Translinear Light is Alice Coltrane’s first recording in 26 years, since she withdrew from active performing and recording in the late ’70s to open an ashram and devote herself primarily to spiritual pursuits. If she had never made another recording, she still would have a lofty place in the jazz pantheon, as a gifted pianist and organist, as the pianist in her husband John Coltrane’s final band and last recordings, as a pioneer on the harp in jazz, and for her own legacy of penetrating albums that continued the lineage of musical/spiritual exploration that John Coltrane began in his later recordings.
Although Alice Coltrane retired from her career in music, she never stopped playing, and her music was an integral part of the services at the ashram and a major influence on the young Ravi, who was not quite 2 years old when his famous father died. Ravi, with his mother’s encouragement, started playing the saxophone in his early 20s and undertook a patient, diligent apprenticeship as a sideman that has led to a mastery of the instrument that is all his own, as well as critical recognition as one of the leading saxophonists of his generation
In 1998, Alice Coltrane came out of retirement to perform in a special concert with her son at New York’s Town Hall in 1998. This concert marked Ravi’s coming of age as a musical force in his own right and showed Alice still at the peak of her formidable powers. Four years later, they performed together at Joe’s Pub to celebrate the release of Ashley Kahn’s book on the making of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and were again garlanded with critical encomiums. Translinear Light is the realization of Ravi Coltrane’s dream to record with his mother and to bring her art back to public recognition.
The spectacular return of a jazz icon.
The astonishing fact of Translinear Light is that Alice Coltrane’s artistry is as fresh, complete, and compelling as in any of her celebrated works of thirty years ago or more. Her rigorously inventive approach to the music overflows with richly harmonized, exquisitely embellished ideas. Playing acoustic piano on tracks like her own “Translinear Light” and John Coltrane’s “Crescent” she shows all the dexterous and imaginative powers at her command, from shimmering arpeggios to powerful thrusting chords. She authoritatively exploits all of the instrument’s tonal and harmonic possibilities from the rumbling bass to the tinkling top wind chime notes. Though she doesn’t play the harp on this recording, she often makes the piano sound like a harp.
In her idiosyncratic voicings on the Wurlitzer organ, the profound influence of Indian and Eastern music can be heard, with bent notes and a raga-like approach to improvisation, as on her arrangement of the traditional Hindu hymn “Sita Ram” which opens the album. She can make the instrument sound like an electric guitar, and joyously summons up psychedelic realms on her arrangement of the spiritual “This Train” and in dizzying tour-de-force soloing and exchanges with Ravi’s tenor on John Coltrane’s “Leo”.
Her spacious, cosmic synth playing is heard on two movingly direct and simple hymns backing up affecting saxophone performances from each of her two sons: “Jagadishwar” which features Ravi Coltrane on tenor saxophone and “The Hymn”, with Oran Coltrane on alto saxophone.
A heightened sense of occasion pervades the CD and everyone on the album plays in the stratosphere of their talents. Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette are among the greatest living practitioners of their instruments; both have recorded with Alice Coltrane on her classic albums; both play with astonishing power and inspiration here. Haden’s spontaneous free-jazz duet with her on “Triloka” is a thing of beauty; his big, warm sound grounds the album. DeJohnette’s mastery is breathtaking throughout, and on “Leo” he erupts into a 2 ½ minute unaccompanied drum solo of dazzling virtuosity.
James Genus and Jeff “Tain” Watts are both giants of their generation of jazz artists and perform on three tracks with great aplomb. “Blue Nile” elicits bravura performances from both of them: Watts sets up an insistent African-flavored rhythm, and Genus takes an eloquent solo, while Ravi turns in extraordinary work on tenor saxophone.
With this recording, Ravi Coltrane assumes the mantle of his legacy. As a producer, he brings a profound understanding of both his parents’ contributions. As a saxophonist, the need to stand on his own merits has cultivated an authority, simplicity, and freedom in his playing that is uniquely his, even when he summons up his father’s spirit on tracks like “Crescent” or “Leo”.
For Alice Coltrane, it is clear that all music is devotional music. Translinear Light is a logical extension of the spiritual and musical path that John and Alice Coltrane began together. It is radiant, cosmic, psycho-active music, which, despite its depth and complexity, has a timeless and universal appeal. This is one for the history books.