A portrait of Alice Coltrane hangs in the home of musician Purusha Hickson. Coltrane gave Hickson, a longtime member of her ashram, the photo before her death in 2007. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)
By the time Alice McLeod met her future husband John Coltrane in 1963, the classically trained musician with a background in gospel had already mastered bebop piano. Like John, she was looking to push jazz further.
“He really didn’t have to talk or instruct with the music," says Coltrane during the show. "He really didn’t have to do that. Just being around him, listening to him express his ideas musically, it really was very inspirational.”
John encouraged Alice to take up the harp — an instrument that long fascinated both of them. During a visit to a music store, he ordered one for her. It was delivered to the family’s home just weeks after John’s death. She mastered it well enough to play it on her debut 1968 album, a tribute to her late husband, called A Monastic Trio.
“One can only wonder what dedication that takes to get up to that level that she did so fast while still in mourning,” says jazz critic Ashley Kahn, who wrote the liner notes for a new Alice Coltrane retrospective, Spiritual Eternal — The Complete Warner Bros. Studio Recordings, which collects her three studio albums recorded for Warner Bros. shortly after her move to Southern California from New Jersey.
“The only way to explain it is cosmic intervention or really, really deep dedication,” says Kahn, speaking from his home in New York.
The harp would become a fixture of Alice Coltrane’s subsequent albums, including the three studio sets recorded for Warner between 1975 and 1978.
The harp, the same one purchased for her by John Coltrane, and her piano sit where they have for decades: in the front room of the Coltrane family home on a spacious semi-rural property in Woodland Hills, where the family resettled.
“That’s the harp, and I took the cover off for you. Because we need to see it sometimes,” says daughter Sita Michelle Coltrane, a jazz vocalist and eldest of four Coltrane children. Sita Michelle lives there now with her family.
Sita Michelle remembers making the move from New Jersey to the new and wondrous world of Southern California in the early 1970s. She’d sometimes join her mom in the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, playing hand percussion and chanting on several songs inspired by traditional Indian devotional songs, called bhajans.
"My brothers and me, we know a lot of bhajans because they’re like church hymns to us," says Coltrane. "Even though it was [in] Sanskrit we could sing them. It was part of our life."
Much of the music Alice Coltrane recorded for Warner during this period began taking shape at this home in Woodland Hills, inspired by a deepening exploration of Indian music, meditation and Hinduism.
“It goes all the way back to Africa. They were chanting mantras back in Africa,” says Purusha Hickson, a Camarillo-based yoga instructor and musician who performed on Coltrane’s three Warner Bros. albums. He also became one of the first people to join Alice Coltrane’s ashram.
“(Coltrane’s) coming up in the church, and then her association with the great John Coltrane. She brought all of that, along with her own deep connection with God,” says Hickson, speaking on the patio of his secluded poolside studio apartment overlooking some Ventura County vineyards.
“And even though she had some questionable musicians, speaking of myself,” he laughs, "it didn’t matter, it was not about that. She said, 'Bring your heart, bring that.' "
Glimpses of what was to come on these later recordings were already starting to appear in the 1970s at the Warner Bros. studio.
The family's new life in Southern California and Coltrane’s blossoming spirituality are reflected on the song ‘Om Supreme’ from the album Eternit — her first "L.A." record for Warner. On it, Coltrane evokes what she perceived as the spiritual forces that drew her out West to begin life anew.
The song includes the mantra-like chanting of a small chorus: “When I told you to come to California / you knew I would meet you in California / When I told you to come to California / you knew I would meet you in California / CALIFORNIA, IN CALIFORNIA!”
Eternity is largely driven by Coltrane’s surging Wurlitzer organ outfitted with an analog synthesizer that Ashley Kahn says enabled her to bend and stretch the notes much like an in-your-face tenor saxophonist.
“[It sounds] very Eastern, the way that a sitar player loves to bend the strings, that modulating tone that she’d hit,” explains Kahn.
“It would bend a little bit further. That really becomes part of her sonic vocabulary with the Warner (Bros.) period.”
Two more studio albums for Warner would follow in quick succession: Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana in 1976 and Transcendence the following year. They’d be the furthest yet that Coltrane would get from conventional jazz. Instead, the albums are looser and deeply rooted in gospel and Indian music. There are fewer "professional" jazz musicians in the mix, and the albums are awash with exotic ensemble percussion and chanting choruses.
Purusha Hickson says the recording sessions were joyful. Even Carlos Santana dropped in for one session, happy to play some simple hand percussion after his guitar broke. Hickson says Coltrane was an exacting bandleader, but one who encouraged musicians to take risks and find their own groove.
“More like a village musician when there is a celebration, just picking up a drum or clave because you want to participate in the celebration,” says Hickson, clearly still deeply affected by his experiences and decades-long friendship with Coltrane.
“Our participation was chanting Sanskrit, traditional mantras that have sound vibration qualities. They are uplifting for the mind and spirit.”
By the end of Coltrane’s Warner Bros. contract, there were new priorities; the founding of a spiritual retreat and ashram, pursuit of purely devotional music and the everyday demands of raising four kids on her own. Daughter Sita Michelle says Alice still did the occasional concert, but at select venues only. The long nights in smoky jazz clubs were over.
“They were smoking then, the alcohol. This is now a person that’s taken spiritual vows, devoted herself to God,” says Coltrane of her mother. “It really wasn’t a (music) where you shake your hips. It all fit with the lifestyle she’d chosen.”
As Alice Coltrane suggested to NPR host and jazz pianist Marian McPartland on Piano Jazz in 1981, a new musical phase was taking shape, one that would take her even further from jazz and Western music altogether.
“I am not currently contracted, and since the Warner Bros. contract finalized, that was in 1978 when I made the last (live) double record album (Transfiguration) for them.”
The music Alice Coltrane would create over the ensuing 25 years was devoted almost entirely to her spiritual life. She’d release just one more commercial jazz album, Translinear Light, in 2004 accompanied by her son, the acclaimed jazz saxophonist and composer Ravi Coltrane. She died three years later at the age of 69.
Coltrane's explorations may have alienated some jazz purists over the years. But they’ve won generations of new fans and inspired musicians (including saxophonist Kamasi Washington, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and indie rock veterans Yo La Tengo) far beyond the world of jazz.
'Alice Coltrane: Spiritual Eternal — The Complete Warner Bros. Studio Recordings' was released Sept. 7 by the Real Gone Music label.