By Andy Beta
Galaxy in Turiya: Alice Coltrane with Strings
When Alice Coltrane relocated from Dix Hills to California in the early 1970s, her solo work was transformed.
The roots of gospel, bebop, and jazz were intact, infused with the Indian classical tradition, but expanded now by her bold use of orchestra and strings. Bach, Dvorak, and Stravinsky now became part of her palette, with her arrangements suggestive not only of the avant-garde but also of Hollywood film scores. Alice’s use of strings in the 1970s suggested higher realms of composition and consciousness.
In her mind’s eye, Alice Coltrane knew just how the music should sound: a blend of incandescent jazz and whirling strings that –when their tonalities all came together– would suggest the divine. But she couldn’t figure out just where to make the cut on the studio tape. And neither could her producer, Ed Michel. It was early July 1972 and Coltrane had recently moved her family from Dix Hills in Long Island to California, first to Encino before settling in Woodland Hills.
“The Lord told Mother he would meet her in California,” - Sita Michelle Coltrane
And now Alice was in a Los Angeles studio, trying to achieve this holy sound. She was booked for the entire week at The Village Recorder, a most auspicious studio space, putting together the album that would be a watermark of spiritual jazz, Lord of Lords. It would be Coltrane’s seventh solo album in as many years. And it would be the last album she would record for Impulse Records.
Built by Freemasons in 1922 along on Santa Monica Boulevard, almost smack dab in the middle between Beverly Hills and the Pacific Ocean, The Village had served as a Masonic temple for decades, before it was taken over, first by a Bible Institute, and then later by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Maharishi transformed it into the west coast nerve center for Transcendental Meditation and it’s said that the Beatles used to meditate in the large auditorium on the first floor. Now it was a proper recording studio, which would serve as the birthplace for everything from Steely Dan’s Aja to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.
Alice was in the studio with her trio (bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ben Riley) and a platoon of strings: twelve violinists, six violists, and seven cellists. They had just recorded her version of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, a ballet he had first written in 1910 and which she presented as compact six minute dervish of sound and vertiginous strings. And yet, the marriage between jazz trio and orchestral strings still sounded off. “There was an edit that needed to be made, and I regarded myself as the Charlie Parker of the razor blade; I could do impossible edits. But I just broke my back on that one and couldn’t make it work,“ Ed Michel told Down Beat.
“I’ll go home and meditate on it,” she told her longtime producer and left for the day. When she arrived at the studio the next morning, the solution was in hand, as Michel recalled, recounting Coltrane’s own words: “I meditated on it and I got some help from Bach and The Father –which is how she always referred to John after his passing– and Mr. Stravinsky. Mr. Stravinsky said, ‘Cut it here.’” Michel remembered the astonishing result: “I said, it’s impossible. It will never work. But I cut it there and it worked perfectly.” With the ghosts of Bach, Coltrane, and Stravinsky guiding her, Alice Coltrane attained the sound she had long been seeking.
In a career that’s been both dismissed out of hand and beloved, mis-characterized and praised, ignored and revered, Alice Coltrane’s recorded work has finally come into its own in the 21st century. Her prodigal playing on piano, harp, and Wurlitzer organ has received long overdue accolades, inspiring a new generation of artists to push the boundaries of their own sound. Albums like Journey in Satchidananda and Universal Consciousness are now rightfully hailed as innovative albums that belong alongside her late husband John Coltrane’s work as well as that of collaborators like Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Archie Shepp, and more, serving as examples of Alice Coltrane’s drive to fearlessly break through the parameters of jazz so as to explore bold new worlds. And even self-recorded and self-released works like Turiya Sings (a cassette which was only ever made available to visitors at her ashram) have found a rapt audience, thanks in part to being uploaded to YouTube and bootlegged.
Somewhat obscured in Alice Coltrane’s 21st century renaissance are her string arrangements.
Completely self-taught, Coltrane used the massed swells of violins, violas, and cellos to both augment her own harp and organ playing and to elicit a tonality that didn’t quite belong in the realms of jazz or classical music. At a time when she was often met with disdain by the jazz critics and community, not to mention ignored by the even more rigid, stuffy, and cloistered classical world, Coltrane boldly imagined a sound to reflect her own spirituality. Coltrane’s strings resonate with new possibilities like a portal to higher realms, where she served as a conductor –not in the classical sense– but as a channeler of energies. “Having a respect for classical composers, she just liked strings,” Michelle Coltrane recalls about her mother.
