Alice Coltrane

Eternity/Transcendence (Sepia Tone)

When Alice Coltrane joined her husband's band in 1966, John Coltrane was already considered a pioneer, well-known for exploring pathways of artistic expression, improvisation, and higher meaning. But this new lineup -- featuring thunderous bassist Jimmy Garrison, brilliant saxophone player Pharoah Sanders, drummer/hurricane Rashied Ali, and Coltrane's pianist/harpist wife -- pushed musical boundaries even further than past combos, creating challenging, rapturous music that took the listener into an unknown sonic universe.

After John's untimely death the following year, Alice began her career as bandleader. Her music continued on the path begun with her late husband (with some of the same musicians, including Sanders), exploring themes of universal consciousness, tranquility, and meditation. While John's music found the beauty in chaos, Alice's focused on finding spiritual pleasure in exquisite arrangements and orchestration.

Now, her two initial recordings for Warner Bros., 1976's Eternity and 1977's Transcendence,are being released on CD for the first time. The remastering is clean and clear on both, adding vivid clarity to the complex and evocative pieces.

Eternityis the more varied of the two albums, with the pieces ranging from a personal solo harp number titled "Wisdom Eye" to a fully orchestrated, radical reinterpretation of a passage from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Alice's organ freakout on the first track, "Spiritual Eternal," evokes tones heard previously only in John's outer-limit explorations; "Los Caballos" features several percussionists playing African-style polyrhythms, as well as a surprisingly funky Charlie Haden bass line.

Transcendenceis, however, the more surprising release, mostly for its prominent use of vocals, something only rarely heard on an Alice Coltrane album, and for the incorporation of Indian elements into her music via traditional instruments like tampura. Four of the seven pieces are interpretations of Eastern religious chants. According to the liner notes, the singers were reluctant to chant the Sanskrit until Alice told them to "sing the songs in their own way and style." Following her direction, the singers really cut loose, turning these ancient texts into something akin to an old-fashioned prayer meeting, more celebratory and joyous than sacred and somber.

Both discs are fine examples of Alice Coltrane's quest for spirituality and the pursuit of transcendence via musical means. Here's hoping these reissues, in addition to a recent cover story for British avant-music mag The Wire, signal a rediscovery and re-evaluation of the other Coltrane.

 
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