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Alice Coltrane - Journey in Satchidananda Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit a marvel of spiritual jazz, an album overflowing with transcendence, harmony, and grief.

Alice Coltrane’s daughter Sita Michelle once recalled a morning when she was lying in bed before school. She awoke to the sound of a beautiful harp and thought, “If heaven is like this, then I’ll be certainly ready to welcome it when I get my chance.” The story goes that John Coltrane had ordered that harp, but died before it could arrive. Since Alice’s career as a bandleader took off in the years after John’s death, and her practice centered around this silvery new instrument, it’s tempting to see the harp as the gift that he left her to perpetuate their shared musical legacy.

But Alice was not Orpheus, and John was not Apollo. To suggest that the harp itself began her career would be to deny the intensity of her talent and do wrong by every wife whose legacy has been yoked to her husband’s. Though their influences dovetail, their oeuvres remain separate, and within the spectacular and emotional Journey in Satchidananda, the knot at the heart of Alice Coltrane’s harp story starts to unfold.

Born Alice McLeod in the Detroit summer of 1937, she was a talent from the start, playing piano and organ in her local Baptist church. Because the music she would go on to make is so cosmic, so beatific, it’s easy to mistake Alice Coltrane for somebody without rigorous musical training. But she performed classical piano at concerts around Detroit in her teens. In 1960, she moved to Paris and took up jazz under the mentorship of pianist Bud Powell. By the following year, she was performing as the intermission pianist at the Blue Note in Paris.

The first man Alice Coltrane married delivered her, in a way, to the second. She wedded jazz vocalist Kenny “Pancho” Hagood in 1960, but almost as soon as she conceived their child, their relationship deteriorated due to his heroin abuse and she returned to America. With their daughter Sita Michelle in tow, Alice arrived in Detroit later that year and her career as a professional musician began in earnest. She gigged around Detroit, eventually joining Terry Gibbs’ quartet on the piano. She was a sought-after improviser, notable for her commitment to trance-like playing that transcended the rhythms her bandleader established. While playing a New York show with Gibbs’ band in 1962, she met John Coltrane on a shared bill at Metropole. The following year Alice abruptly quit Gibbs’ band, telling him that she was going to marry John. John and Alice had three children together.

John died of liver cancer in 1967. He left Alice bereft, or whatever word is stronger than “bereft.” She couldn’t sleep and she saw visions; she lost weight. In the depths of her grief, Alice had visited a man named Swami Satchidananda, a guru who had spoken to the crowds at Woodstock, and become his disciple. His advice and spiritual guidance soothed her spirit.

Coltrane was by this stage deeply engaged with matters of the spirit. Her compositions began to bend psychedelically to musical traditions around the world, but remained flavored by the bebop environment of her Detroit youth. She recorded Journey in Satchidananda, named for her spiritual adviser Swami Satchidananda, in 1970. All of Coltrane’s early albums bear witness to her exploration of mythology and religion, particularly from Egypt and India, the latter of which she visited several times in the 1970s. But it’s Journey in Satchidananda that pays full tribute to the transformation that she underwent in the late 1960s—as a human being and artist.

As that crystalline harp makes so immediately clear, this is a record as much about the soul as it is about skilled orchestration. The clue is in the title: it’s a journey. Coltrane takes us across uncharted territory in jazz composition, drawing from multiple cultures and diverse instruments, but she also shows us emotion in motion. Because she refuses to stay in one key, instead treating the album’s themes as a set of recurring melodic shapes, the very texture of Journey is defined by transition, process, and flow. Its music has no beginning or end. Instead, as the first bars of the opening track demonstrate, Coltrane is working with the principle of looping and transcendence.

You should listen to Journey beginning to end while lying on the ground with your eyes closed, because those are the best conditions for performing the kind of visualization that Alice Coltrane’s liner notes request: “Anyone listening to this selection should try to envision himself floating on an ocean of Satchinandaji’s love,” she wrote, “which is literally carrying countless devotees across the vicissitudes and stormy blasts of life to the other shore.”