Coltrane’s strings resonate with new possibilities like a portal to higher realms, where she served as a conductor –not in the classical sense– but as a channeler of energies.
She had come up playing hymnals and gospel songs in the church in Detroit and then became an intent bebop pianist, but when Alice Coltrane married tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, her listening habits expanded as well. John Coltrane was a devoted student of music, from the Indian ragas that Ravi Shankar presented to the West to field recordings of African folkloric music. He was also taken with the orchestras of Stravinsky, a passion his wife soon shared.
After John Coltrane passed away from liver cancer at the age of 40 in 1967, the widow Coltrane was left to raise their four children in the couple’s home in Dix Hills, Long Island. It was there that Alice Coltrane’s love of classical music deepened. John Coltrane had special-ordered a Lyon and Healy concert harp as a surprise for his wife, but never lived to see it. A few months into her grieving process, the concert harp arrived like a message from beyond. She dedicated herself to the harp and to deepening her spiritual practice. “Before seat belts, we’d pile into the station wagon and the harp would be in the car with us,” Michelle recalls. “We’d be going to Stony Brook for a spiritual retreat, and we'd be playing a tent or fort game under the harp. The car would stop and me and my brothers would slide everywhere. On the car radio, she would shush us and make a reference to something in a classical piece, or point out John Coltrane licks on a jazz tune.”
Another new device also deepened Coltrane and her family’s appreciation of classical music. “We got a hi-fi stereo with a record player inside it and lid on top,” Michelle says. She doesn’t recall much jazz or pop music being played in the house (even with her Aunt Marilyn working her way from stenographer to songwriter at Motown). “My mother was a big Stravinsky fan. We would turn the stereo up with the Stravinsky on and dance around the couch and we would just go nuts.”
Even more striking for Michelle was realizing that her own mother could play these classical music pieces on the family piano: “When I found out she could play Rachmaninoff, I’d be tickled by it. ‘Mama, play that song again!’ It was like seeing Liberace or something – wow!” Despite wanting to learn piano, her mother made Michelle pick up the violin. “Then I got to be in the orchestra,” Michelle remembers. “Do you know what it feels like to be in the middle of it all and be able to identify the oboe? Just to know what those things are…I’m thankful for that.”
In the glissando gestures of Alice’s iridescent harp playing on early albums –think of the hand-trailing-from-a-canoe ripples of “Lovely Sky Boat” and fantastical side A of Huntington Ashram Monastery– we get a glimpse of the stronger forces she could conjure beyond her own instrument. Coltrane began to teach herself how to write her own arrangements. After Charlie Parker recorded Bird with Strings, it kindled in every major saxophonist the desire to twine their horn with violins and cellos. But even then, Ed Michel remembers that “strings on jazz dates were still rare. Tujriya was the only artist I recorded who wrote her own string arrangements. Everybody else used arrangers.”
Already, she had begun to look beyond the confines of jazz instrumentation to expand her sonic palette: Indian tamboura, sarod, and Arabic oud deepened the meditations of Journey in Satchidananda and her live performances of the early ‘70s. But now she pushed further, looking for a space somewhere between spiritual jazz and western classical. From her years playing organ in the church in Detroit, she already knew how to write out lead sheets, but now she began to broaden her horizons in earnest, conceiving of other orchestral timbres, beginning with the violin.
When Alice Coltrane brought her young family out west in 1972, her sound catalyzed into a stunning new form. There’s something decidedly Californian about her use of strings and orchestrations, which are cinematic in their sweep, able to be Technicolor-bright as a Hollywood soundtrack yet skin-prickling as well. While one can detect her overt admiration for the likes of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff in them, Coltrane’s arrangements are big, grand, and tumultuous, reflective of life itself.
While one can detect her overt admiration for the likes of Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff in them, Coltrane’s arrangements are big, grand, and tumultuous, reflective of life itself.
Her sound can veer from Disney-friendly to the dramatic, from a luminous John Ford landscape to The Exorcist and back in only a few measures.
