She was born Alice McLeod in Detroit to Solon and Annie McLeod, the fifth of six children. Her mother was a pianist and sang in the church choir. Alice began studying piano with a neighbor at age seven. Two years later, she was playing organ during services at Mount Olive Baptist church. Her piano and organ playing inspired the congregation to sponsor her music education at a community school. McLeod attended Detroit's prestigious Cass Technical High School, where she studied classical music and played percussion in the marching band. Thanks to the encouragement of her father and her half brother, saxophonist-turned-bassist Ernie Farrow, she began studying jazz along with two notable classmates, pianist Hugh Lawson and drummer Earl Williams. She started leading her own group called the Premiers, performing gospel, jazz, and rhythm & blues standards; members included trombonist George Bohanon, bassist Anthony Jackson, and drummer Oliver Jackson. She also got work on the Motor City's vibrant jazz scene with Yusef Lateef, Kenny Burrell, and others.
The reason McLeod stood out, even on a scene that boasted world-class talent such as Barry Harris and Teddy Wilson, was her playing style. Dense with arpeggios and expansive clustered chords, her piano playing suggested the harp. She was deeply influenced by harpist Dorothy Ashby, the first person to employ the instrument in bebop. Ashby's harp playing not only informed Alice's pianism but influenced her to take up the harp later on. In 1959, she moved to Paris briefly, where she studied informally with Bud Powell and served as intermission pianist at the Blue Note club. While serving in that capacity, she appeared on French television in the company of Lucky Thompson, Pierre Michelot, and Kenny Clarke. She met jazz singer Kenneth Poncho Hagood in Paris. They married, had a daughter (Michelle), and moved to New York in 1960. However, the marriage was short-lived due to Hagood's growing dependency on heroin.
Alice and Michelle returned to Detroit, where Alice continued playing jazz with her own trio and in a duo with vibraphonist Terry Pollard. In 1962 to 1963, she returned to New York as a member of Terry Gibbs' quartet playing vibraphone and piano. (They issued the co-billed 1963 album El Nutto for Mercury.) During that time, she met John Coltrane, and they connected instantly. The pair began living and traveling together, and in 1964 they had settled on Long Island. They married in 1965 in Juárez, Mexico, after Coltrane's divorce from first wife, Naima Grubbs.
By then, Alice had joined John's "New Thing" quintet with drummer Rashied Ali, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, and bassist Jimmy Garrison, and released Live at the Village Vanguard Again! in 1966 and Concert in Japan from the same tour. Alice's playing is characterized by rhythmically fluid arpeggios and a pulsing, sometimes droning modal textural facility. The set proved controversial with (primarily white, male) jazz critics, who tended to dislike change. She also played on subsequent studio sessions released posthumously as Expression and Stellar Regions.
Though Alice had always been a deeply spiritual person, John introduced her to Eastern philosophy and religions, which became her life's primary focus shortly thereafter. Before his death, he assisted her in signing a solo contract with Impulse! After her husband's death from liver cancer in 1967, Coltrane took a vow of celibacy.
With four young children to feed, she wasted no time getting back to work. In January 1968, while preparing to release her debut album for Impulse!, she revisited the unissued San Francisco sessions and added two tracks recorded by her own group, "Lord, Help Me to Be" and "The Sun," featuring Garrison and drummer Ben Riley, with Sanders appearing on tenor sax and flute. The set was initially issued by Coltrane Records in September as Cosmic Music. Alice's debut, A Monastic Trio with Riley and Garrison was released in December, less than two months after Cosmic Music appeared -- it was re-released by Impulse! the following year, a few months after Coltrane issued her second album, Huntington Ashram Monastery, another trio offering with Ron Carter on bass and Rashied Ali on drums.
In January 1970, she recorded four compositions in her home studio with Riley, Carter, saxophonist Joe Henderson, and Sanders playing bass clarinet. The album, titled Ptah, the El Daoud, was released that September. That same year, she played harp on the sessions for Laura Nyro's Christmas and the Beads of Sweat. Coltrane also met Swami Satchidananda and began studying with him. His impact on her life was profound. She recorded Journey in Satchidananda in November as a reflection of his inspiration. Released in February 1971 with accompaniment by Sanders, Ali, and alternating bassists Charlie Haden, Cecil McBee and Vishnu Wood, it garnered consistently positive reviews.
That year also found Coltrane playing harp alongside Carter and flutist Hubert Laws on the track "Little Dove" from the Rascals' Peaceful World. She rediscovered the organ in 1970 while desiring to create a meditative music whose pulse and phrasing would not be interrupted by pauses for breath. Between April and June 1971, Coltrane and her sidemen recorded the sessions that would become Universal Consciousness. Released in September, it showcased Coltrane performing only on the harp and Wurlitzer organ. More than this, however, it showcased her consummate skills as an arranger. She added a string quartet that included Leroy Jenkins to the proceedings, which she composed and arranged alongside a studio trio that included Garrison on bass, and Jack DeJohnette, Clifford Jarvis, and Ali alternating on drums. Ornette Coleman provided string transcriptions for three tracks. Coltrane seamlessly wove together the various strains of her musical thinking that included modal jazz, gospel hymns, blues, Hindi devotional music, and 20th century classical sonorities.
