Coltrane’s long been overshadowed by her husband, but she’s increasingly making inroads into the hipster canon.
Joe Henderson’s The Elements isn’t one of the strongest entries in the post-John Coltrane spiritual jazz catalog, but it checks off a lot of the boxes: pseudoscientific concept; acidhead poetry (“yesterday was/tomorrow never is”); extensive use of Indian instruments. Henderson worked in hard bop and fusion before spending his late career as a beloved interpreter of the standards. He didn’t do much else like this, and it’s likely he was guided to this project not through any divine vision but for the chance to branch out with players who were doing new and interesting things—and perhaps to find a new audience in the process.
Perhaps Henderson didn’t have his heart fully in this new direction. Alice Coltrane, his prime collaborator here and contributor of a number of instruments, certainly did. In an era where musicians changed in and out of spiritual affiliations like new clothes, Coltrane committed to Vedanta with such zeal she eventually dropped out of jazz to found an ashram and make devotional tapes (hard to find, but very good) for her followers. She shapes the sound of the record, seeding the sides of the stereo field with blooming harps, droning tamburas and distant, playful piano trills.
This is a rare Coltrane appearance as side-woman. She tends to dominate—not through ego or through taking up too much space with her instrument, but because she’s usually the one in the room with the most ideas. Because of this, The Elements sounds more like a Coltrane record than a Henderson record. But even she might not be an immediately recognizable musical presence. Rather she evokes something more important than the sudden shock of recognition: a certain vibe, benevolent and psychedelic but still in perpetual turmoil.
The record is structured around the four classical elements. The theme is the album’s main weakness. It reduces the record to a puzzle. You end up focusing less on the music itself and more on how the music might resemble its corresponding element. You might be disappointed by “Air” and “Earth” because they don’t resemble either, even though they’re exciting and sprightly pieces of music on their own. You might prefer “Fire” and “Water” because the former is full of kinetic motion and the latter surrounds Henderson’s instrument with globules of echo. Meanwhile, albums like A Love Supreme and Alice’s Transfiguration ask bigger and more abstract questions of the listener and, as such, reward more thought and interpretation.
But it’s a fine listen. It sounds good: the arrangements are great, the playing’s wonderful, and though Coltrane shapes the sound, no one takes up too much room and everyone’s voices blend together into a common music. These are astral jams; they must have been fun.
Coltrane’s long been overshadowed by her husband, but she’s increasingly making inroads into the hipster canon thanks to a persuasive Pitchfork article and Luaka Bop’s acquisition of her ashram tapes. It might seem odd that Concord Records would decide to dig up this one, where she’s relegated to the background. The most likely reason is simply that it’s out of print, but her catalog is so rich that a comprehensive reissue campaign is in order. Superior Viaduct got a few out of the way already, but they were odd choices: the early harp-centric A Monastic Trio, the violent Universal Consciousness, John collaboration Cosmic Music. Many of her masterpieces remain niche concerns, and the first label to reissue them would be a smart one.