Photo by Sri Hari Moss
Filled with sorrow after the death of her husband in 1967, Alice Coltrane experienced visions, weight loss and insomnia before beginning on a path of Eastern spirituality. First she sought out the famed Woodstock festival-opening yoga adept Swami Satchidinanda (who’d begun on his own spiritual journey after the young death of his wife) and later the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba. Largely leaving the secular world and the music business behind by the mid-70s, Coltrane established her Vedantic Center spiritual community as a California 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in 1976. She took the name Turiyasangitananda (Sanskrit for “the bliss of God’s highest song”) and performed the swamini duties as the spiritual leader of the Sai Anantam Ashram which was established in Agoura Hills, California in 1983.
Encouraged by her children to buy a synthesizer, Coltrane performed devotional music during formal and informal Sunday morning ceremonies at the 48-acre monastery. It was also the first time that she would sing, because God had told her to. Solo and group chanting with community members was accompanied by her harp, organ and synthesizers, Eastern and African percussion, and handclaps. Over time this evolved into complexly structured compositions—traditional Vedic and Sanskrit mantras filtered through the sensibilities and nervous system of a great female African-American musical genius from Detroit who’d been raised on gospel—which Coltrane laid to tape with the assistance of her longtime studio engineer Baker Bigsby, who she’d worked with since 1972’s World Galaxy. Four cassettes—Turiya Sings, Divine Songs, Infinite Chants, and Glorious Chants—were privately released to members of the ashram from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. The music heard on these tapes was not made with any sort of commercial purpose in mind—apparently only a few hundred were ever duplicated—but solely for use by the members of the ashram, so that they could tap into the divine by way of the Swamini’s music—-described as sounding like “a flying saucer landing in Heaven”—any time they wanted to, just by popping a tape into their SONY Walkmans.
Tomorrow David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label will release a compilation culled from these rarely heard cassettes The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, the first installment in their World Spirituality Classics series. In my household, this is an event. When the album advance arrived in the post over the weekend, I’d already been impatiently looking forward to it for over a month. I’ve been an Alice Coltrane fanatic for many years—I’ve even been to the ashram, twice—and I’d already been all over the extensive press website that Luaka Bop had prepared for the release, but I didn’t want to listen to any of it before the record was in my hands. I’d requested a vinyl copy as I wanted to smoke a big fat joint, kick back in the dark with headphones on and fully absorb this epic bounty.
Photo by Sri Hari Moss
The packaging is stunning and sturdy—befitting and respectful of what’s waiting inside—with a gorgeous colorful photo of the matriarch Turiya, looking wise and beautiful in her orange robes, surrounded by members of the community, many of them children. The liner notes are exceptional, featuring quotes from several people who were involved with the ashram including her children and her great-nephew Steven “Flying Lotus” Ellison, a musical visionary in his own right. The vinyl pressing is particularly noteworthy, with Baker Bigsby having supervised the tape transfer from the original recordings and the exquisite 1/2 speed mastering done by Paul Stubblebine. You know how you can hold certain platters in your hands and just look at the grooves and know for certain you’re about to hear something that will sound really, really good? This is one of those records. If The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda doesn’t get nominated for all kinds of Grammy awards, then these awards would be meaningless. On every level—including, or even especially, the religious one—it’s an achievement.
Even if you are not a spiritually-minded person, it’s plain to see that this isn’t bullshit. Have a listen to the remarkable opening track “Om Rama”—isn’t this like being dropped into a frenzied ecstatic communal experience?
Luaka Bop will be mounting two concerts on May 21 as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival that will attempt to recreate the vibe of the ashram. A seven-member choir directed by Surya Botofasina, a Brooklyn-based keyboardist who was raised at the Shanti Anantam Ashram, will perform at sunset. Later that evening, Ravi Coltrane will lead a tribute to his mother’s accomplishments in jazz with an all-star band.
You can stream The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda in its entirety at the NPR website, although if you are so inclinced, I strongly recommend holding out for the vinyl.
An incredible nine-minute harp solo by Alice Coltrane.
Alice Coltrane plays John Coltrane’s “Impressions” with Reggie Workman and Roy Haynes in Warsaw, 1988 during a brief return to the concert stage at that time.
Alice Coltrane and Sandhya Sanjana from ‘Bombay and Jazz.’
Alice Coltrane as seen on her Los Angeles cable access program ‘Eternity’s Pillar’ during the 1980s
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
All the Secrets: Metzger interviews Flying Lotus for DAZED