Little can prepare us for the vivid, spiky string quartet that lurches to life in the opening seconds of “Universal Consciousness.” Announcing the first of three major works Alice made with strings for Impulse, there’s little precedent to be found in the jazz world. Joan Kalisch, John Blair, Julius Brand, and Leroy Jenkins (with Ornette Coleman providing "transcriptions") slash and flutter around her harp lines. Before we can catch our breath, they soon find themselves grappling with Alice’s lava-like organ work and the spilled mercury of Jack DeJohnette’s drum fills. The white-knuckle ascent anticipates the 36-minute journey ahead, a dizzying mix of chaos and breath-catching beauty. There are few orchestral thrills quite like Universal Consciousness (as the popular bumper sticker can attest).
“I would describe her compositional style as ecstatic — she makes you feel it immediately. It’s gorgeous, enchanting, and once you’ve heard it, you want to hear it again,” enthuses violist/ conductor Nadia Sirota. To Sirota’s ear, she notices a few key elements that run through Coltrane’s arrangements. On the one hand, there are the unison strings and modal melodies, creating a monolithic mass of sound not unlike the drone encountered in Indian music. But Sirota also discerns things that Coltrane returns to time and again with her string arrangements, particularly the freedom given to the players. The trills, aleatoric improvisation, and messiness that result create a visceral frisson in the sound. Sirota detects the “ragged entrances and exits and a bombastic vibe — you hear each player’s intent. It’s not a commonly-used device [in classical music] and I personally love it.”
Coltrane widened her timbral palette for World Galaxy, which featured eye-popping art courtesy of visual artist and Transcendental Meditation enthusiast Peter Max. The string quartet expanded into a 15-piece ensemble. That larger scale suggested greater vistas, a bolder vision by Coltrane. Fittingly, three of her compositions feature “Galaxy” in the title. If that weren’t bold enough, she also took two of her late husband’s most iconic pieces and added careening Wurlitzer runs and colors as bright and gaudy as the cover art: “My Favorite Things” and “A Love Supreme,” the latter featuring the deep intonations of Swami Satchidananda.
The critics weren’t impressed. “Super-saccharine, often corny and terribly repetitive,” shrugged Down Beat. It would take years, even decades for it to find acceptance, but it has since become a beloved album of open-minded listeners and adventurous jazz players.
In the early 1970s, Juilliard-schooled Murray Adler was a busy violinist hustling around Los Angeles, an in-demand session player for recording dates and movie soundtrack work, garnering hundreds of credits throughout his long career. Looking back now, the sessions with Alice Coltrane stand out in his mind. “She had an aura about her that was very saintly, she was just lovely,” Adler says. “She absolutely knew exactly what she was doing. Her music was not accidental. She was very bright and she knew what she was doing. I had great respect for her musicianship.”
He still recalls how Coltrane “would give me hand-written charts, as she didn’t have a copyist. Everything was hand-written.” Michelle Coltrane remembers how her mother “would write them out by hand for each instrument: viola, the violin, bass or cello. She did that work. She was one of the most disciplined and self-taught people that I knew. She did that with language too, learning Indian Sanskrit.” And then Alice would hand them off to the copyists she did have on-hand: “She would get us kids to very carefully do the notes. We would duplicate them by hand. We would do the balls and then she –in her beautiful handwriting– she would do the sticks. All the kids would be transcribing the lead sheets.”
In April of 1972, Adler served as first violin and concertmaster for a recording date that would prove to be one of the most controversial in jazz. Back in September of 1965 and February of 1966, on two separate west coast tours, John Coltrane brought his touring groups, featuring drummer Rashied Ali, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and McCoy Tyner or Alice on piano) into San Francisco’s Coast Recorders Studio to lay down some new pieces: “Peace on Earth,” “Joy,” and “Leo” (a fourth piece, “Living Space,” featured the original Coltrane Quartet and was recorded at Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs studio in New Jersey). According to the widow Coltrane, she and John had discussed how these pieces might be augmented, with Indian tamboura, strings, and other timbral colors. Nearly seven years on, now she and Adler set about embellishing these recordings, the end result being Infinity.
The jazz cognoscenti were mortified to have these precious unreleased John Coltrane recordings fleshed out with Alice Coltrane’s harp and organ and Charlie Haden’s re-recorded bass parts, as well as full string arrangements, an act of sacrilege akin to painting Mickey Mouse on the Sistine Chapel or allowing an amateur painter to restore a century-old fresco. Ed Michel admits to being, at the time, “bothered by the idea of ‘corrupting’ the Coltrane originals. But Turiya was the control voice on Coltrane masters and material, as well as the keyboard player on the original dates. And I am a ‘trust your artist’ producer.”
