Culture  /  Music Review

The Visions of Alice Coltrane

In the years after her husband John’s death, the harpist discovered a sound all her own, a jazz rooted in acts of spirit and will.

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"Journey in Satchidananda"

Alice Coltrane

In the wake of John’s passing, Alice said that God sent her visions of her deceased husband. Spurred by those visions, she put herself through a series of spiritual tests, called “tapas,” in the yogic tradition of austerity. She fasted for days and sometimes slept only two hours a night. Her weight dropped to 95 pounds. She underwent periods of self-harm—cutting her skin, burning herself—which taught her “tolerance, patience, stamina, strength of mind,” as she told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. As Alice saw it, the pain (physical and mental) was supposed to purify her spirit: These trials would force the sorrow to fade.

After her spiritual ordeal, Alice sought further guidance from the guru Swami Satchidananda. He taught her to approach her work with a sense of detachment—or, as she later reflected: “Detached doesn’t mean disliked, it just means that I don’t want this project to consume me. It will if I allow it.” Enriched by Satchidananda’s schooling, she recorded Journey in November 1970 and dedicated the album to both him and Coltrane.

Alice Coltrane: The Carnegie Hall Concert features the pianist, harpist, and bandleader performing songs from Journey at the famed New York venue just a week after the album’s release. Music from the show surfaced in 2018, when the reissue label Alternative Fox released the 28-minute live performance of “Africa” as a single LP. The new double album marks the first time the full concert recording has appeared.

With a large-scale ensemble featuring Kumar Kramer and Tulsi Reynolds on harmonium and tamboura; Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp on saxophones; Jimmy Garrison and Cecil McBee on bass; and Ed Blackwell and Clifford Jarvis on drums, it’s a powerful set demonstrating the full breadth of Alice’s artistry, beginning with her own compositions—the quieter, more reflective “Journey in Satchidananda” and “Shiva Loka”—and ending with the more propulsive and volatile songs borrowed from John’s catalog, such as “Africa” and “Leo.” The Carnegie Hall Concert found Alice at a crossroads in her life and career, the moment when her personal perseverance led to a creative renaissance. What happened after Journey reset the critical assessment of Alice and her work. No longer was she just “John Coltrane’s wife”: From 1971 until her death in 2007, she was considered one of the foremost pioneers of an emerging genre, spiritual jazz.