mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns for The Butter can be found here.
My music collection has diversified over recent years. I blame it on people, if such a wondrous thing can be “blamed” on anyone. But having met many different people over the years, both online and off, I can say that the expansion of one’s music library is a fantastic side effect of being social, of being open to people—something that’s coming easier to me the more I do it. I like to think of my musical evolution in stages, or new waves.
A significant wave occurred between the years of 1998 and 2002, which I mentioned briefly in my Liner Notes column on Yasiin Bey’s Black on Both Sides. Since then, the waves have been smaller and more frequent, with introductions to Joy Division, The Mars Volta (and At The Drive-In and ANTEMASQUE), and FKA twigs—even Beck makes an appearance in my collection with Morning Phase (before Morning Phase beat out Beyoncé for 2015’s Grammy Album of the Year award).
I like to think I’m this open to new music because of my earlier discovery of jazz. I’m not sure if the connection is sound logically, but it makes sense in my head: the ad-libs, the improvisation, the creative freedom, the way in which the music demands attentiveness. In my mind, if you can listen to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew in one sitting, then you’re probably apt to listen to anything and perhaps find some joy. (Full disclosure: I love Bitches Brew, but it’s been a long time since I heard it.)
My fascination with jazz comes and goes, often replaced with more popular music. Still, around this time last summer, I wanted to dive back in and decided to give Alice Coltrane a try. Various people had described her music to me as “wild” or “out there” or even “transcendent”—of what, I was uncertain. And admittedly, my curiosity at first centered, briefly, on her husband John—specifically, his well-documented spiritual journey and transformation, in body (giving up alcohol and kicking his drug habit), in soul (a recommitment to his religious beliefs), and in music.
There’s a photo of John sitting down, saxophone in hand, thinking contemplatively with a fist covering his mouth. In the background, sitting at what appears to be a piano, is young Alice. There was something about the image that went against the prevailing theory that John just sort of stumbled into a spiritual reawakening, or that its origins were unknown due to his untimely death in 1967.
The answer seemed to be sitting right next to him at the piano. Or part of the reason. I don’t know if the simple act of a person entering your life can, in and of itself, trigger some kind of evolution. Sources of inspiration—human or otherwise—tend to be catalysts. There’s truth in the belief that you can’t change a person. People have their own motivations, their own agendas, for doing (or not doing) the things they do.
To say Alice was the sole reason for John’s transformation is a little off for two reasons: it presumes John didn’t want to make the changes himself, and it suggests that Alice’s sole purpose was to be by John’s side, to wake him up, and help usher in the final productive years of his career and life. Perhaps it’s best to say that John wanted and pursued wholesale changes in his life—changes that precipitated the arrival and marriage to Alice. I can understand it. I see it.
Yet this is where conversations and essays and articles on Alice Coltrane tend to derail themselves. To write about Alice is to separate her from John (apologies for taking so long to do so). A pianist, organist, harpist, and composer in her own right, Alice’s musical career—coupled with her own spiritual journey and transformation—superseded John’s output by forty years. Which brings me to my first exposure to her work, around September of last year.
Music, much like literature, finds us when we need it, or arises and serves as puzzle pieces to greater connections we make in our heads and hearts. Love, personal evolution, and creative focus: these three ideas were on my mind as I searched online for “best Alice Coltrane album to start with.”
The Internet seemed to unanimously suggest the 1971 classic, Journey in Satchidananda. Purchased without a second thought via iTunes, Journey… first made its impact on me with its titular track. Cecil McBee is credited as the bass player for the opening track, and so—McBee with a haunting, earth-deep bass line, setting the tone for a piece of music that is equal parts standard and avant-garde, easy listening and deeply meditative.
Pharoah Sanders—saxophonist, and owner of one of the coolest names in music (albeit accidentally)—is first on the track, swiftly moving up and down and through scales with his soprano sax. I’m often not a fan of the soprano sax—blame Kenny G.—but its pitch makes sense in “Journey in Satchidananda” and throughout the album in general. Its light, high tone is inviting, devoid of the brash power behind the alto and tenor versions of the instrument. The sound is inviting, but the speed of the notes being played requires such close attention to what Sanders is and isn’t playing.
There is nothing “easy” or “inviting” about Alice as she begins her solo. Where her fingers open the titular track as she uses the harp to intro, and back, Sanders, those same fingers thrust “Journey…” into the difficult. The harp itself isn’t one I would’ve considered to be a jazz instrument, and being a jazz harpist was itself a rarity. This is to say the harp’s place in a jazz track—specifically as a solo—demanded immediate attention from me.
To hear Alice play with the hands of a guitar virtuoso, making an elegant instrument, typically reserved for more classical music, sound powerful and experimental and spiritual and cool is, indeed, a transcendent experience. The beauty of music played with live instruments is the violence necessary to create the harmony, the melody. To bang, pluck, blow into is to create a symbiosis between musician and instrument. The result is, despite not hearing a single lyric, a single word, listening to Alice is to listen to her call forth all the physical and soulful energy in her body.
The rest of the album—thirty-seven minutes in all—is a little less bold than the first track, but is equally rooted in the physical, the soulful, as “Stopover in Bombay” swings with Alice on the piano. “Something About John Coltrane” is a tribute to the bandleader’s husband—a standard that could easily take its place amongst John’s albums Blue Trane or perhaps Giant Steps. Pharoah Sanders, channeling his deceased collaborative partner, pays great respect to Coltrane’s sound without attempting to replicate him. Alice, once again on piano, plays while channeling a bit of Thelonious Monk, who collaborated with John during his early recording career in the 1950s.
In all, Journey in Satchidananda is both textured and easily accessible—understandable that my search results all recommended this album as an introduction into Alice Coltrane’s discography. I’ve since added the albums Universal Consciousness and Lord of Lords to my collection, with so many more records to go. I have a lot to say about Alice—relative to and independent of John—and what activate personal and creative transformations, and how the right people can enter our lives at the right times, under the right conditions, to trigger, perhaps, an accelerated evolution. And maybe I’ll write more about Alice, both here and elsewhere.
For now, listening to Alice play is to hear what love, and the love of life, sounds like—it is a love that is for John, but is also clearly a love for something higher, something far less flawed and temporary than another human being. You can hear it in You’re Dead!, the latest album by Alice’s grand-nephew, Flying Lotus—a transcendental love reaching for more than the impermanence of our lives.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.