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5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Alice Coltrane

For the past several years, New York Times music editors have been asking: What five minutes would you play for a friend to make them love …

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Alice Coltrane
08.09.2022 00:33
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For the past several years, New York Times music editors have been asking: What five minutes would you play for a friend to make them love classical music? Last month, shifting the series’ focus to jazz, we asked musicians, writers and critics to share their passion for Duke Ellington.

Now we want those music-loving friends to be moved by Alice Coltrane, the keyboardist and harpist who explored the universal and spiritual in jazz before her death in 2007 at age 69. Her husband John Coltrane had died in 1967.

Before his passing, the couple explored the depths of spirituality together, traveling the world to take in new cultures, and letting those influences come through in the music. And where John used screeching saxophone wails to summon higher powers, Alice took the opposite approach, channeling serenity through the chords of her piano and the strum of her harp. In what would have been her 85th year of life, she’s still celebrated with tribute concerts and like-minded music from today’s purveyors of spiritual jazz.

Enjoy listening to these Alice Coltrane songs, including a playlist at the bottom of the article, and be sure to leave your own favorites in the comments.

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Morgan Parker, writer and poet

The bluesy 1970 treasure “Ptah, the El Daoud” is a journey through the rituals of mourning. Of course it raps with a universal cosmos — but with one foot on Earth, where there’s no transcending grief. Composed in the years after her husband John’s death, and recorded in their family home, it features Alice Coltrane on piano with Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson on tenor saxophones. Except on “Blue Nile.” Here, they play alto flutes; Alice graces her harp. Following the aching prayers of the album’s “Turiya and Ramakrishna,” the opening strings of “Blue Nile” herald respite and repass, a moment to settle and reset. The musicians are downright grooving on this warm, imaginative track, both exhaling and exalting in every note.

“Blue Nile”

Alice Coltrane (Impulse!)

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Taja Cheek, musician

I know there was a time when I didn’t know who Alice Coltrane was, but I just can’t remember that time. I do remember taking a last-minute flight to California to visit the Sai Anantam Ashram that she founded in 1983. I remember crying with gratitude and anticipation on the plane there. I remember my phone dying, and worrying that I would be stranded in a place I didn’t know; but I remember the Indian food the ashram prepared more than I remember the worry. I remember the joy of meeting members of the ashram, of learning from them, of hearing them sing, of hearing them talk about their love for her. There are many Alices, depending on who you ask, where and when. There are many sounds, too: devotional chanting, spiritual singing, strings, jazz piano, harp, nasal organ. She was an innovator that studied tradition. A keeper of multitudes. But the music weaves through it all. I think of all of this when I listen to “Spiritual Eternal”: the way the sound dips slightly right before the strings come in. An organ stretched to its limits, cracked open as if by a hacker. Transporting listeners to outer space and inner space. There’s nothing like it.

“Spiritual Eternal”

Alice Coltrane (Rhino/Warner Records)

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John Morrison, writer

I love the fact that in recent years, more people have come to the understanding that Alice Coltrane was a multi-hyphenate genius. Pianist, composer, harpist, spiritual teacher, Coltrane possessed a creative range that few have rivaled. Of all the stylistic twists and turns present in her catalog, songs like “Pranadhana” best illustrate the brilliance of Alice Coltrane for me. Singing in Sanskrit while accompanying herself on organ, Coltrane beautifully combines two great sacred music traditions: Hindu devotional songs and Black American gospel. Rich, meditative and overflowing with spiritual power, this song evokes both Coltrane’s childhood playing organ at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Detroit and her adulthood using music to build her spiritual community at her ashram.

“Pranadhana”

Alice Coltrane (Alice Coltrane)

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Lakecia Benjamin, musician

To me Alice Coltrane exemplifies the meaning of transcendence: She and her music exist beyond the normal or spiritual level. Her musical artistry and spiritual awareness open the floodgates to empathy. One of the first things that made me love her work is the freedom in it. The genre and expression cannot be defined. And the music hits the soul of the listener, almost causing you to immediately be changed in some way. All of this is summed up for me on “Prema,” and particularly this version. It takes the listener down a path of subconscious reflection. And once that happens, you are forced to deal with the you that you tuck away and try to hide from the public view. I’m grateful Ms. Coltrane was born and walked on this Earth, and left behind the writings and music she did.

