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Music

'Journey in Satchidananda': How Alice Coltrane created the most revolutionary jazz record of the 1970s

@SamWKemp

Those who stumble upon Alice Coltrane’s Journey In Satchidananda usually do so by chance. Despite being one of the most pioneering jazz musicians of her generation, she never gained the dizzying notoriety of her husband, John Coltrane, whose legacy continues to overshadow the work of his beloved wife.

For this reason and more, her albums are surrounded with a distinctly private aura, a tranquillity that is at its most abundant in her fourth solo album, released four years after her husband’s death in 1967. Bending modal jazz, African Indian blues, Indian classical, and Middle Eastern music, all stitched together with flourishes of jazz harp, Journey in Satchidananda sounds like nothing else released in the 1970s. Hell, it sounds like nothing else full stop. You can hear its astral tones in everything from Björk to Flying Lotus – the latter of whom just so happens to be Coltrane’s Great Nephew. And yet, despite its seminal influence, Alice Coltrane’s fourth studio offering remains one of the most enigmatic and mysterious jazz records around.

Born under an August sun in 1937, Alice Mcleod was raised in the east side of Detroit, which had become one of America’s industrial powerhouses following the first world war. Back then, it was a city of warehouses, factories. But amid the mechanical chomp of conveyor belts, another sound could be heard: jazz. Because, as well as being America’s manufacturing centre, Detroit was also home to some of the biggest names in bebop, serving as an incubator for some of the players who would define the landscape of American jazz in the late ‘1950s and ’60s, including Paul Chambers, Yusef Lateef and Elvin Jones. Alice’s family was itself very musical. Her mother, Anna, performed in the church choir, while her brother Ernest Farrow had developed a reputation as one of the best jazz bassists in the city. Her sister Marilyn, meanwhile, went on to become a songwriter for the Motown label.

Alice took up the piano and organ at an early age. As a teenager, she was invited to accompany Mt. Olive Baptist Church’s three choirs, and at 16, she was invited to perform with the Lemon Gospel Singers during services at Church of God in Christ. It was here, Franya J. Berkman writes in her biography of Alice Coltrane, that the blossoming jazz musician first experienced “unmediated worship at the collective level,” opening her eyes to music’s more mystical properties. By this time, Coltrane was already fascinated by spirituality, having experienced a number of out-of-body experiences as a child. But it wouldn’t be until a chance meeting with John Coltrane that her journey into the world of eastern philosophy would begin in earnest.

After relocating to Paris to study piano under the tutelage of Bud Powell, Alice returned to the States, quickly becoming a fixture of the New York jazz scene. John Coltrane met Alice for the first time in the legendary Birdland venue, where he saw her play the vibraphone. “I had an inner feeling about him,” Alice later recalled of that first meeting in 1963. “I was connecting with another message that I had perceived as coming through the music.” The pair soon fell in love and married in Juárez, Mexico, in 1965. During their short time together, the Coltranes raised a family, performed alongside one another, and began exploring a raft of meditative and yogic practices. According to Alice, it was John who introduced her to Eastern philosophies. “He liked to meditate and we used to meditate together,” she once recalled. “I think it started with him, because I was born into a Christian family…And it wasn’t so much a turning away from that, as it was a direction that I was given to follow”.

It’s easy to turn the relationship between Alice and John Coltrane into a story about a tutor and his disciple, but it was much more complex than that. Alice Coltrane’s interest in the world of Eastern philosophy – without which Journey in Satchidananda would not have been possible – is interlinked with the political, religious, and social upheavals of the early 1960s. With the rise of Afrocentrism and the Nation of Islam, there was a renewed interest in non-western modes of thought and how these might offer liberation from the entrenched racism of the United States. The Coltranes regarded spirituality as an essential part of the fight against oppression, just as they believed it to be a fundamental aspect of expression. “We studied the spiritual books and all, he never told me to read this or what do you think about it,” Alice once said. “We talked more about music, about a particular song or theory. We deliberated on those lines, never on spiritual subjects as much.”

With the death of her husband in 1967, Alice found herself at the beginning of a difficult new chapter. However, this period would also turn out to be one of intense spiritual awakening. Between 1968 and 1970, she embarked on an incredibly taxing regimen of meditation, abstinence, and self-harm. She lost over 20 pounds in weight and submitted herself to excruciating tests, one of which involved her holding her hand above a flame for so long that it succumbed to third-degree burns. At this time, she also took a vow of celibacy and refused to make music for commercial purposes, preferring the life of a private musician. Journey in Satchidananda, released in 1971, evokes all of the obsession, euphoria, and grief that defined this period in Alice’s life – not least because it features many of the musicians who made up her late husband’s band, including the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. With Cecil McBee and Charlie Haden on bass, Tulsi Sen Gupta on tamboura, Vishnu Wood on oud, Majid Shabazz on bells and tambourine, and Rashid Ali on drums, the result is an explosion of sonic colour underpinned by drones and shimmering percussive elements.

This utterly transformative record may not be talked about with the same stern reverence of Coltrane’s love supreme, but it is undoubtedly one of the most pioneering works of the early 1970s, standing in stark contrast to pretty much everything recorded before or since. At once explorative and profoundly healing, Journey in Satchidananda continues to offer a space of solace and contemplation so many years after its release.

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