Alice Coltrane Carnegie Hall Concert

First of all, I find it amazing this fine 1971 concert recording has never seen the light of day. This set was part of an eclectic concert lineup that could only have been programmed in this period of odd juxtapositions. The evening this was recorded, Alice Coltrane was opening for none other than Laura Nyro and the Rascals. Her landmark album, Journey in Satchidananda had just been released and Impulse was hoping for a boost on record sales and perhaps a live companion album to the new studio release.

The lineup for this band is impressive: Besides the inimitable Ms Coltrane on harp and piano, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp are in the front line, both Cecil McBee and Jimmy Garrison are on bass, with no less than three percussionists as well, Ed Blackwell, Clifford Jarvis and Kumar Kramer. Together, what a joyful noise this band makes!

Alice Coltrane was so far ahead of her time, this music still sounds startlingly fresh today. Unlike her recordings, the drums and percussion are in the forefront here, thus giving this recording a more propulsive vibe than her studio albums which feature harp. 

For the first two pieces, swirling harp glissandos and percussion bathe the listener in waves of beauty, lulling the listener into a meditative state, that is, until John Coltrane’s Africa rouses the audience with a potent percussion ensemble solo, followed by Coltrane’s pounding piano chords and dueling growling solos from Sanders and Schepp. After the sax solos comes a powerful Coltrane piano solo following by an explosive ensemble drums and percussion solo. The mood suddenly becomes ruminative as Garrison and McBee take the floor quite literally with an extended bass solo. The bass solos eventually evolve into a low end groove that even briefly gets the audience clapping along. One of my favorite moments is when Coltrane comes back in with a grooving ostinato, followed by Sanders and Shepp’s vocal-like screams – shouts of joy and pain explode across the aural firmament. The concert closes with another John Coltrane composition, Leo, which takes the fierce ecstatic intensity up another level, Sanders and Schepp channeling the late sax player’s cosmic wails in a cacophony of deep spiritual yearning.

As wonderful as the solos are, perhaps the best moments are when the band is just in playing together in the sound space and grooving. This is trance music of the highest order. It really takes the listener on a journey into cosmic bliss.

In a way, this release seems perfectly timed. There has been renewed interest in Alice Coltrane’s music in recent years and for good reason: in these chaotic, divisive and violent times, we need this music more now than ever. Recently, there have been several tribute concerts in the US. The most notable is harpist Brandee Younger’s 4 night residence @ SF Jazz, where one evening she even brought in a small string section to perform some of this music. It’s great to see the tradition carried on. 

When I was a teen, I was drawn to this music without knowing why. Something in my soul knew I needed this medicine, for medicine is exactly what this music is. This kind of spiritual jazz has always had a special place in my heart. This album is a wonderful gift to those of us who grew up with this music and a great introduction to the uninitiated. Sound quality is fantastic, especially in Hirez. 

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