Revisiting Alice Coltrane's Lost Spiritual Classics

As a new collection of the late artist's private ashram recordings surfaces, those close to her shed light on an overlooked chapter in her career

Associates and relatives of the late Alice Coltrane reflect on the religious music she made in her later years, featured on a fascinating new release. Credit: Sri Hari Moss

"The world wasn't ready then and it's not ready now, unless you're talking about intergalactic top ten hits," Carlos Santana says of the music of Alice Coltrane, with whom he made an album, the beatific Illuminations, in 1974.

But David Byrne's Luaka Bop label would beg to differ. On Friday the imprint will shed light on a previously shadowy phase in the life of the late jazz pianist and harpist – who was married to saxophone great John Coltrane from 1965 until his death in '67 – with the release of World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. The album features selections from a series of albums spanning from the early Eighties up until 1995, originally issued on cassettes passed out to members of Sai Anantam, the Southern California Vedic ashram Alice started in 1983. The religious music – consisting of chanting, percussion and Alice's soaring, soothing keyboards – arrives at a special time: a decade since her death and during a period in which people the world over seem desperately in need of spiritual uplift.

The compilation is also a welcome reminder of Alice Coltrane's place in jazz and music history. The Detroit-born musician, who rose to prominence as a member of John's last band and went on to release more than 10 albums of searching, often otherworldly sounds with jazz greats like bassist Ron Carter and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders backing her up, has been shouted out by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and had songs dedicated to her by the Jam's Paul Weller ("Song for Alice") and her grandnephew Flying Lotus ("Auntie's Harp"). Solange once featured Alice's "Turiya & Ramakrishna" on her website Saint Heron, and then there's Yo La Tengo, whose Twitter bio reads "a monastic trio" – a nod to Alice's 1968 debut of the same name.

"It's had a pretty monstrous effect on me," YLT bassist James McNew tells Rolling Stone of Coltrane's music. "I started playing upright bass a couple of years ago and I'm really bad at it. I'm like a toddler with that thing. ... But one of the first things that I latched onto was a record that I had known for a really long time but I found it to be very reassuring to my severe limitations on the instrument ... the Journey in Satchidananda album, which is such a patient record. Everything just unfolds so gently and physically reflects meditation. And I feel like listening to that record over and over again has helped, just, my life in so many ways, and it'll help yours, too."

That 1971 LP, Coltrane's best-known album and a cult classic, is named after Swami Satchidananda, who helped Alice explore her spiritual side starting in 1969. From there, she traveled to India, cut ties with the world of record companies after 1978's Transfiguration and started Sai Anantam in the early Eighties. Though many thought Coltrane had played her final notes – she wouldn't release another album commercially until 2004's powerful Translinear Light, which wound up being the final LP she issued during her lifetime – nothing could have been further from the truth. Not only had she continued playing, she had taken a new weekly gig: every Sunday at the ashram, with vocal and percussive accompaniment from its members. World Spirituality Classics 1 consists of studio versions of what would go down at these weekly rituals, which expanded on the musical ideas Alice had studied and employed prior to her life as "Swamini."

"The songs were a combination of traditional Hindi themes and melodies that my mother would orchestrate with her own jazz- and blues-influenced style," says Alice and John's son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. "She would accompany these songs and create new arrangements for them. And some of the tunes were her own compositions, using some of the standard chants and praising of this particular deity or this particular god. She would, again, create her own compositions with those words."

Michelle Coltrane, Alice's daughter from a previous marriage, remembers the ceremonies vividly. "It would begin with music," says Michelle, a singer. "Mother would just sit down at the organ and maybe she would just, for lack of a better term, freestyle. I would always say it sounded serious. Even though it was uplifting, it was very serious kind of tones. It was an organ where she used her feet – it had that bass on the bottom. It was so beautiful. And everyone would know when it was time to start a tune, because you play the melody. ... [Sings a melody] So we knew that was the song coming up. And someone would say 'page 32' for the visitors that were there. So that would be in Sanskrit on one side and English on the other. So we knew that that song was coming. ... Everyone would join in."

Importantly, these cassettes were also the first recordings to feature Coltrane's vocals, which were surprisingly bass-y. "It's deep," reflects Michelle. "She was 117 pounds. It was a lot of presence coming out of there."

Surya Botofasina, a pianist raised at Sai Anantam, is also doing his part to continue Coltrane's legacy – on May 21st in New York, at a tribute concert presented by Red Bull Music Academy, he will head up a performance that recreates the sounds and feel of Alice's weekly offering. (Ravi will also front a group on this night.) More than for her music even, Botofasina remembers Alice for her decency and modesty.

"She was the hardest person I have ever met to give a compliment to," says Botofasina. "She could play something so amazing. 'That was so beautiful what was played. That was so incredible what you did.' And you could say that to her and her response would be so quick to just basically say, 'Oh, no, that was the lord. That wasn't me.' That I find very rare and inspiring."

Santana understands Alice in a similar way. He sees her as having been on a mission to help people. Making music was merely her way of doing that.

"It was never for entertainment or show business," the guitarist says of the music Alice, as well as her husband, made. "The goal for Alice Coltrane and John Coltrane – the aim, the trajectory, the goal and the purpose – was always to uplift, transform and illumine human consciousness."