PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Joe Henderson and Alice Coltrane: The Elements

The Elements represents Joe Henderson’s sole full immersion into the avant-garde, with help from a few seasoned veterans, including Alice Coltrane, Charlie Haden, and Michael White.

Joe Henderson and Alice Coltrane

The Elements

Label: Milestone
US Release Date: 2017-07-28
UK Release Date: 2017-07-28

Following the death of her husband, legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane rarely worked as a sidewoman; instead, she put all of her creative focus into her own highly spiritual pursuits. Herself a member of the vanguard of new jazz creatives of the late 1960s, Coltrane’s approach to the music took the best of her late husband’s mesmeric qualities and put an even grander and more introspective spin on them through her compositions for larger ensembles. Through her use of the harp, in particular, Coltrane was able to create all manner of tones and textures that helped propel her music into new and different directions (while also maintaining a core spirituality that later manifested itself in music designed solely for meditative and religious purposes). Released under the Turiyasangitananda moniker--itself adopted from Sanskrit--they reflected her new, non-secular direction after moving to California and establishing the Vedantic Center and, later, served as the spiritual director of the Shanti Anantam Ashram.

Saxophonist Joe Henderson, while always a respected player, is rarely thought of as being a member of the more cosmic end of the avant-garde spectrum. Best known for his 1960s hard bop recordings for Blue Note, he, along with many other jazz musicians of the era, gradually expanded his sound, incorporating the burgeoning fusion school of thought into his own musical approach. This led to a handful of albums for Orrin Keepnews’ Milestone label on which he explored the gradually comingling worlds of jazz and funk while also incorporating electronic elements and a more stylistically eclectic approach. By the time he released The Elements in 1973, Henderson had fully immersed himself in a wide range of styles that saw his playing open up just that much more. Using the titular elements--“Fire”, “Air”, “Water”, and “Earth”--as a thematic jumping off point, Henderson, with the help of Coltrane on piano and harp, created this set of exploratory improvisational meditations.

Opening track “Fire” builds around a circular, muscular bass line courtesy of Charlie Haden that dances in and out of the vaguely Latin percussion groove established early on. When he enters, Henderson’s heavily reverbed horn adopts the titular mantle, conjuring images of flames leaping and dancing amongst the rock-steady rhythm section. It’s a far freer track than most anything else in Henderson’s catalog and shows him to be capable of just as forward an approach as his more celebrated peers. By branching out and losing himself within the instrumental interplay, Henderson adopts John Coltrane’s spiritual approach, if not necessarily his cascading “sheets of sound”. Pushed on by sympathetic players [Alice] Coltrane and Michael White on a searing, surging violin, Henderson manages to push himself into new and exciting territory throughout the whole of “Fire”s 11-minute run time. It’s an ecstatic opening salvo made all the more so by Coltrane’s coruscating harp’s arrival just past the half-way point. Here she methodically plucks out an Eastern-tinged melody interspersed by great swells across the whole of the instrument, lending her performance a hypnotically immersive quality. It’s a thrilling comingling of collective talent and sympathetic playing that leaves the listener wanting more from this particular line-up of players.

“Air” is an appropriately more spiritual jazz affair, with Henderson’s full-throated horn running the full range of his instrument while Haden and percussionist Kenneth Nash create a mood of constant forward momentum. It is here that he adopts a more Coltrane-via-Pharoah Sanders approach to his playing that treads lightly into avant-garde territory, borrowing heavily from his hard bop roots and pushing his horn to its physical limits (he always seems to stop just shy of Albert Ayler or Peter Brötzmann’s strident screaming). As the last of his sustained notes begin to fade, Coltrane’s waterfall-like piano comes crashing into the mix, gradually settling into a few descending chromatic runs down to the depths of the instruments lowest registers. Not nearly as successful as “Fire”, it nonetheless offers an interesting look into the group’s creative approach and improvisatory skill in a stylistically freer environment.

Most indicative of its time, “Water” opens with Coltrane’s droning Tambura, punctuated by Haden’s sparse yet forceful bass stabs, eventually leading into Henderson’s heavily affected psychedelic saxophone bouncing around the mix. It’s a jarring shift from the preceding tracks that, due to its varying level within the mix, is alternately fascinating and distracting, the notes chasing themselves across the track, fading out and gradually folding over onto themselves again. While the approach may be admirable, the execution is somewhat lacking. His brief tease of Gershwin’s “Summertime” is almost laughable in this context, an anachronistic reminder of where the music had been less than a decade prior. More than anything, “Water” is the most “out” track on The Elements.

Similarly, “Earth” features a decidedly Eastern bent which, with its slow, almost martial shuffle and Haden’s bass heavily accenting the "and" of four and the downbeat of one, is heavily reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s “Vein Melter” (also released in 1973). In all, The Elements is neither indicative nor representative of the best work by either Henderson or Coltrane, instead offering an interesting tangent for both artists that neither would ever really return to. Rather, Coltrane went into firmly non-secular territory within the next year, and Henderson returned to a more R&B/funk-informed sound. An evolutionary dead end from a creative standpoint, The Elements nonetheless stands as an interesting, if not always successful, listen for fans of either artist and forward-thinking jazz in general.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.