Pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane has often been overlooked and overshadowed by the massive presence and legacy of her husband John Coltrane, but in the decade after the latter's death in July 1967, she produced a body of work that stands on its own as among the best in American music, much less jazz.
Born Alice MacLeod in Detroit in 1937, Coltrane played in a club in Paris and studied there with the great Bud Powell. She also was an excellent vibraphonist and first gained notice in the Terry Gibbs band in the early 1960s. Briefly married to singer Kenny Hagood, perhaps best known for his vocals on the Birth of the Cool recordings led by Miles Davis in the late 1940s, she had a daughter, Michelle, with him, but the marriage soon ended.
Not long after meeting John Coltrane, Alice married him and the couple had three sons in short order and John adopted Michelle. Then, at the end of 1965, when McCoy Tyner left John's band, Alice stepped in as pianist and immediately gave the band a different feel and presence from Tyner's strong block-chord style to a more flowing and delicate way of playing.
A devotee of Hinduism, Coltrane gradually moved closer to an all-encompasing devotion to her music that promoted those religious concerns, but for several years she produced recordings that blended those elements with excellent jazz components, creating a unique hybrid, even for that experimental era.
The high point might well be her 1970 album, Ptah, the El Daoud. The title seems awfully dated, but the music hardly is. Regarding that title, Coltrane offered the explanation that "Ptah" is an Egyptian god, who was "one of the highest aspects of God. The reference to "El Daoud" deals with "the Beloved" and her use of it manifested a desire "to express and bring out a feeling of purification."
The title track begins with a steady march-like statement from the incomparable Ron Carter, who is best known for his years as a member of the Miles Davis Quintet from 1963 to 1968. Coltrane's piano and Ben Riley's drums then enter to establish the steady rhythm. Solos come from the dual horn section of Joe Henderson, always rock solid on the tenor and who was given the left channel throughout the recording, and Pharoah Sanders, also on tenor and on the right channel. Sanders was a member, with Coltrane, in her husband's last group in 1966 and 1967, when his music became its most experimental and adventurous.
Coltrane's piano playing, heavily in the modal framework, is light-fingered, fluid and permeating, reminding this listener of how drummer Roy Haynes would play. The pulse is not strong or powerful, but steady, persistent, rhythmic and melodic. It is also highly distinctive. Being one of the very few women instrumentalists to have a significant body of work, Coltrane created a way of playing that always impresses, without being overly flashy and showy.
In fact, her playing on the second track, "Turiya and Ramakrishna," is gorgeous, bluesy and soulful, sensitively accompanied by Riley's excellent brush work and Carter's higher register playing. Absent are Henderson and Sanders and this is Coltrane's showcase. Again, she plays with great feeling, fantastic control and fluidity and no bluster and Carter's solo is the embodiment of tastefulness and faithfulness to the tune.
"Blue Nile" then features Coltrane on the harp, on which instrument she masterfully plays while Henderson and Sanders provide a solid flute accompaniment. Again, Carter proves to be so adept at placing the right notes in the perfect spots during the course of the piece. This meditative piece manages to evoke real spirituality while keeping a steady jazz rhythm.
"Mantra" then passes the baton onto the horn players, who play their solos, but also intertwine their playing in an interesting, complementary and compelling way. The lengthy piece gives Henderson and Sanders plenty of room to demonstrate their ample talents and Sanders especially shows that his playing could be a lot more bluesy, soulful than he was known for earlier when his multiphonics and extreme upper register blowing got plenty of notoriety with John Coltrane's band.
Ptah, the El Daoud is a distinguished record from a great bandleader, a woman who maintained a high standard of performance when women rarely had the opportunity to be leaders. With excellent support from Sanders, Henderson, Carter and Riley, Coltrane created a masterpiece with this record.
Alice Coltrane: Ptah, the El Daoud (Impulse, 1970)
1. Ptah, the El Daoud 13:58
2. Turiya and Ramakrishna 8:19
3. Blue Nile 6:58
4. Mantra 16:33