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Los Caballos

Alice Coltrane

Alice Coltrane's albums from the 1970s are a bubbling cauldron of some of the best musical energies of the time. Into the pot she throws everything from grandiose string arrangements, devotional chanting drawn from Hindu and Black American gospel traditions, apocalyptic free jazz, and (for good measure) arrangements of early Stravinsky. This billing may kindle suspicions of facile pluralism—the thin flavor of an insufficiently stirred soup. But no one who has heard tracks such as "Los Caballos" (The Horses), from Coltrane's 1976 album Eternity, could uphold such objections. Her molten mixtures unleash new states of musical matter.

Franya Berkman's Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane is (for now) the Alice Coltrane biography, which (full disclosure) I haven't read; for a shorter introduction to her life and work, see the chapter "Lovely Sky Boat: Alice Coltrane and the Metaphysics of Sound" in Jayna Brown's excellent book Black Utopias: Speculative Life and the Music of Other Worlds. Coltrane's music is often associated with the concept of "spiritual jazz," and one of the virtue's of Brown's writing is that it puts some meat on the bones of this otherwise nebulous notion by delving into the deeper (higher?) dimensions of Coltrane's music, in particular those that developed following her conversion to Hinduism in the early 1970s. Brown writes:

"Alice's concept of God was based on the idea that all religions sought out and worshipped what was ultimately the same force, or source of power... The Absolute was the infinite universe, manifesting materially, from the atoms to the stars, and spiritually, as gods. To consider the self as made of the same elements as the rest of the cosmos changed the very notion of self and subjectivity; to awaken into Absolute Consciousness was to transfigure into a different mode of being not governed by human-centered understandings."
Alice Coltrane, from the cover to her 1968 album "A Monastic Trio"


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