'Spiritual Eternal' Fills in the Gaps of Alice Coltrane's Evolution
This reissue of Alice Coltrane's mid-'70s studio albums shows a logical progression of her twinned musical and spiritual journeys.
Spiritual Eternal: The Complete Warner Bros. Studio Recordings
Real Gone Music
7 September 2018
Faith is a journey, not a destination. There may be a thunderbolt, some cataclysmic event that shocks and awes a nonbeliever into a new direction. Or they may have been possessed of that yearning all along, but only came to realize and fully inhabit it over time, and the process of living life. Or perhaps once they discovered that impulse, they gave themselves to it and allowed it to guide their path wherever it was flowing like the river.
More than a decade after she passed, we can now see Alice Coltrane's long musical arc as a journey of faith and the expression of it, even as it took various shapes along the way, with each of those aforementioned impulses in play at various times. Her gospel upbringings as a young girl in Detroit never left her, even as her musical direction evolved. It's there in her earliest work as a jazz pianist in the early '60s, playing in relatively conventional contexts. It surfaced in her work with John Coltrane, whom she married in 1965 and played with from approximately 1966 until his sudden death a year later. And it was also evident in the solo work she released in the late '60s and early '70s, establishing her own voice as an artist beyond the maelstrom of her husband's last works.
But her journey took on a new dimension after John's death, when she pursued the Vedic religion and in 1969 met and began to study with Swami Satchidananda Saraswati, an Indian guru. A pilgrimage to India she took with him in 1970 introduced her to a whole new tradition of observance and faith practice through music, which she incorporated into the fusion of free and spiritual jazz she'd already been developing. That combination led her to take up the Wurlitzer organ, an instrument which allowed her to evoke both the long, droning tones of Indian music and the deep, dark chords long associated with gospel and jazz.
Her journey also inspired a direction at once removed and, as we'd eventually see, wholly consistent with her musical career. Around 1975, she started the Vedantic Center in her home outside Los Angeles, and would eventually establish a full-fledged ashram complete with a temple, cooking facilities, and a public outreach program. By then, she had become a swamini and had taken the name Turiyasangitananda. Most crucially, she had fully incorporated both black and Indian musical traditions, brought that vision to the other members of the ashram, and began to develop a singularly universal spiritual music.
For many years, that music was not available to the general public - it was originally intended for the members of the ashram to guide and assist their own spiritual journeys. In 2017, a compilation of that music, the widely heralded The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, brought that music to the masses, and helped answer a question that had lingered since the late '70s, when she stopped recording for commercial labels: where had she gone after making such dynamic music for so long?
In fact, although the pieces released on Ecstatic Music were a departure from the music she made in the early '70s, they're not a complete break from her past. They're more like an expansion on that past, a logical progression of her twinned musical and spiritual journeys. Spiritual Eternal: The Complete Warner Bros. Studio Recordings fills in that gap, and allows us to appreciate the full arc of her evolution.
Coltrane left Impulse Records, where she'd continued to record after her husband's passing, in 1975 to sign with Warner Bros., at a time when major labels were still releasing albums by highly respected jazz musicians with some degree of a following. The three albums collected in Spiritual Eternal weren't commercial hits by any measure, but each of them is an important step along her path from jazz explorer to spiritual avatar.
Eternity (1976) features tracks that expand on her Impulse work, including "Los Caballos" and "Morning Worship" featuring "A Friend" named Carlos Santana on percussion (she had previously collaborated with him on the jointly-credited album Illuminations). Two large-ensemble pieces, "Spiritual Eternal" and Stravinsky's "Spring Rounds", develop the grand, pulsating sound she'd begun to explore on previous albums such as Universal Consciousness (1971). There's also "Om Supreme", her first recording of chants referencing her Vedic studies. The vocalists on this track were classically trained singers; future work along this line would soon take on a radically different character.
We begin to see that take shape on the next album, Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana. By this time, she'd already begun to work with members of her burgeoning ashram on developing a vocal ensemble; the four tracks on side one can be seen as the first efforts towards the direction captured on Ecstatic Music, with Coltrane's work on keyboards and harp driving and coloring the devotions. Side two is given over to "Om Namah Sivaya", a loose and not always cohesive duet with her son, 13-year-old Arjuna John Jr., on drums. He isn't all that bad for a novice drummer at the time, proving that her more famous son, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, wasn't the only talented member of the next Coltrane generation (John Jr. was killed in a 1982 car accident).
The final Warner Bros. studio album, Transcendence, is notable for the four bhagrams which further showcase the development of Coltrane's unique musical ministry. The vocal ensemble is larger, and incorporating more hand percussion into their chants. Her liner notes explain the deities the music praises, complete with transcriptions of the chants and their meanings. It was almost as if she'd broken through to the next plateau, and had given her music over to her spiritual journey.
But not quite. Coltrane's Warner Bros. contract would conclude with the release of Transfiguration, a double-live album recorded in April 1978. The setting is relatively conventional: a trio with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Roy Haynes, both of whom had played with her husband (Workman had also appeared on some of her Impulse albums). The music is a volcanic, post-free jazz excursion, including a 36-minute workout on John's "Leo". But then there is this: she is wearing a flowing, orange robe as she digs into the organ, and she signs off her liner notes with "Forevermore transcending, Turiyasangitananda" - as she had referred to herself on each of the Warner Bros. studio albums. In a 2006 interview in Essence, she felt that moment was her time to step aside for a new generation, and "go deeper into what the Lord had outlined for me to do". It was almost, in retrospect, as if this was a swan song to devotees of the maelstrom, a moment to honor the past as she embraced the next steps in her journey.
With that, Alice Coltrane departed from commercial recording until 2004's Translinear Light, a collection of tracks which captured all the totem poles of her journey - spirituals, her work with John, her own voice as a composer and musician, and a concluding track with the ashram singers. We now know, thanks to Ecstatic Music, what she had been doing during her absence from the scene. But thanks to Spiritual Eternal, we also now know that absence wasn't a total departure, or necessarily even a rupture, and perhaps shouldn't have ever been seen as any sort of surprise or mystery (it also helps us see Ecstatic Music as part of the ultimate whole, perhaps even the music it was intended for her to make all along). Regard this reissue as part of her spiritual continuum as much as her musical one, three moments essential to her lifelong journey of faith.