She followed with the even more ambitious World Galaxy in May 1972. In addition to a studio sextet that included saxophonist Frank Lowe, bassist Reggie Workman, Riley on drums, Elayne Jones on timpani, and Jenkins as a soloist, she composed and arranged for a 15-piece orchestral string section directed by concertmaster David Sackson. The album included three original compositions as well as readings of "My Favorite Things" and "A Love Supreme." Some critics took issue with her covers, foolishly questioning their worth in jazz terms. Like Universal Consciousness, World Galaxy is now regarded as a classic, full of brave, new musical thinking.
1972 also saw Coltrane transplant her family to Los Angeles from New York to be closer to her spiritual teachers and their organizations. The Impulse! release of Infinity caused Coltrane to endure extreme vitriol from jazz critics. Its original sessions were recorded at different times. Two tunes --"Living Space" and "Joy" -- were cut in 1965 with the classic quartet of John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Garrison. Onto these performances she overdubbed strings and tambouras. The 1966 bookend cuts "Peace on Earth" and "Leo" were performed by the New Thing quintet with Alice on piano, organ, and vibraphone, Ali, Sanders, and percussionist Ray Appleton. In addition to strings, she replaced Garrison's bass parts with newly recorded ones by Charlie Haden, and added new solos of her own playing. Critics and fans howled their displeasure, but Coltrane's response was direct in an interview: "Were you there? Did you hear [John's] commentary and what he had to say?... We had a conversation about every detail; [John] was showing me how the piece could include other sounds, blends, tonalities, and resonances such as strings. He talked about cosmic sounds, higher dimensions, astral levels and other worlds, and realms of music and sound that I could feel."
Coltrane issued her final album for Impulse!, Lord of Lords, in 1972; it capped her orchestral trilogy. Produced by Ed Michel, it showcased the artist playing harp, piano, organ, tympani, and vibes, backed by Haden and Riley above a 20-piece string section that she composed for, arranged, and conducted. In 1974, she was a co-billed featured guest on Joe Henderson's seminal album The Elements, and recorded the one-off Illuminations with Devadip Carlos Santana and saxophonist Jules Broussard.
In 1975, Coltrane founded the Vedanta Center in Los Angeles and signed a recording contract with Warner Bros. The music she issued for the label revealed a deepening of her spiritual resolve and the sole desire to create music that reflected it. Eternity, issued in 1976, offered six tracks, ranging from the harp solo "Wisdom Eye" to "Om Supreme" for electric piano and six singers. Elsewhere, such as on "Spiritual Eternal," her trio with Riley and Haden were joined by reeds, winds, brass, and strings. She also delivered a radical re-envisioning of sections from Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.
Later that year, she released Radha-Krsna Nama Sankirtana. Forgoing jazz altogether, it offered Hindu devotional songs. Three tracks were chants, with Coltrane's organ and electric piano backing a vocal chorus, while the other two featured her interpretations accompanied by tambora or drums. For decades it was the most misunderstood record in her catalog. 1977's Transcendence followed suit. Coltrane alternately played harp, organ, and Rhodes piano as well as tambora. She was accompanied on half the album by a string quartet and the other half by a large vocal chorus.
Her final date for Warner Bros. was 1978's double-live opus Transfiguration. Recorded in performance at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall in a trio with drummer Roy Haynes and Workman on bass, it offered Coltrane at full intensity playing piano and Wurlitzer organ. The track "Prema" included a nine-piece string section that was overdubbed later in the studio. With the album's release came Coltrane's retreat from public life. She did appear on Marian McPartland's syndicated Piano Jazz program in 1981. She also changed her name to Swami Turiyasangitananda and taught at the Vedantic Center -- and later the Shanti Anantam Ashram (later renamed Sai Anantam Ashram) on 50 acres near Malibu, California. She only recorded devotional Sanskrit hymns (or bhajans) for her congregation. Coltrane self-released a small batch of cassettes including 1982's Turiya Sings, 1987's Divine Songs, 1990's Infinite Chants, and 1995's Glorious Chants. In 1998, she appeared with her sons Ravi and Oran at a John Coltrane tribute concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City and again at Joe's Pub in 2002.
She began recording again in 2000 and eventually issued the stellar Translinear Light on the Verve label in 2004. Produced by Ravi, it featured Coltrane on piano, organ, and synthesizer, in a host of playing situations with luminary collaborators that included not only her sons but also Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Jeff Tain Watts, and James Genus. After the release of Translinear Light, she played some selective dates in Paris in 2005, and a three-date tour in the fall of 2006 with Ravi in Ann Arbor, New York, and San Francisco. On January 12, 2007, Coltrane died of respiratory failure at Los Angeles' West Hills Hospital and Medical Center. Her catalog was selectively remastered and reissued in the United States and Japan.
A decade later, Luaka Bop sought out the original masters of Coltrane's worship cassettes, assisted by her children. Enlisting original engineer Baker Bigsby, the label assembled a compilation from the four tapes. Entitled World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, it was released in May 2017 to commemorate her 80th birthday and the tenth anniversary of her passing. The package included a lengthy liner essay by jazz historian Ashley Khan, Mark Frosty McNeil's master's thesis, and interviews with family, ashram members, and colleagues. It also included a remembrance by Surya Botofasina in conversation with Andy Beta. In 2018, Real Gone released Spiritual Eternal: The Complete Warner Bros. Studio Recordings.
In July 2021, Coltrane returned to Impulse! with Kirtan: Turiya Sings. The set reframed her 1982 cassette with a mix that Ravi had only heard for the first time in 2020; he gave his blessing for its release. The original marked the only time Coltrane's singing voice had ever been heard solo on an album, accompanied by synths, organs, and synthesized strings. The 2021 mix offered only her voice accompanied by an organ. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi
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