#446: Journey in Satchidananda, Alice Coltrane
Okay, everybody, let’s go from weird to weirder.
If you’re like me and woefully underinformed on jazz, you may not have even heard of Alice Coltrane, who, yes, was John Coltrane’s wife. Well, she can join the club of famous rock star wives that were more advanced than their husbands but never got the recognition they deserved.
When Alice met John Coltrane for the first time, they already had separate, independent musical careers. (John was also married, but I digress.) Though John had been a heroin addict and alcoholic (as had Alice’s first husband, also a jazz musician), the two of them became deeply spiritual in the mid-Sixties, influencing Coltrane’s own A Love Supreme in 1965, the year the two were married. But two years later Coltrane was dead of liver cancer, a consequence of all the hard living he’d done before he found himself.
After John’s death, Alice Coltrane suffered. She lost weight and hallucinated, greatly worrying all her friends. Then she was introduced to Swami Satchidananda.
If you recognize that name it’s because Satchidananda was essentially the person who popularized yoga in the US. He spoke at Woodstock, then opened up a center in San Francisco, and later Yogaville in Virginia. In the Nineties, he would be embroiled in a sexual assault scandal that seems to be par for the course for some of these yoga gurus, but was never really punished for anything. (Disclaimer: I do yoga but just for the stretchies.)
Alice Coltrane studied with Swami Satchidananda intensely before this record’s release in 1971, and established her own spiritual organization called the Vedantic Center in 1975. This was then released on the precipice of her life completely changing directions. You can hear the edge on title track “Journey In Satchidananda.” It’s dark yet airy, droning yet musical — it’s so far ahead of its time I wonder if we’ve still not caught up to it. Closer “Isis And Osiris” was similarly stunning to me, sounding like it was recorded from the innermost sanctum of a haunted tomb. Also, I cannot get enough of her harp. What a cool instrument to put onto a jazz record.
But this album has only one foot in yoga-land — the other is still steeped in jazz. “Something About John Coltrane” is based on musical themes that her husband created. I went back and listened to parts of A Love Supreme after this, and while I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where Alice lifted these themes from, it did sound like him. I thought that was a kind of beautiful way of keeping a part of her husband alive, filtered through her own perspective.
Elsewhere, Eastern mysticism collides with straight jazz. “Shiva-Loka” is one of the best ways that Pharoah Sanders is utilized, inserting some much-needed saxiness onto this otherwise very chaste record. And “Stopover Bombay” is the most grounded of all, straight lounge jazz that fits weirdly perfectly among all the rest of these lofty, airy ragas.
Honestly, I might have transcended during this album. Do you ever hear something from the past that just astonishes you? Like, “I didn’t know people were brilliant back then, too?” That’s what listening to this record felt like to me. Karla Clifton loves spiritual jazz — who knew?