Alice Coltrane – Translinear Light

The Impulse! record label in the early and mid-1970s was home to a few jazz musicians interested in spiritual sounds. The output varied greatly, from the free-jazz blowouts of Sun Ra and sax giants Albert Ayler and John Coltrane (posthumously-released recordings), to the more tranquil African- and Asian-influenced explorations of Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane. As the years have passed the label has become more mainstream, in contrast to those halcyon days of side-long tenor sax flights and searching meditative psalms.

However, the latest release from Alice Coltrane has brought it all full circle. When she was the pianist in husband John Coltrane’s band, the recordings captured an even greater push away from standards, and towards the more searching and spiritual tunes that John penned.

While those interpretations were often dizzyingly intense, polytonal and dissonant, Ms. Coltrane’s interpretation of those same tunes as well as her original material recorded in the decade after John’s death were often much more tranquil. Ms. Coltrane left the jazz world at the end of the 1970s to focus on the spiritual path that those recordings hinted at.

Having been out of the public eye for the most part of 20 years hasn’t had a deletorius effect on Ms. Coltrane’s music. This recording, “Translinear Light” seems to pick up where she left off.

The first statement sets the tone for the recording. The Wurlitzer organ she again uses on several of the tunes has a tone that will sound odd to many seasoned jazz listeners. Some of the pitch bends made me wonder if she was communicating with Sun Ra’s spirit…

A reading of the old spiritual “Walk with Me” starts with Ms. Coltrane’s huge Godspelized chords. The other players in this trio, James Genus on bass and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums have no trouble in following her in and out of conventional rhythms.

“Translinear Light” is the first cut to feature Ms. Coltrane’s son, Ravi Coltrane, on soprano sax. The mother / child duo introduce the tune for the first couple of minutes, with the ringing tones of the piano sustaining into eternity. When she hits these full, right-hand mid register chords, anchoring them with a crashing left hand you would think the earth would open up right in front of you.

Ravi’s reading of his mother’s tune “Jagadishwar” is arresting. The straight synthesizer backing takes some getting used to, but Ravi is most certainly pouring forth with ideas — so much so that you start to froget that the synth instrument is the same one that ruined so many other jazz dates in the 1980s.

One of the highest points on this record is the reading of “This Train.” Bassist Charlie Haden and percussionist Jack DeJohnette set up an undeniable groove for Ms. Coltrane’s outerspaceways take on the old spritiual. This is no standard read, by any measure. Her approach to the Wurlitzer stands in contrast to her pianistic approach. This instrument is played like a sax, with the emphasis on the melodic line, rather than in harmonic movement. Apparently, she reserves all of that for the VERY full voicings she pulls from the acoustic piano.

The synth comes out again to accompany Ms. Coltrane’s other reed-playing son, Oran Coltrane. That artificial tone is more distracting in this case, but still not enough to drown out that joyous and airy alto sax.

Genus & Tain set up a groove reminiscent of those seeking, spiritual records the Impulse! label was host to in the 70s. The bass vamps and very subltle harmonic movement (almost static, really) recall not only Ms. Coltrane’s early 70s works, but also references some of John Coltrane’s experiments with Middle-Eastern tonalities and forms in the early sixties. (Starting perhaps with the famous quartet’s take on “My Favorite Things.”)

Two John Coltrane penned tunes follow, one that was on the 1963 album of the same name, “Crescent,” and the other that was first recorded in 1966 after Ms. Coltrane joined the band, “Leo.” Her unique harmonic conception on piano is in full bloom on “Crescent;” the Wurlitzer and free drumming of DeJohnette show that at age 67, Ms. Coltrane is full of fire!

A positively gorgeous duo with piano and Haden’s bass create the other high point on this album. Her wide dynamic range and the clipping of some runs while letting others ring out give Haden a great deal of room for his own singular phrasing, tone, and thoughts.

The closing number is a unique insight into what has kept her busy since leaving the jazz world. Her own Sai Anantam Singers on percussion and vocals, plus her organ playing make this an uplifting and entrancing bit of album punctuation. It fades out at the end, leaving one with the impression that the tune, and by extension, Alice Coltrane’s music, will go on forever.