“Prema”

Alice Coltrane (Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz/NPR)

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Angel Bat Dawid, musician

This version of “A Love Supreme” slaps so hard! From Alice Coltrane’s wonderful album “World Galaxy,” emphasizing once again the collective genius and message of her music: that Black music is always spiritual music. Her deep love of spirituality and interest in Eastern religion show how Black music never separates those things into categories, and proves that Alice will never leave the roots that are the spirituals or “spirchiills” as the ancestors pronounced it. No matter how big and famous and genre-crossing and avant-garde she became, Alice was from Detroit, and you can hear the blues, funk, gospel and all those silly labels that are put on Black musicians as a way to categorize something that is felt but not entirely understood by those who are non-Black. Her rendition is an endearing and beautiful tribute to the shared message of her late husband. The “love supreme” is really the music, and it prevails no matter what.

“A Love Supreme”

Alice Coltrane (Impulse!)

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Tammy Kernodle, scholar

The manner in which Alice Coltrane’s music and artistry intersected strongly with her spiritual identity has always resonated deeply with me. While many might equate this with conventions that emerged out of jazz during the 1960s and 1970s, it was much more. The intersection of Coltrane’s music and spirituality reflected her personal journey to a life driven by divine purpose and her role in birthing an idiom of liturgical jazz. “This Hymn” is a reminder of how Coltrane’s music and theology of transformation and liberation were rooted in the emotive, ecstatic and contemplative sounds of Black Baptist and Pentecostal churches.

“The Hymn”

Alice Coltrane (Impulse!)

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Courtney Bryan, composer

The music of Alice Coltrane (also known as Swamini Turiyasangitananda) is profoundly healing, like a spiritual deep-tissue massage. It leads me to a peaceful place within and to an awareness of connection with the universe. Particularly, her recordings “Turiya Sings” (1982), “Divine Songs” (1987), “Infinite Chants” (1990) and “Glorious Chants” (1995) resonate with me. These recordings led me to visit her Sai Anantam Ashram to better understand her music and teachings and to sing her music in the mandir. Listening to “Keshava Murahara” from “Divine Songs,” I treasure her compositional genius — the grounding presence and modal harmonies of the organ, the evocative chanting of the bhajans, the soaring strings, and the otherworldly synthesizer that in the final minute illustrates what it may feel like to transcend this material existence to higher realms of spiritual consciousness.

“Keshava Murahara”

Alice Coltrane (Luaka Bop)

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Meshell Ndegeocello, musician

At around age 14 or 15, I would walk down to Kemp Mill Records to browse as often as I could. Eventually I even got a part-time job there, only to be fired on Day 4 for playing the music too loud in the store. Kemp Mill had a jazz bin mostly filled with straight-ahead, smooth, and vocal jazz artists, and I regularly flipped through it. I browsed the used records bin often as well. That is where I found this Alice Coltrane album, “Ptah, the El Daoud.” If my memory serves me correctly, it was the cover art that first sparked my interest. The next were the titles. The iconography and track names were maps to other ideas, cultural truths, an affirmation of my burgeoning suspicions. I was beginning to question my conservative Christian upbringing after learning a different version of Egyptian mythology from my Iraqi friend Mahmoud. I had only known of the biblical references to Egypt before then.

The reason I loved this album, and its title track, is that it begins with this walking bass line; then come the piano sounds, and it moves with a sway and groove that feels so good, uplifting you, you can’t help but nod with joy and power. The music, stoking my curiosity and psychic independence, was also calming to me, a young person living in chaos. I revisit Alice’s music when I am in need of healing: She is a guide, a symbol of hope, that music is more than entertainment or livelihood or, worst, for profit. Music changed my life’s circumstances, but it is how I connect with my creator. Alice Coltrane changed my heart and consciousness. Her music is for the inner world and it is from there she seeds transformation.

“Ptah, the El Daoud”

Alice Coltrane (Impulse!)

