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Alice Coltrane - Lord of Lords Music Album Reviews

Alice Coltrane - Lord of Lords Music Album Reviews
Alice Coltrane’s newly reissued Lord of Lords capped off a trio of richly orchestral albums in the early ’70s. It is a slow-building, cosmic, unnerving throbbing organism of sound.

Most artists who devote themselves even fleetingly to religious music don’t do it well enough to earn many converts. Dave Brubeck’s oratorios have nothing on “Blue Rondo à la Turk” and Bob Dylan’s evangelical era is overshadowed by his earlier work. But Alice Coltrane’s devotional music—particularly World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, released last year, a decade after her death—now earns more plaudits than the string of albums she recorded in quick succession for the Impulse! label in the late 1960s and early ’70s, just before she foreswore secular life, moved to California and established an ashram in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The last of those albums, 1972’s Lord of Lords, is now being reissued on vinyl by Superior Viaduct and it may be the most ecstatic record she made. The music—unnerving, slow-building, a throbbing organism of sound—is cosmically cinematic. Lord of Lords was the final and most fully realized installment in a trio of albums—the others are 1971’s Universal Consciousness and 1972’s World Galaxy—that put Coltrane’s jagged orchestral arrangements alongside her dark, rumbling piano, arpeggiated harp, and Wurlitzer organ. (Bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ben Riley are relegated to the sidelines.) These works represent a radical turn away from Coltrane’s previous records, which for the most part operated very much in line—stylistically and spiritually—with the kind of modal, swing-oriented jazz popularized by her husband and occasional bandmate, John, who died in 1967.

It isn’t fair to Alice’s work to speculate as to whether she was furthering John Coltrane’s legacy with Lord of Lords. None of the stuff John did in his brief but productive life suggests that he would have gone in this direction—and we’ll never know for sure. Density, however, was something he seemed to think a lot about toward the end of his life—witness The Olatunji Concert—and Lord of Lords is nothing if not dense. That’s mostly because the orchestra—at 25 instruments strong, way larger than any string group she’d recorded with before—exists to provide melody as much as texture. The violins, violas, and cellos work in unison, putting forth lines that smuggle in gospel phrasing, like a Duke Ellington composition but more abstract.

This album is less deliberately expressive than the stuff Coltrane had already recorded, including the blues-drenched “Turiya and Ramakrishna,” from her 1970 album Ptah, the El Daoud, and “Gospel Trane,” from her 1968 solo debut. Lord of Lords consists of three searching, original compositions alongside two covers: “Going Home,” the spiritual based on a section of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, and “Excerpts From the Firebird,” which incorporates some of the melodies from Stravinsky’s suite. In the liner notes, Coltrane writes of “receiving a visitation from the great master composer,” nearly a year after his death in 1971. In the vision, Coltrane recalls, Stravinsky brought her a vial of clear liquid, which she drank. “Divine instruction,” Coltrane writes, “has been given to me throughout the entire arranging of this music.”

By the time she made Lord of Lords, Coltrane was moving away from jazz and heading toward a kind of spiritual music that used drones and chanting and lots of organ. She had recently traveled to India with her guru, Swami Satchidananda, and she was on her way to becoming a full-blown swamini herself. But she never entirely abandoned her roots. Coltrane was reared on gospel music in Detroit churches and mentored for a time by Bud Powell—and on Lord of Lords you can hear the vestiges of bebop in her fleet-fingered organ improvisations. Whether or not Coltrane’s influence extends into modern jazz, however, is harder to discern. Her music was, philosophically speaking, focused on the universality of being—a “totality concept,” as she called it—but it didn’t actually sound all that universal. Lord of Lords is an especially stark example of the single-mindedness—the oneness—of Coltrane’s vision.

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