Respected, influential science-fiction author M. John Harrison returned from a long creative hiatus this year with the acclaimed Light, a book that ranged through millennia and interstellar distance, and from the disturbingly bizarre to the genuinely touching. Some of the journey to the visionary beauty of its ending can leave the reader feeling toyed with; Harrison is clearly vastly intelligent and imaginative, and consequently does himself no favours by flinging you into a bewilderingly vast universe whilst keeping certain plot-pertinent points hidden. However, from amongst the currents of science theory, sudden violence and existentialist dread so prevalent in the genre there emerge two repeated, glowing thoughts based not in belief or optimism but in logic and physics: “nothing ever really ends”, and “there is always more”.
For the past 30 years or so (at the very least), it’s been something of a given that, were you a trendy member of the intelligentsia, you’d be patronising and/or pitying when faced with statements like the above two, and dismiss them as being spouted by some simple-minded, acid-riddled hippy, an easily misled victim of established religious dogma, or some faddish combination of the two. While quantum physicists have been busy proving that Buddhism is and was strangely bang on with regards to a lot of cosmic theory, jazz as a force of exciting, unifying intellectual innovation has retreated into the background radiation of popular culture; intertwining with (and invigorating) the shadier sides of hip-hop and electronica while the spotlight remains fixed on the attractive (and admittedly less incestuous) but blander figures of dinner party jazz like Diana Krall and Norah Jones. It seems shocking that within two generations the raw power, the tactile genius, the freedom inherent in the music of Davis, Ayler, Monk or a legion of other innovative titans has been defanged and homogenised, when they themselves should be just as enshrined in our daily lives as the classical composers, the Fab Four or the teen “talent” du jour. Whether you blame a racist music industry, the limited taste of the masses or the seemingly impossible task of following such collossi, jazz has asked a hugely influential but largely unacknowledged question that has yet to find any convincing answer. A saxophonist told me recently that barely 4% of Germany’s population listens to jazz. I didn’t have the heart to enquire what sub-percentage of that were people younger than 40.
Translinear Light is Alice Coltrane’s first record for almost 25 years, during which time she has lived at her Vedantic Center ashram in California and released nothing outside some cassette-only devotional recordings. Already renowned before her retreat from the secular world for her Hindu beliefs, her albums had titles like “Universal Consciousness” or “Lord of All Lords”, and wove Eastern-influenced playing, percussion and atmosphere into stunningly vast, soaring free-jazz compositions which preached simple messages of joy and praise. Journey in Satchidananda, which I tracked down after it was recommended by the hugely Coltrane-influenced Kieran “Four Tet” Hebden in a magazine article, sounds like a galactic battle between archangels and the asura (and possibly, as Terry Pratchett’s CMOT Dibbler might have it, “a one thousand elephants!”) being channeled through the frameworks of mythological tales with overwhelming force; it remains a record both uplifting and terrifying.
“At this time in history, I tried to share the light upon the greatness and Infinite Oneness of the humanity, the universe and the vast Beyond” goes a portion of Translinear Light‘s booklet dedication, but whilst the unabashed religious fervour is as plain as ever, the explosive drama of the music has ebbed, to be replaced by an unhurried calm of lambent depth, the group onslaught giving way to gently accompanied solos. The instrumental focus is on the leading lady’s keyboard virtuosity (whether piano, synthesiser or her unique Wurlitzer organ sound) as set off by the tenor and alto saxophone playing of her two sons Oran and Ravi (the producer) and an understated frame of percussion and bass. Lyrical and assured, this is playing of simple gorgeousness that glides along with the free progression of improvisation whilst retaining the harmony and melodic grace of jazz standards. Indeed, the album opens with traditional Indian piece “Sita Ram”, on which Coltrane’s Wurlitzer sounds eerily like a sitar in places, and takes in reinterpretations of “Walk With Me” and “This Train” as well as two of her legendary late husband’s compositions, “Crescent” and “Leo”, before ending on the Wurlitzer-accompanied chanting of “Satya Sai Isha”.
The mounting three-way delirium (and manic two-minute percussion solo) of “Leo” aside, Translinear Light is a peaceful example of the sensuality and individuality at the heart of jazz’s emphasis on personal expression within group dynamics, and a searing reminder of how mesmerisingly beautiful sound can be: the tone of Ravi’s tenor sax on “Jagadishwar” alone is enough to make me want to cry. While it is therefore a sad disappointment that Coltrane has chosen not to exercise her wonderful harp playing on this album (Joanna Newsom’s success going some way to reassuring me that I’m not alone in mourning the quasi-disappearance of this instrument from the face of modern music), as a collection of luminescent music by someone both utterly at peace with herself and very obviously in love with life and her family this has both the glow and the finesse to enrapture. With any luck it will tempt a few more into the ranks of the faithful willing to exchange easy listening for something freer, more challenging and more deeply felt. Perhaps jazz (and life) is an answer in the form of a question, and perhaps not; either way there is much more to come, and jazz’s legacy is very far from finished.
I’d just like to roll together a little paragraph of words, from within the illumination of this music, into a small cairn for John Peel. A genuine and profoundly passionate man who was tireless in extolling the virtues of the new and the different, John was enormously influential and universally adored by his listeners and all those who came into contact with him, giving us our teenage kicks for over 40 years. On being branded a legend and an institution in a recent interview, John commented that “legends are all dead and institutions need repointing”; now painfully ironic as well as deeply punk and jazz. God bless you man, you will be much missed.