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Marcus J. Moore, jazz writer

Alice Coltrane’s fourth studio album, “Journey in Satchidananda,” begins with a title cut so strong that it’s often tough for me to move past it. A soothing mix of harp, hypnotic bass and melodic saxophone, it was meant to honor the spiritual guru Swami Satchidananda, who helped Coltrane see the light following her husband John’s death in 1967. The swami was “the first example I have seen in recent years of Universal Love … in action,” Alice Coltrane wrote in the album’s liner notes. Not only is the track a rightful tribute to Satchidananda, it sets a proper tone for one of the greatest albums ever — a meditative masterpiece centered on Coltrane’s ascendance from despair.

“Journey in Satchidananda”

Alice Coltrane, featuring Pharoah Sanders (GRP)

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Surya Botofasina, musician

Divinity. Grace. Devotion.

In this chanting, I hear passionate calls for internal, soul-reaching connection. This song epitomizes what Swamini is for us: The ultimate instrument and example of devotion. Hear how every note of her organ and synthesizer harmonically supports every person’s earnest plea for a personal bond with the divine? “Hari Narayan” — spirit of the Lord Vishnu, the Preserver. The voice of my mother, Radha Botofasina, is the one you can hear the most in this recording. This song is my ashram childhood. Swamini blessed us with music which is beyond meditative; she provided the one thing a spiritual heart can hope for: inner peace.

“Hari Narayan”

Alice Coltrane (Luaka Bop)

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Brandee Younger, harpist

I’m at the edge of my seat trying to hold on. She’s bringing us along with her on this exciting ride, plowing through everything in her path and absolutely taking no prisoners. The energy between the organ and the drums is just infectious. I don’t want it to end … and I didn’t realize that an organ could make me feel such a full range of emotions. As it closes with the theme one last time, it’s clear that she has made it to her destination while bringing us on the ride of our lives. It ends and I feel somewhat out of breath and spiritually fulfilled.

“Affinity (Live)”

Alice Coltrane (Rhino/Warner Records)

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Giovanni Russonello, Times jazz critic

From the 1980s, when she founded the Sai Anantam Ashram in Southern California, to 2004, three years before her death, Alice Coltrane released nothing but religious and devotional music. It was heavy on synths and voices, and vested with an extra dose of magnetism by the fact that, if you heard it, you were listening on cassette. (In those years, you’d likely have to travel to the ashram to get hold of a tape.) Finally, after much urging by her son Ravi Coltrane, she put out one last studio album, “Translinear Light,” in 2004, which served as a reminder of her musicianship’s breadth. She reaches to Black spirituals, original compositions, John Coltrane classics and Vedic devotional music. On a slowly flourishing version of “Jagadishwar,” an original that she first recorded for the 1982 cassette “Turiya Sings,” Ravi joins her and an all-star rhythm section: Jeff (Tain) Watts on drums and James Genus on bass. But it’s Alice Coltrane’s synthesizer, diaphanous though it is, that fills most of the space. There’s hardly a contradiction between her sense of spiritual purity and her use of advanced tech: The synth is beams of sunlight, it’s baths of seawater, it’s a passageway beyond all matter.

“Jagadishwar”

Alice Coltrane (Impulse!)

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Georgia Anne Muldrow, musician

It’s true, Turiyasangitananda is that lady. She’s that woman, that vessel. She’s that miracle, that supermodel. She’s that gorgeous, that genius, that she can soar up through the most butterfly-wing-finest of holographic harmonic places. Never have two chords orbited in my heart the way they did on “Oh Allah.” I heard and saw everything — the planets, cosmos and harmony of life — in this song. The doo-wop of angels in the meter of The Lawd, armed with the organ of Justice. She demonstrates the usage of worship and praise in the Black experience in spaces that predate our painful places, ripping the keys to exalt that which sustains life. I played this song two days straight on repeat in my little Discman, nursing my newborn little man. He loved the song, just cooing in key. This song has an axis of electrum, chile. Oh Allah. A song of mercy, of praise. Hallelujah, Alice Coltrane. Hallelujah, Ornette Coleman, for transcribing the strings in a meeting of minds that would forever be imprinted in the primal places of my life.

“Oh Allah”

Alice Coltrane (Verve)

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