Maybe it’s a half-century of hindsight, but Infinity remains unfairly ignored in both John and Alice’s catalog of work. It is the lone album to offer a tantalizing glimpse at what a truly equal John and Alice Coltrane album might have sounded like, the tenor titan’s powerful horn matched with his wife’s formidable harp and string charts, each operating at a peak. It’s a match that is made in heaven, so to speak, the tireless, ever-questing sound of Coltrane’s horn weaving through a kaleidoscopic tapestry of strings and exploring his wife’s soundworld, something unlike anything else in his oeuvre. It’s beautiful, opulent, overwhelming at times, two forces of nature together at last. Listen closely and you can even make out John’s youngest son, Oran Coltrane, then just 5 years of age, shaking sleigh bells on “Living Space.”
A few months on, Adler, Michel, and Coltrane were back at the Village Recorder to work on the arrangements for Lord of Lords. “I’ve never been one to dissect music and I resent people who do that,” Adler says, recalling a different session where a composer worried over every eighth note. So even though Alice Coltrane was self-trained, “I had the deepest feeling that she knew exactly what she was doing. There would be parts of the music where she would improvise and I would just watch her and then she would nod when it was time for the strings to come back and I’d bring everybody in.” Adler, on the other hand, admits he didn’t always know where he was in the music. “I have to tell you her music was beyond me. I didn’t really know what she was doing.”
This was the album wherein Coltrane most closely engaged with totemic work by famous European male composers that continue to define and dominate what we think of as classical music. “On Lord of Lords, she directly quotes both Stravinsky and Dvorak, but she really inflects them with her own sensibility — swirling, messy, frenetic, excited, caught up in emotion,” Sirota says. “There is a constant play between dissonance and relaxed, open fifths.”
It’s best exemplified by her interpretation of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, as rather than a direct rendition, Coltrane hews to a more personal tact. “It’s sort of all the notes you’d sing if you were trying to remember how The Firebird went,” Sirota says. “But when Stravinsky gets super weird, she gets weird in her own way, employing her aleatoric vibe.” In the album liner notes, she talks about being “blessed with…a visitation from the great master composer” back in March 1972. During their visit, Stravinsky relaxes in an armchair, talks cryptically about Alice’s grandmother, and gives her an elixir. “I began to drink from the vial,” she writes. “To my surprise, it was difficult to swallow.” Perhaps not as difficult to swallow as the fact that Stravinsky had passed away the year before.
For all the cosmic energies swirling around “Excerpts from The Firebird,” Lord of Lords ends on “Going Home,” one of Coltrane's most rapturous pieces of music. In her notes, Alice Coltrane wrote that it is a gospel spiritual and one of her parents’ favorite songs and that when Czech composer Antonín Dvořák heard it during a visit to the United States in 1893, he incorporated it into the “Largo” movement of his New World Symphony. There remains speculation about which came first, but Dvořák himself told the New York Herald at the time that “in the negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” Alice credits it as a traditional spiritual though and her poignant organ and harp amid the solemn strings is breath-taking, capturing the song’s European orchestral and American Black gospel heritage in one grand, elegant breath.
“‘Going Home,’ that’s a family song,” Coltrane’s grand-nephew Stephen Ellison a/k/a Flying Lotus once told me. “When someone passes, that’s the song we play at the funeral. When my auntie passed, we played that one. When my mom died, we played it for her.” Michelle Coltrane speaks of it similarly: “It’s happy and sad, whatever that emotion is. I’m still deeply moved by it.”
Coltrane’s arrangements would continue to mature and deeper on future albums. There’s the audacious amalgam of orchestra, harp, and Carlos Santana’s fiery guitar lines on Illuminations, the concert orchestra assembled for “Spring Rounds” on her 1976 album Eternity, the radiant beauty of her harp and string quartet on Transcendence, the string nonet on “Prema” from her 1978 concert at UCLA.
Each is a wonder in and of itself and it caps an astonishingly fruitful period of music-making for Alice Coltrane in the span of just a few years. Soon after, she would recede from public view altogether, her spiritual practice ascendant in her life. But the vistas that she glimpsed and distilled into her string and orchestra arrangements remain even more vital in the 21st century. It sounds the divine, a whirling galaxy of sound.
About the Author
Andy Beta has been writing about art and music since 2002. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Wall Street Journal, and many other places. He's grateful to have visited Turiyasangitananda's ashram before it burned to the ground in 2018.