Monday, February 23, 2015

Alice Coltrane: Transfiguration

From the death of her husband, the great John Coltrane, in 1967 until this riveting and spectacular live performance from Schoenberg Hall at the University of California, Los Angeles in April 1978, pianist, organist and harpist Alice Coltrane created a body of work that was largely under appreciated both for its technical and spiritual aspects.  First for Impulse! and then for Warner Brothers, her albums displayed a total humility and devotion to the energy of music as refracted through her Hindu beliefs.  Having compatriots who displayed every empathy and synchronicity with her concepts made her recordings consistently excellent.

Transfiguration is, perhaps, the culmination of that decade or so of exploration and is a staggering achievement on several levels.  First, it highlights Coltrane's mastery of the organ and piano in service to the music.  Second, she was able to showcase her compositions, six of the seven being originals, with the work of her late husband-- this latter being the epic "Leo," basing the twelve tones used in the piece with the signs of the zodiac.  Finally, she chose accompanists of the highest quality who put themselves fully into the spirit of the music, these being the always dependable bassist Reggie Workman and the sublime drummer Roy Haynes, both of whom had worked with John Coltrane.

Reviews have pointed out that Alice Coltrane's organ work reflects her upbringing and experiences as a church organist in her native Detroit and this would seem to be filtered through her movement through the jazz world and in her Hindu religion in the couple of decades since.  Her playing is fully immersed in the spiritual energy she channeled in her solo work and embellished by the totally sympathetic rhythm work of Haynes and Workman.  The title track was described by the leader as being something that "transforms every musical statement . . . from a mere expression of one's mental prowess and musical capabilities into an offering of love and devotion" to God.

Her work on piano is gorgeous and features much of the shimmering sounds, exquisite fluidity and lightness of touch that marked her work with her husband in 1966-67 and her solo work thereafter.  "One for the Father" is dedicated to John Coltrane and Alice  displays her talent for virtuosity without superfluous display.  Moreover, it displays classic and gospel influences that show how complex her work on the instrument could be.  On "Prema," there is a nine-piece overdubbed string section that could have proven to be distracting or out-of-place in other contexts, but here it blends and melds perfectly with the live performance.

The centerpiece of the album, however, is the 37-minute "Leo," which combines her mind-blowing technique on organ, the remarkable support and soloing of Workman and Haynes, the spiritual complexity of the twelve tone/zodiac structure established by John Coltrane and, it should be mentioned, the involvement of the fourth member of the ensemble, the ecstatic crowd, which shouted, screamed, and rapturously applauded throughout the recording, but especially on this piece.  That reaction showed that Alice Coltrane's emphasis on energy was entirely successful.

A word or two should be said about Workman and Haynes.  Both were known for being the ultimate in sensitive accompanists and this holds entirely true for this performance, though their solos on "Leo" allowed them the opportunity to show their virtuosity.  Workman is great and shows a fullness, roundness, and richness of sound that translated very well in the live setting.

Haynes, who never seems to have received the acclaim of other drum masters of his era (including Max Roach, Elvin Jones, and others), is nothing short of amazing in his long solo.  In a little over two weeks, Haynes turns 90 and, hopefully, there'll be plenty of celebrating this percussion master so that he can get more of the recognition he so deserves.  This album shows his genius in full flower.

The Warner Brothers studio recordings of the mid-seventies were largely Hindu devotional exercises, but Transfiguration brought Coltrane back to a jazz setting, while allowing her to express her spiritual and religious devotion.  Another quarter century passed before she returned to a similar context, after continuing her Hindu teachings, with 2004's excellent Translinear Light, her last album before her death at age 69 in 2007.

Transfiguration is a highlight in her storied career and, if anything would cast her in a light solely on her own as a great artist, not merely as the talented spouse of a master, it would be this amazing album.

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