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The Coltrane Religion: Alice & John's Musical & Spiritual Legacy
Event detail at The Ecstatic World of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Knockdown Center, 52-19 Flushing Ave. in Maspeth, NY, US on 21 May 2017. Photos by Carys Huws and Krisanne Johnson
Event detail at The Ecstatic World of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, part of Red Bull Music Academy Festival, at Knockdown Center, 52-19 Flushing Ave. in Maspeth, NY, US on 21 May 2017. Photos by Carys Huws and Krisanne Johnson

The Coltrane Religion: Alice & John's Musical & Spiritual Legacy

On Sunday the Red Bull Music Academy concluded its annual festival in New York City with a tribute to Alice Coltrane.

Titled "The Ecstatic World of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda" the event included both an afternoon and evening performance, with the latter led by her son, Ravi Coltrane. Prior to the show starting, I came across a small pamphlet entitled "Sai Anantam Bhajan Songbook," which was made up of Hindu devotional songs. Serendipitously, as I flipped through the pages the first hymn I came across was "Om Namah Turiyasangitananda."

"Obeisances to Turiyasangitananda, our divine teacher. Worshipping at the Feet of the Guru is like worshipping at the Feet of God," a translation of the hymn read. As Ravi performed selections of his mother's music throughout her career I thought about Alice the spiritual leader and teacher, a woman whose artistry explored the bond between music and spirituality in a way that was just as captivating as it was terrifying.

Both Alice and her husband, John Coltrane, were fascinated with this bond.

"I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life," John said in the liner notes of his A Love Supreme album. "At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music."

Following the release of A Love Supreme, John's life became wholly dedicated to the creation of music that reflected this newfound devotion. Albums became more experimental and free-form; John ascended to musical soundscapes unexplored before him, fearless in his pursuit of reaching a higher plane of existence through his music, guided by the word of God. In 1966, during an interview in Japan, John was asked what he hoped to be in five years, to which he responded: "A saint." He died the following year at the age of 40

Although a talented artist in her own right, to not contextualize Alice's work following John's death would be dismissing an uncommon bond entirely— a boundless adventure of not only revered musicians but as intimate friends and infatuated lovers. Alice was devastated by the death of her husband, refusing to eat or sleep, claiming to suffer from hallucinations. However, after meeting the Indian religious leader Swami Satchidananda during a late-sixties tour of the states, Alice immersed herself in the teachings of Hinduism and overcame the suffering that she later described as "tapas," a Sanskrit term signifying a period of trial and tribulation that is intended to cleanse and enhance a person's spirit.

Through the teachings of Satchidananda, Alice discovered herself through the concept of self-realization — the notion that a person's soul is not different than gods. "It just means you go to your fullest and highest potential and not be limited by some tenets of some doctrine that says we come here, here's the minister, and we pay our tithes and go back to our home or our job or business or whatever and do everything you want," Alice explained during a 1988 radio interview.

But Hinduism also allowed the widow to continue the adventure alongside her late husband, carrying on his musical and spiritual legacy while creating one of her own. Her debut solo album, A Monastic Trio, was a tribute to John, the nine-track release exploring Eastern sounds and pitting them against the sounds of Western blues, resulting in beautifully captivating compositions that showcased Alice's abilities as a bandleader and composer. As Britt Robson wrote in his piece, Universal Consciousness: The Spiritual Awakening of Alice Coltrane, "Her first three releases are appropriately the music of someone who is not John Coltrane but who loves him and cherishes his art."

Then, Alice seemed to truly find her musical and spiritual self. A month before traveling to India alongside Satchidananda, she recorded Journey in Satchidananda, a five-track piece that found Coltrane delving deeper into Eastern sounds. The harmonic drone of Tulsi's tambura, a long-necked plucked string instrument common in Indian music, can be heard throughout. The instrument arguably serves as a foundation for Alice and her cohorts, illuminating the world of music Coltrane would excavate, cultivate and nourish from that point on.

Following Journey in Satchidananda, was what many fans and critics consider to be Alice's magnum-opus — 1971's Universal Consciousness. The six track work marks the addition of "Turiya (the Sanskrit word for "pure consciousness") in Alice's name, celebrating both Alice's past and present, as she blends her gospel and jazz upbringing with both Eastern and otherworldly sound Even two tracks from the album, "Hare Krishna" and "Sita Rama," are based on traditional chants.

Ultimately, this musical and spiritual exploration culminated in Alice and her family moving to California, where she established the Vedantic Center in 1975. Later on, she became the spiritual director of Shanti Anantam Ashram, which was established by the Vedantic Center in 1983, where she performed formal and informal devotional ceremonies and ultimately created original melodies from the traditional chants, experimenting with synthesizers that became an integral part of her religious music. These original melodies only released to members of the ashram on cassettes are the basis for the recently released compilation album World Spiritual Classics: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda.

The celebration of Alice's music concluded with Ravi's ensemble performing alongside a group of Sai Anantam singers, Ravi's soprano saxophone accompanying vocal harmonies that were absolutely mesmerizing. Alice, like John, was always preoccupied with the beyond — the universality of existence. That curiosity is what pushed Alice to create the music that she did, unrelenting in her experimentation and steadfast at venturing into the unknown for as long as she could.