And so I spread myself out over the floor of my apartment until I felt like a conduit between the earth below and the universe above. The record opens with three droning tamboura notes, anchoring the title track. The three-note phrase looped around, holding me inside it, while a soft and well-assured bassline spread out beneath. Then Alice enters. Within the theme played on the tamboura—a long-necked string drone instrument with an almost reedy timbre—her harp sounds like a sprite, or a child set free after a long confinement. It dances upwards and downwards unselfconsciously, as if nobody is watching. With my eyes closed, it sounded like a beam of light on water.

When the legendary free jazz pioneer Pharoah Sanders joins, his saxophone melody could go anywhere, since Cecil McBee’s bass is so steady (McBee by this time had played with Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, and Freddie Hubbard). On this track as on the next four, dissonance is a place to visit but not to stay. Every top melody is an exploration, but Coltrane’s orchestration always provides a stable and repetitive place of return. That drone-and-bass texture comes from McBee and the tamboura, played by a musician credited only as “Tulsi,” while at the other end of the register Sanders’ sax and Vishnu Wood’s oud join Coltrane’s harp in a kind of sparkling, freeform dance.

The orchestration is broad and deep, unmistakably influenced by Coltrane’s interest in South Asian tradition. Nothing as boring as chord progressions governs Journey. Instead, like John, Alice worked in the modal style, discarding functional harmony in favor of freely-chosen chords around a root note. The album’s harmony references Indian scales and other non-diatonic series, but mostly it runs off its own themes, like that opening three-note drone. Melodies wander across the record from instrument to instrument, and track to track. They recur, alter, and they play.

On track two, “Shiva Loka,” Alice’s harp grows stronger, unfurling into an own entity with its own character. The track is named for a goddess, the Dissolver of Creation. The three-note circle from track one is now a sonorous base, its resonance becoming thicker and more lively. The bells speed up and scatter over the music’s surface. The pulse is thicker too, taking us off the beat and into a real rhythm. It’s hard to dance while lying on the ground, but “Shiva Loka” makes that possible.

The groove continues in “Stopover Bombay,” a train rocking on its tracks. It’s only on “Something about John Coltrane” that things quiet down. Coltrane switches over to piano and it falls like rain, patterning the space with cool irregularity. When Sanders’ sax beings to scream, you hardly know whether he is laughing or crying. It’s a track animated by intense emotion that takes you in every direction there is. As it drew to a close, I felt as if I had been returned unharmed through a storm, back to the circle of tamboura that had protected me from the start.

In the final track, the live-recorded “Isis and Osiris,” we finally meet Alice’s sadness. Over 11 committed minutes, Vishnu Wood gives us an oud melody that sounds trapped inside the minor scale. The oud’s sound is sharp but resonant. He sobs and he trills, taking the record’s grief to a conclusive pitch. Then everything goes quiet, and the journey is over.

In the long moment before I peeled myself off the floor, I felt the spirit of Coltrane still touched by grief. It’s so hard to describe—to put into the language of words, rather than of sound—but among the record’s abundant mix of emotion, you can hear pain. There is no Journey without John; no Satchidananda without the Swami; no Swami without the grief. Instead of a binary split between music and life, or husband and wife, this record reveals that all these elements of Alice Coltrane’s life existed for her in an all-encompassing divine flow. His name may have cast a shadow over hers, but Alice Coltrane was not trying to escape it.

When I finally opened my eyes, a beam of sunshine flooded through my apartment. Like the cascading harp at the center of the album, the sunbeam seemed to say to me that art is the only thing that exists beyond death. Shadows don’t exist without light. Each defines the other. Alice Coltrane made Journey in Satchidananda from an in-between place, amid the unlocatable flow of different emotions, different lives, different traditions. Coltrane’s music is a journey, this record says, and a destination all of its own.

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