Graded on a Curve:
Alice Coltrane,
Eternity, Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana, Transcendence, and Transfiguration

Last September, a serving of ’70s material from the late pianist-harpist-composer Alice Coltrane came out on 2CD through Real Gone as Spiritual Eternal: The Complete Warner Bros. Studio Recordings. That was cool, but the vinyl rights went to another label, namely Superior Viaduct of San Francisco, and their editions of ’75’s Eternity and ’77’s Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana, and Transcendence are out now through the label’s ’60s-’70s reissue subsidiary Antarctica Starts Here. But the icing on that three-layer studio cake is the release of ’78’s Transfiguration, an excellent live performance return to the jazz zone and simultaneously (temporarily) her commercial swan song. It’s a wondrously searching gem.

Jump back 30 years and the prevailing opinion on jazz in the ’70s is that it was something of a desolate wasteland brought on by the intermingling of commercial desperation, self-indulgence, and an abandonment of the music’s roots; as the wadded-up pages of yearly calendars amassed in the waste basket, the traditionalists simply bided time until the cultural pendulum swung back toward the conservative.

And then for many, as the ’80s dawned, things were momentarily right in the world; hey, jazzmen (with a renewed emphasis on men) were again wearing suits (often, tuxedos) while appropriately paying their dues through worship at the bebop altar of Charlie Parker. Of course, as the last few decades have helped to clarify, the matter was never so simple; for starters, amid the sometimes-craven attempts to establish a crossover audience in the ’70s, there were pockets of major worthiness within the realms of Fusion (naturally so, as it was the locale of Miles Davis’ last great creative stretch).

Plus, the avant-garde/ free scene, long the bane of the jazz traditionalist, if still recouping from the loss of two key trailblazers (John Coltrane and Albert Ayler) and a growing disinterest on the part of major record labels and club owners, continued to explore the possibilities of collectivity across festival stages, in free spaces, in educational contexts, and notably, in lofts. On the recording front, there was a blossoming of small, often artist-run labels, as a considerable percentage of the players began expanding upon a long-extant aspect of the music; specifically, they were focusing on the spiritual.

This brings us to Alice Coltrane. Beginning with A Monastic Trio in 1968 for Impulse, she was one of the few artists tapping into and extending the music’s spiritual possibilities from the major label plateau. Pharoah Sanders would be the other biggie (also on Impulse), with both artists having contributed to the last great band of John Coltrane and then carrying the saxophonist’s avant-spiritual ideas into the decade following his premature death.

It’s been stated that audiences were either indifferent or to varying degrees hostile to the solo/ leadership work of Alice and Sanders, but as she released eight LPs for Impulse and Sanders 11, that’s rather plainly a ludicrous notion. The reality is that the listener base for both was sturdy if not huge, and after Coltrane’s contract with Impulse expired and she dished a collab with Carlos Santana for the Columbia label, she then settled in for a deal with Warner Brothers that if not as consistently rewarding as her prior stuff still brought considerable levels of goodness.

When considered next to ’73’s Lord of Lords, which was her excellent final outing for Impulse and the concluding entry in a trilogy that began with Universal Consciousness in ’71 and continued with World Galaxy the next year, ’75’s Eternity can perhaps seem slightly less bold in conception, but it only takes a little time to ascertain that Coltrane’s ambition is undiluted and her playing as gorgeous as ever. Also, a significant part of Coltrane’s appeal continues to derive from how she diverts from established norms, with her gnawing, bluesy tone on the organ quite distinctive.

The two standout selections on Eternity are “Om Supreme,” with its vocal choir (at once calming and gripping) and “Spring Rounds,” which is an adaptation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. But overall, the record’s most impressive quality lies in how seamlessly everything unwinds, the flow serving to nicely deflate the theory that this strain of ’70s progressive jazz was unfocused and undisciplined.

However, it is important to note that with Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana Coltrane did move away from the jazz core in earnest. On the first side of the album she gravitates toward devotional vocalizing, leading a group of students from the Vedantic Center she founded in ’75 in singing arrangements of Hindu bhajans. It’s an enjoyable if far from mind-blowing undertaking, but then side two takes an intriguing turn.

With the 19-minute “Om Namah Sivaya,” in duo with her son Aruna John Coltrane, Jr., then 13 years old, on the drums, Coltrane returns to the organ (on side one she played Fender Rhodes and acoustic piano). If one knows the LPs, this will likely bring Ornette Coleman’s The Empty Foxhole, Ornette at 12, and Crisis to mind (all three featured the saxophonist’s preteen son Denardo as drummer), though “Om Namah Sivaya” cultivates an aura that’s unique if ultimately a little less grabbing.

Transcendence was to be Coltrane’s final studio album until Translinear Light emerged in 2004 and helped to instigate a long-overdue reevaluation of her work. Interestingly, this penultimate studio LP (there was a bunch of worthwhile DIY recording that occurred in between, some of it compiled in 2017 on the terrific The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda for Luaka Bop) is immediately distinct from her two prior Warner Brothers LPs.

Diving into a sustained dose of florid harp and strings, Coltrane then counterbalances it on side two with more vocal-centered material, but this time with a gospel edge that cuts a little deeper than it did on her two prior outings. The range helps to secure a focused diversity leading into the knockout that is the ’78 live double set Transfiguration.

With bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Roy Haynes completing a stellar trio (expanded with strings for one track, “Prema”), Transfiguration is a return to roots but in no way a stylistic backslide. Cut at Schoenberg Hall at UCLA in April of ’78, it begins with some wonderfully spaced-out organ (but not really all that “spacy,” if you catch my drift) in the 11-minute title track, and then shifts to piano as Coltrane offers a compositional tribute to her late husband in “One for the Father.”

It and “Prema” place the spotlight clearly on her brilliance as a player and arranger, but with “Affinity” (which wraps up side two) the focus shifts to Coltrane’s abilities as improvisor in a tight group context, and as there are sustained passages where she’s standing on the verge of setting the organ aflame, Transfiguration kicks off its most rewarding stretch.

My viewpoint was shared that evening with the audience at UCLA, with their appreciation respectfully raucous; I mean, they quiet down right quick so they can better soak up Workman’s and Haynes’ outstanding solo turns during the dive into John Coltrane’s “Leo,” which breaks 37 minutes and is split across Transfiguration’s second LP. When Coltrane reemerges in the sixth minute of side four, the trio effectively nails down an enthralling showstopper, and any lingering talk of the inadequacy of ’70s exploratory jazz dissipates like so much hot air.

Eternity
A-

Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana
B+

Transcendence
B+

Transfiguration
A

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