootleg (there, I used the “b-word”), it’s a recording any Alice Coltrane fan, or fan of jazz at its most adventurous and exploratory, should absolutely hear.
— Phil Freeman