Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Friday, 6 May 2011


Nina Simone once said: "Jazz is not just music, it's a way of life, it's a way of being, a way of thinking. I think that the Negro in America is jazz. Everything he does - the slang he uses, the way he talks, his jargon, the new inventive phrases we make up to describe things - all that to me is jazz, just as much as the music we play. Jazz is not just music. It's the definition of the Afro-American black."
Is Alice Coltrane's Lord of Lord's jazz? Certainly musicians who appear on jazz records are on Lord of Lords. Apart from Coltrane herself there is Charlie Haden on bass and Ben Riley on drums. But, perhaps surprisingly given her famous husband, there is no brass.Instead the trio of jazz musicians are joined by a string section consisting of four first violins, four second violins, four violas and four cellos.
The music that they make is not 'jazz' in a pure sense. Indeed it is a fruitless discussion to undertake to pin down what is and what is not jazz. My purpose is rather to point out the uniqueness of this record, not just as a record in the jazz idiom but as a record in any idiom.
Alice Coltrane was born Alice McLeod and had her musical upbringing in Detroit where she rubbed shoulders with the likes of Yusef Lateef, Kenny Burrell and Barry Harris.An accomplished pianist she had played for many years professionally when she met John Coltrane.
In some quarters she was blamed for the splitting up of Coltrane's 'classic quartet' but the truth seems to be that Coltrane was outgrowing the quartet format and his increasingly spirituality and interest in non-Western music were pushing him towards the further experiments that he would undertake in the last few years of his life. It was as much his quest for spiritual enlightenment as his music that influenced Alice - if the two could be separated.
When John Coltrane died Alice was bequeathed the rights to his recordings. This gave her a solid financial foundation and if she had wanted to, she need never have worked again.
Instead she entered into a deal with Impulse which allowed the label to release as yet unreleased works by her husband and for her to record in whatever way she wanted.
Initially with her first few releases she seemed to be continuing in the path of her husband. However, with each new release she was exploring more and more of her own musical consciousness.
Alice was one of the very few female musicians of the jazz avant garde and certainly the only one to lead her own groups. When I think of the 'new thing' or free jazz I tend to think of serious young men in suits and ties, of 'the struggle' and of attempts to violently break free from convention. Indeed many jazz musicians thought that women were not able to play, particularly instruments such as the sax and trumpet, in the same way as men.
I don't think that this casual sexism was particular to jazz in the sixties or even to music. However, most of the successful or critically praised female jazz musicians of the period were either singers or piano players. Alice's use of the harp was often criticised as a gimmick rather than an effort to bring new sounds to the jazz palete.
So, as well as being a woman in a very masculine world, and a woman who did not need the help, financial or otherwise or men, Coltrane was also a very spiritual person.

In 1969 Alice began to attend lectures by Swami Satchidananda. By 1975 she had founded the Vedantic Center. Her music began to evolve along more eastern and spiritual lines until, by the late 70s she was recording only her interpretations of bhajans or Indian devotional songs.
It would, I think, be wrong, however, to say that her music on this record was only related to eastern spirituality. Her earlier experiences in the Baptist Church are clear in the final track, Going Home. The linear notes say: "Going Home is a gospel-orientated spiritual that is sung in homes and churches throughout the United States today. It was one of my parent's favourite songs." However, she goes on to say: "Gospel and Spiritual music are some of the greatest Attributes of the Creator to have been bestowed abundantly upon the children of the Nile i.e. African Americans". And the link between the Baptist Church, Egyptology and eastern spirituality is made!
I think this record bring together many of the different strands of her life. The use of repetitive almost drone-like patterns seems to emulate Indian chants, most notable in the track Lord of Lords, the inclusion of Gospel and Spiritual music links, explicitly back to her youth, and the inclusion of a version of Stravinsky's Firebird not only echoes the composer's attempts to link jazz and classical music but could also refer to his  influence on her husband's music and indeed that of Charlie Parker who was known to carry a copy of the Firebird Suite with him.
I don't know how this record was made but I love this quote from producer Ed Michel about her recording style in general: "She would usually play something.At that period, especially among the New York players, they thought of themselves as pretty free guys. That was where it was headed. You would suggest a harmonic environment, with a bass figure, and open it up from there .... Especially in the beginning she would do that. She shared that desire to take whatever form existed and find a place where it would naturally, organically open up into what was a tremendously empowering space for musicians who had the capacity to deal with it. It was an astonishing experience. A lot of LA studio string players, who were symphony guys, when they first encountered it, thought 'wow, what's going on here?' and then ate it up. They loved it."
A great, spiritual record, this is not one for people who want to dance or even nod their heads. It is however, as 'way out' as any horn-led free assault you will ever come across.

If you are interested in Alice Coltrane this book is recommended.: Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane


  1. this is great thanks

  2. Glad you liked it
    Thanks for reading