Peter Lavezzoli on Alice Coltrane’s Gospel Kirtan

How many of us have heard the work of Alice Coltrane? After getting a taste of her unique sound at the Shastra Symposium 2016, we reached out to author and musician Peter Lavezzoli to hear more about her music and spirituality – both defined by the influence of South Asian culture on the West. Check out his article below and listen to “Sivaya,” from her 1977 album “Transcendence.” Thank you, Peter!

“There is so much to be said about Alice Coltrane/Swamini Turiya Sangitananda (1937-2007), whose astounding life and career was not given proper attention in a biographical volume until Franya Berkman’s Monument Eternal (2010). In addition to her listening public, it is easy to see why Mrs. Coltrane (born Alice McLeod) attracted so many students, as she embodied several powerful aspects of musical and spiritual life: an astonishingly self-assured African-American woman who was one of the most accomplished Jazz and Gospel musicians of the 20th century, creating her own unmistakable style on pedal harp and a variety of keyboards; wife of the most famous yet most uncompromising Jazz musician of the late 20th century, John Coltrane; and subsequently an ordained Swamini in the Vedanta Hindu tradition, a vocation that directed her personal and musical steps for the remainder of her life.

“As with many artists who commit themselves to a spiritual path, Mrs. Coltrane took extended leave of her professional career to focus on her private and spiritual life, deepening her own practice while working with a growing number of students at her own Vedanta Center, many of whom would sing with Mrs. Coltrane in what essentially became a Gospel choir. And it is precisely this aspect of her work — merging distinct elements of Gospel music from the Black Christian Church with devotional Bhakti Hindu chanting and singing in the practice of Kirtan — that would become one of Mrs. Coltrane’s most strikingly original contributions to music, and which is the focus of this very brief overview. Although her professional hiatus as a recording artist lasted 26 years between the live trio album Transfiguration (1978) and Translinear Light (2004), we do have a small but exceptionally satisfying body of Mrs. Coltrane’s work in this genre that we will describe as “Gospel Kirtan.”

“Alice McLeod’s childhood roots in Black Gospel can be traced to her first playing organ at age nine for Mount Olive Baptist Church in her hometown of Detroit, Michigan. Astutely aware of the timbral nuances of the various keyboards in her arsenal, Mrs. Coltrane could have chosen to utilize her signature Wurlitzer sound in her Gospel Kirtan music – for it is on the Wurlitzer that she developed a tone, fingering, and pitch bending, which gave the Wurlitzer an uncanny resemblance to the North Indian shehnai, another one of her innovations that merits its own elucidation in a separate study. But in a surprising move that would distinguish her Gospel Kirtan from other areas of her work, Mrs. Coltrane chose the Fender Rhodes as her medium for these performances. The Fender Rhodes electric piano had become widely used in Black Gospel churches because of its compact construction and affordability as compared to larger organs such as the Hammond B3, while the softer timbres combined with the powerful bass tone of the Rhodes also became a strong selling point among Gospel keyboardists. In adopting the Rhodes for her work in this area, Mrs. Coltrane brought listeners into direct contact with the sound-world of the Black Church, giving her Gospel Kirtan an impressive authenticity.

“Although Mrs. Coltrane publicly released an album (now out of print) completely devoted to Gospel Kirtan — Radha Krsna Nama Sankirtana (1976) — as well as having recorded several albums during her hiatus that were privately released by the Avatar Book Institute, the most readily available examples are on Transcendence (1977), with four Gospel Kirtan tracks that comprised Side B of the album. Each features the call-and-response of the Black Gospel and Kirtan traditions, with Mrs. Coltrane on lead vocal, followed by her student choir, who play a variety of percussion as well as hand claps, while Mrs. Coltrane plays her Fender Rhodes.

“One of the obvious features of her Gospel Kirtan is that, unlike traditional Kirtan in the Indian style, Mrs. Coltrane’s compositions are based on Western chord changes.“Sivaya” is in E-flat minor 7, with regular shifts to B-flat minor 9, A-flat 7, and D-flat 7. “Ghana Nila” is in D-flat 7, with shifts to G-flat 7 and A-flat 7. “Bhaja Govindam” is in C, with shifts to E, F, and G. And finally, “Sri Nrsimha” is in D minor, with shifts to G minor and occasional C. The vocal approach very much favors the Black Gospel side of the equation, with Mrs. Coltrane and her choir singing in a decidedly Gospel style, displaying all of the impassioned inflections and gruffness one would expect to hear from Mavis Staples or Mahalia Jackson. Mrs. Coltrane’s Gospel Kirtan is clearly in that lineage both musically and vocally, and in light of her use of chord changes and bass lines as played on the Rhodes, the only element that would easily identify this music as Kirtan are the lyrics, taken from Bhakti Hindu devotional chants and songs. In most other respects, these performances are steeped in the Black Gospel tradition that Mrs. Coltrane had known since her early Baptist childhood years playing church organ in Detroit.

“One of the most powerful sonic aspects of these recordings is Mrs. Coltrane’s masterful use of bass lines on the Fender Rhodes, providing an essential underpinning that is perhaps the most crucial ingredient of all. This is especially evident on “Sivaya” and “Ghana Nila.” These bass lines — which are the lifeblood of Black Gospel music – are played with such authority that the listener might feel that in spite of Mrs. Coltrane’s many years as a Jazz musician and Hindu Swamini, she had actually never lost contact with her roots in the Black Christian Church. Moreover, a new listener somehow discovering these tracks with no prior exposure to Mrs. Coltrane’s other work in Jazz or Indian music might well assume that she was exclusively a Gospel artist — which speaks to her mastery of the form.

“It is the opinion of this writer that Mrs. Coltrane’s creation of Gospel Kirtan is one of the great achievements of 20th century music, albeit tragically underexposed, as it shows with astonishing immediacy how these two distinctly Western and Eastern forms of devotional music could be seamlessly and beautifully merged. And as was always Mrs. Coltrane’s concern in the wake of her husband John’s passing, her invention of Gospel Kirtan was yet another profoundly important step on the path toward a more universalist spiritual language in music… another step on the path toward a love supreme.”

– Peter Lavezzoli (November 29, 2016)

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