'Praise Songs: Alice Coltrane in Sanskrit' by Hua Hsu, The New Yorker (24 April, 2017)

In the most recent issue of The New Yorker there’s a wonderful short essay on Alice Coltrane by Hua Hsu to mark the reissue of ‘World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’ (Luaka Bop) next month. The print magazine title is ‘Praise Songs’ (online it’s re-named ‘Alice Coltrane’s devotional music’).  

Hsu speaks of how he discovered the music of A. Coltrane on a blog ‘specialising in obscure “celestial” music’. He then adds: ‘I love anything that dares to try and describe the wholeness of the universe, and (that he is) a sucker for harps.’

‘When I listened to “Rama Katha,” Hsu writes, ‘I was startled by its quiet and its patience.’ Love his unexpected use of the word startled there. ‘It was so intimate and honest I almost felt that I shouldn’t be listening. I couldn’t tell if its ambient drones were the result of the poor digitisation of a hissing cassette or part of the music itself.'

(This amateur fan-made video for 'Rama Katha' includes the description: Published on Dec 5, 2016, filmed 12/5/16 in nyc and 6/14/15 in france, angel footage: mom, music: alice coltrane)

Hsu concludes his writing on Ms Coltrane with the following words: ‘Alice was backed only by her keyboard, which flickered and whirred from a comfortable distance. Her voice – never the instrument she was famous for – resounded with untroubled confidence. This wasn’t music that was pushing its makers and listeners to a higher plane. Alice was already there.’

The following extract, which is clearly written from a place of real connection with the work of Ms Coltrane resonated with me, not only for its beautiful prose:

Alice’s music was solemn and heavy, filled with stormy passages that felt like nervous attempts at purification—a struggling kind of transcendence. Like much of the more forward-thinking jazz of this era, it was music that felt in a hurry to get somewhere. Every now and then, though, a glistening sweep of harp would cut through the dirge, sounding the possibility of glory in the wreckage. John’s death was a theme, but so was a desire to surrender her ego, and to offer herself to something greater. In the ten years that followed, she released about a dozen albums on Impulse! and Warner Bros., many of them masterpieces that imagine a meeting point between jazz and psychedelic rock, gospel traditions and Indian devotional music. And then, after the release of “Transfiguration,” in 1978, she seemed to disappear.

Alice Coltrane, A Monastic Trio (Impulse! 1968) Personnel: Alice Coltrane, harp and piano; Pharaoh Sanders, flue, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Rashied Ali, drums; Ben Riley, drums.