From Alice Coltrane’s very first album as a bandleader, A Monastic Trio (1968), she was preoccupied with finding a way to fuse her considerable abilities as a performer and composer with her enthusiasm for Indian music and spirituality. Her personal brand of cosmic jazz has filled a long list of classic albums that also includes Ptah, the El Daoud (1970), Journey in Satchidananda (1971) and Universal Consciousness (1971). And while she shared her interest in Eastern spirituality with her husband John, Alice followed that path further than he had been able to. It was in fact a few years after John Coltrane’s death in 1967 that Alice first visited India, on a pilgrimage inspired by her meeting with Swami Satchidananda. The period following her husband’s death found Alice in turmoil, suffering from insomnia, extreme weight loss, even hallucinations. It’s easy to understand how she could have found solace in the philosophy of universal love and ecumenical spirituality espoused by Satchidananda, who had proclaimed in his famous invocation at Woodstock that music is “the celestial sound that controls the whole universe.”
Alice Coltrane’s dedication to spiritual pursuits gradually came to outpace her interest in recording and releasing new music. On her second trip to India, she responded to what she felt was a divine calling by becoming a swamini herself. She established a religious monastery, her Vedantic Center, in 1975. It would eventually be redubbed the Sai Anantam Ashram and relocate to Agoura, CA (near Los Angeles), where it remains today. During the years Alice lived there and served as the community’s spiritual leader, she continued to perform and record music for the edification of her disciples, who referred to their guru as Turiyasangitananda (“the highest song of god”). The music on this album is culled from private press cassette tapes from that period: Divine Songs, Glorious Chants, Infinite Chantsand Turiya Sings. While these recordings have circulated among collectors for some time, this is their first official release, inaugurating a proposed series of “World Spirituality Classics” from David Byrne’s world music label Luaka Bop.
The music here is deep and soulful and intriguing, much like Ms. Coltrane herself. It blends the traditional forms of Indian spiritual music, bhajan and kirtan, with styles more familiar to American ears like blues, soul and even R&B. Alice spent her childhood in Detroit playing piano and organ alongside church choirs, and that feeling of African American spirituals and gospel is fully present here as well. Perhaps the most interesting moments on the album are the ones in which West and East are so obviously standing side by side – the distinctly not-Indian chord changes and multi-part structure of “Om Shanti,” what sounds like it could be Hammond organ on “Rama Guru,” the lush string section on “Keshava Murahara” or the juxtaposition of a buzzing tamboura drone with Coltrane’s Oberheim OB-8 synthesizer on “Rama Rama.” Coltrane’s synth is an instrumental MVP worth mentioning in its own right, as its sweeps and drones add a great deal to the album’s cosmic atmosphere. Beyond these curiosities, certainly the most extraordinary thing to be heard here is Turiya Alice Coltrane’s voice, which does not appear on her jazz recordings but is repeatedly featured on this record both on its own and as the lead in the call-and-response format typical of kirtan. Swamini is joined by her disciples, a 24-piece vocal choir, the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers, whose voices, like their guru’s, produce Sanskrit mantras with their own conspicuously American qualities and inflections.
The blending of artistic styles and cultural traditions is not at all alien to India, nor to the specific history of religious music this album re-presents. The harmonium, for instance, is a staple of Hindu and Sikh bhajan as well as the qawwali music of Islam’s Sufi tradition, whereas the instrument itself is a European import that arrived in India during the 19th Century. The way that Coltrane combined these forms of traditional religious music with typically American styles was in some ways unique, but it’s no longer novel. A kirtan album, Live Ananda from Krishna Das, was nominated for a Grammy in 2013. And practically every local yoga studio in America now has some sort of regular kirtan night that joins mridangam, karatalas and harmonium with acoustic guitar and electric bass.
Surely, what Coltrane has done here is more musically compelling than anything recorded by Krishna Das or other modern-day Western kirtaniyas. But is it more musically compelling than her own work outside the ashram? This collection of overtly devotional music may well be uniquely soulful and deeply spiritual. Yet, so is the substantial catalog of instrumental music that Alice Coltrane recorded for listeners who are not her sworn disciples. Whether or not the average listener enjoys this album will likely depend on nothing more complicated than personal taste. But for a follower of Turiyasangitananda, enjoyment is not even a going concern; listening to (and participating in) this music is meant to be an act of worship. While those of us outside that circle may appreciate the music in our own way, these recordings are ultimately an account of personal and esoteric exchanges we were never meant to be a part of.