I’ve fallen deeply for the so-called spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane in the last few years. Her 1970 album Ptah the El Daoud was the one I heard first; 1971’s Universal Consciousness the one that blew my mind; and Journey to Satchidananda – which came between them, also in 1971 – the one that affirmed my epiphany.
Since beginning to lead her own albums, following the death of her husband John Coltrane in 1967, Alice pushed in some very far-out directions, making a kind of rippling, blissed out, Buddhism-infused jazz that didn’t sound like too much else then – and sounds almost as if it’s from another universe now.
Given that I hold Universal Consciousness as her finest hour, I was a bit dumb until now not to try the album she made immediately after it. I must have believed that the only place Coltrane could go after that high-floating music was crashing back to earth with a thud. I needn’t have worried though: 1972’s World Galaxy is another beautiful record, one which loops back to her husband’s music with two cover versions of Trane classics (‘My Favorite Things’ and ‘A Love Supreme’) while still setting out for uncharted territory.
Billed as ‘Alice Coltrane with Strings’, World Galaxy actually sounds quite different from her earlier records, incorporating orchestral backing (conducted by David Sackson) that gives the sound a lush, almost Disneyfied quality. What I find so interesting about this recording is how these saccharine elements jostle up against Coltrane’s more angular, avant-garde tendencies, giving several of the tracks a shape-shifting quality that makes for rich listening.
The opening version of ‘My Favorite Things’ is a case in point. At around six and a half minutes long, it’s less than half the length of her husband’s phenomenal first revisioning of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song (and about a sixth of the length of the fiery deconstructions of the same tune he was offering in concert just before he died). Yet it’s so dense with movement, dynamism and colour that it has the feel of an expanding supernova.
It begins simply enough with a snaking organ line tracing out the familiar melody, but as the orchestra sweeps in you begin to feel you’re being inexorably pulled into a kind of intergalactic vortex, with thick atmospheric textures and otherworldly sounds swimming around you in stereo. Then, as quickly as this universe of sound has been conjured, it drops away again to give solo space to Reggie Workman’s bass – a lull that’s then interrupted as the full surge of Disney strings is unleashed. It’s a cheesy and brilliant moment of release before – switching again – the orchestra seems to get swallowed up by cosmic chaos.
The 10-minute ‘Galaxy in Satchidananda’ is another highlight. Here the strings play a grandiose motif that repeats over and over as if on loop, while Coltrane’s harp darts in and around it, sprinkling faerie dust. It’s like the theme from an old Hollywood Biblical blockbuster left out among the stars, repeating momentously as a sighing epic – a little as if someone like William Basinski or Ekkehard Ehlers had got their hands on the score for The Ten Commandments and spun it out into infinity.
All in all, it’s an album that hews close to the spirit of Afro-futurism in its mapping out of an alternative dimension. It’s also, I notice, the third of the four records I’ve recommended so far on this blog that’s steeped in eastern spirituality. Must be a phase.