Graded on a Curve:
Alice Coltrane,
Universal Consciousness

One of the most suitable resurgences of esteem to have occurred over the last quarter century relates to the discography of multi-instrumentalist and composer Alice Coltrane. For far too many years far too many people erroneously ranked her as a major accompanist and downgraded her leadership efforts as being of primary interest to aficionados of freeform, modal, or spiritual jazz. Today Coltrane is justly recognized as a master, her output loaded with jewels; none are better than ‘71’s Universal Consciousness. It’s been freshly reissued on LP by Superior Viaduct.

Had Alice Coltrane somehow not recorded Universal Consciousness she’d still stand as one of the defining talents from jazz’s most exploratory era. And even if the woman born Alice McLeod on August 27th, 1937 in that hub of American artistry Detroit, Michigan had never managed to cut an album under her married name, her creative achievements would endure as quite notable.

In assuming the piano bench in the band of John Coltrane, she assisted in shaping the late-period of one of recorded music’s most vital exponents. With the departure of pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s “Classic Quartet” (which the saxophonist had been augmenting across 1965) was receding in the rear-view mirror. Drummer Rashied Ali, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and reedman Pharoah Sanders remained as assorted percussionists and Alice Coltrane entered; as of this writing the results remain galvanizing.

Studio evidence of her contribution didn’t emerge until after her husband’s death on July 17th, 1967; Expression arrived the following September, Cosmic Music, co-credited to Alice and John, the next year, and Stellar Regions, sourced from rediscovered tapes, belatedly appeared in 1995. The majority of the collaboration rests upon performance documents, though only one, late-‘66’s Live At The Village Vanguard Again!, was released prior to the bandleader’s succumbing to liver cancer.

The others are last year’s unexpected Offering: Live at Temple University, 2001’s The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording, and the massive assemblage of ‘91’s Live in Japan, four startling compact discs that are basically mandatory for lovers of John Coltrane at his most expansive and for fans of outward-bound jazz in general.

And to devotees of Alice Coltrane, of course; by now the late pianist-harpist-organist-composer (she also passed in 2007) has deservedly accumulated a sizable listenership on the basis of her work as leader. ’68’s A Monastic Trio is her very solid debut, a record intended as a tribute to her departed spouse. Fittingly, all of her collaborators save for drummer Ben Riley were cohorts from her husband’s group: Sanders, Garrison, and Ali.

The CD and digital of A Monastic Trio borrows two tracks from Cosmic Music and a solo piano piece from ’67; they don’t harm the program but do significantly alter its reality; with the exception of the opener’s bass clarinet the original LP lacked horns (it was previously reissued on vinyl by Superior Viaduct; sadly it’s already sold out).

‘69’s Huntington Ashram Monastery is a sweet trio date with Coltrane on piano and harp, Ali on drums, and the indefatigable Ron Carter dishing out bold notes on the upright. He sticks around for ‘70’s Ptah, the El Daoud as Riley steps in for Ali and Coltrane selects two horn players, namely Sanders and Joe Henderson, who delivers one of his finest showings on tenor and alto flute.

The Coltrane albums Impulse released in 1971 detail a creative peak as they benefit from diversity of conception. The first, Journey in Satchidananda, welcomes Ali, adds oud, tamboura, and percussion and replaces Carter with the duo of key Ornette figure Charlie Haden and ‘70s Impulse regular Cecil McBee; Sanders gets second billing.

It’s rightfully assessed as a masterpiece, but in numerous ways Universal Consciousness is of greater interest as it dispenses with horns entirely. That the LP suffers not a bit from the omission of breath is mighty impressive given its mystical nature; a whole lot of sonic spiritualism has ended up faltering into spacious insubstantiality. However, Coltrane’s first step in compensating for the absence of searching reeds is the gathering of an exceptional band.

Jimmy Garrison is back on bass and joined at various points by three worthy rhythmic specialists. On two tracks it’s Ali and elsewhere it’s a pair of newcomers to Alice’s scene; specifically Clifford Jarvis, a veteran from the units of Randy Weston, Sun Ra, Sonny Simmons, and abundant post-bop scenarios, and Jack DeJohnette, a crucial sideman for Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis.

Just as important is Coltrane setting aside the piano for organ and harp while inaugurating her distinctive arrangements for strings; Universal Consciousness utilizes transcriptions by free jazz cornerstone Ornette Coleman and features a line of four violinists including Joan Kalisch and Leroy Jenkins. Their presence is immediately felt on the opening title cut, aggressive, near-Modernist twists and darts hastily relieving any nagging suspicions over the syrupiness that can exude from a mal-employed string section.

Added weight comes through Garrison’s bowed strings, his textures contrasting with the cascades of Coltrane’s harp. And then shortly after a minute in, the organ arrives with the abruptness of a studio edit; DeJohnette turns up the heat, his intensity rolling across the potency of her solo. As the violins reenter so does the harp, DeJohnette continuing his workout amongst wiggles, teeters, flurries and tugs.

“Battle of Armageddon” is a duo with Ali, who provides an abstract launching pad for the spaced-out edginess of Coltrane’s organ. Indeed, her playing is nearer to Sun Ra and even early electronic music than it is to the oft overly liquid strains of soul-jazz. Ali makes the most of a brief solo spot, and when the organ returns it reels-off a series of energetic sound threads.

Ali exits as Garrison, DeJohnette, and the violins formulate the glorious atmosphere of the side-closing “O Allah.” The strings glisten, though their character is steely not polished, and Coltrane’s fingers are particularly limber at the keyboard; her excursions are also vibrant and sinewy, furthermore establishing depth via sustained tones as Garrison plucks imaginatively throughout.

Side two begins with “Hare Krishna,” the spiritual qualities increasing in the LP’s longest track as Jarvis joins DeJohnette. While certainly meditative, the gradually moving piece easily avoids the soporific, in part because the violin swells are hearty and secondly due to an undercurrent of drone. And the objective isn’t placidity but rather a stirring climax of structure and improvisation.

The drifting/droning element extends into “Sita Ram” mainly through the use of tamboura (played by singularly-handled cat Tulsi; he also contributed to Journey in Satchidananda), and it’s to the credit of Garrison, Jarvis and especially Coltrane, switching to harp herein, that the ambiance is legitimate and not an approximation of an exotic ideal.

The closing duo with Ali, “The Ankh of Amen-Ra,” is bookended by celestial harp and wind chimes; in between is a tasty dialogue of drums and organ, Coltrane providing ample bottom-end for the tandem exploration. It serves as a strong finale to a truly extraordinary record, and Alice Coltrane newbies are making a smart choice in starting right here.

Thereafter, heading backward into the abovementioned albums is a wise move, and so is checking out ‘72’s World Galaxy and the next year’s Lord of Lords; both employ a string orchestra, and both are a terrific and at times exquisite. Through assurance, lucidity, and mastery of scale and instrumentation, Universal Consciousness remains the best.


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