Music Monday: Alice Coltrane

For a long time, I was vaguely skeptical of Alice Coltrane. It had nothing to do with her famous husband or her famous last name (and son) or even the concept of being a jazz harpist.

It had more to do with a certain amount of ambivalence or even confusion about her engagement with overt spirituality and its central role in much of her recordings. With John Coltrane’s work (and the comparison is unavoidable), there appears to be a certain amount of continuity between his earlier recordings, which he developed from the traditions of bebop (and hard bop) into the realm of modal jazz, and his later work that takes on a freer form. His late work—especially albums like Ascension and Meditations — (which are two of my personal favorites) demonstrate how transcendent spirituality could emerge from popular music (especially in the relationship between melodic concepts and texture in Ascension). 

With Alice Coltrane, I had this concern that she anchored her work in traditions that were unfamiliar. This, of course, was partly true. Her work is clearly jazz despite albums with titles such as Journey in Satchidananda that evoke Indian spirituality and musical traditions (the first minute of the album gives me chills; it’s so deep and heavy). The blues are still there especially in her piano and some of the territory that her late husband explore continues to inspire her early 1970s albums from Impulse!  

As if this wasn’t temptation enough to explore her 1970s albums more carefully, she titled her 1970 recording with Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, and Ben Riley, Ptah, the El Daoud. The album, then, is named after the Egyptian god Ptah “the blessed” and despite the Egyptianizing title, the music owes more to Indian influences than anything distinctly Middle Eastern.

The album cover, however, designed by Jim Evans, reinforces the album’s title:

IMG 6218

Combining the scarab with sphinxes, cobras, and a sarcophagus (with whiskers no less!), Evans makes the Egyptian title of the album even more visible in the cover art. 

In her following albums the Egyptianizing themes diminish although Journey in Satchidananda has a track titled “Isis and Osiris.” Indian mysticism become more dominant and marks a path that eventually leads Coltrane to an ashram where she received spiritual guidance and healing from a number of prominent Vedic gurus.

The conflation of Egyptian and Indian themes in her early 1970s albums reflects the merging of Afrocentric associations with Egypt and a longer tradition of esotericism that understood Near Eastern and South Asian religious practices as part of a wider mystical tradition. The work of Madame Blavatsky whose theosophic writings led her from Egypt (manifest in her monumental Isis Unveiled (1877) to India and various strains of the Hindu Reform Movement. 

A similar kind of universal spiritualism appear in a similar form in the music and poetry of Sun Ra and the presence of it in the work of Alice Coltrane is neither particularly surprising or unexpected. What is telling is that both of these artists (and many others of course) brought together popular traditions of music with broader spiritual themes both anchoring their spiritual visions within Black music practice, Afrocentric identity, and this broader tradition of esotericism.

I hope to get back to some more sustained readings on Afrocentrism, particularly Stephen Howe’s work, Afrocentrism, in the next few weeks.

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