These lesser-known records still feel like Alice whispering her secrets to us.
As the Alice Coltrane reissue campaign soldiers on, we enter the depths of the great musician’s catalog. The four records reissued by Superior Viaduct—Eternity (1976), Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana, Transcendence (both 1977), and the live Transfiguration (1978)—were her first for Warner Bros. after years on Impulse. They find her embracing the bhajan and kirtan forms of Hindu devotional song while opening up new worlds with her Wurlitzer organ. Of the four only Transfiguration is a true masterpiece, but because these curious collections of prayers (both sung and implied) are so uncompromising, so removed from the classic profile of great jazz albums—so totally her—it’s like we’ve been given a glimpse into something sacred.
Eternity is the least of the four and the most experimental in terms of Coltrane putting her new tools to the test on wax for the first time. It opens with her Wurlitzer, whose sound will be a constant across the album, but it solos meekly over a lush orchestral arrangement, never quite finding the right notes. It’s meant to be a Sketches of Spain sort of thing, but as we’ll learn later, that organ sound is better when it does the bulk of the sonic load-bearing. An arrangement of a section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is similarly staid, and “Om Supreme” is a test run for the Hindu-gospel fusion she’d make her m.o. throughout her Warner Bros. run. The best track is the rip-roaring “Los Caballeros,” whose Latin affectations still feel a bit hokey.
Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana will be the least accessible to most listeners just because it’s so reverent. It’s her first to be largely devoted to kirtan, and most of its sparks of genius come in the background: odd chords backing the Sanskrit chants, canny moments when the call-and-response repetition of the Hindu music starts to tangle limbs with black church music. The big draw, though, is “Om Namah Shivaya,” her best organ improvisation yet. The sound of her instrument changes in sudden, eerie, ramshackle ways, as if she’s accidentally switched the settings—or maybe something else has descended on the room and done it for her. At 36 minutes, half occupied by “Om,” Radha-Krsna moves most smoothly of the four as an album.
Transcendence, like Radha-Krsna, devotes half of its runtime to religious music and half to exploratory jazz. The lengthy orchestral compositions on the first half, especially “Radhe-Shyam”—one of the most sudden album openers I’ve heard, its strings seemingly mid-sentence as they start—are as exquisite as anything on her early epics like Journey in Satchidananda. We can easily see how her eye for architectural detail passed down to her nephew Flying Lotus. She plays the harp for much of the album, as she did on her Impulse albums, and it vaults through the air between its bearings like the arches in some decadent Gothic church. This material is stronger, though, than the bhajan that occupy the second half.
And then there’s Transfiguration. Recorded live at UCLA in April 1978, this is Coltrane’s most convincingly spiritual record. It seems to summon up a presence greater than itself through the sheer force of the sound she and the rhythm section that backs her kicks up. Music made of stained glass and filigrees is all good and fine, but there’s something about the simplicity of this record’s trio arrangement—Coltrane, bassist Reggie Workman, drummer Roy Haynes—that makes Transfiguration resonate in ways her other records don’t. Perhaps it’s because the actual sound takes up less space than the extra-sonic aspect of the music—the presence that seems to enter the room as they play.
The main attraction is “Leo,” a nearly forty-minute track written by her late husband John that occupies the second disc of the double LP. We hear Coltrane play a hymn on her organ, introducing the band and explaining how the piece came to be: “he felt a vibration,” she says of John, “and it was energy.” She sounds like a hippie grandmother until the notes of the hymn jostle against each other and the floor drops out from under us. The physical exertion we feel from the three musicians is exhilarating. The piece is sustained for so long at such a breakneck level of intensity we can read it as the musicians putting themselves through a physical ordeal in the service of something higher. Many ascetics fast or wander in the desert. Coltrane shreds.
Like John’s last recordings, which can be heard on the Olatunji Concert CD, Transfiguration is so extreme it feels like the logical limit to how far she can push the sound and form of jazz. It’s appropriate that she would retire from jazz after this record to live a quiet life as swamini of the Sai Anantam Ashram in Agoura Hills, California. The tapes of devotional songs she made for her followers during this period comprise some of her best music. They’re widely coveted, and when they’re inevitably reissued there will be much fanfare. But these lesser-known records, even now that they’re widely available, still feel like Alice whispering her secrets to us.