Monday, 21 May 2007

John & Alice Coltrane's Visions of Infinity

Impulse, 1972 (original recordings – 1965, 1966)

Original performances by:
John Coltrane (soprano & tenor sax/ bass clarinet, bells, percussion – 4)
Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax, flute, piccolo, tambourine, percussion – 4)
McCoy Tyner (piano – 2,3)
Jimmy Garrison (bass – 2,3)
Elvin Jones (drums – 2,3)
Rashied Ali (drums – 1,4)
Ray Appleton (percussion – 1,4)

Overdubbed with arrangements featuring:
Alice Coltrane (piano – 1,4, harp – 1,2,3, organ – 1,4, vibraphone – 1,3, tamboura – 2, timpani-4)
Charlie Haden (bass – 1,3,4)
Joan Chapman (tamboura – 2)
Oran Coltrane (bells - 2)

And String Orchestra:
James Getzoff, Gerald Vinci, Gordon Marron, Michael White (violin)
Rollice Dale, Myra Kestenbaum, (viola)
Jesse Ehrlich, Edgar Lustgarten (cello)
Murray Adler (concertmaster)

1) Peace On Earth (9.03)
2) Living Space (10.40)
3) Joy (8.01)
4) Leo (10.08)

All Compositions by John Coltrane. All arrangements by Alice Coltrane.

Original tracks on 1,3 and 4 were recorded at Coast Recorders, San Francisco, California, 1965 & 1966. Original tracks on 2 recorded at Van Gelder Recording, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1965. Overdubs recorded at The Village Recorder, Los Angeles, California 1972. Produced by Ed Michel; supervised and inspired by Alice Coltrane.

(Discographical information obtained from the official Alice Coltrane website at


Alice Coltrane’s controversial ‘re-imagining’ of her husband’s late works is a strange item, seen as tantamount to sacrilege by some fans and critics who resented the fact that she’d dared to take his original performances and superimpose them over lush orchestral backgrounds (incidentally, arranged in collaboration with Ornette Coleman), re-dub the original rhythm section parts, and record new solos on piano, organ, harp and timpani. Tracks 2 & 3 were originally recorded by the 'classic Quartet' (John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones) in 1965, while tracks 1 & 4 were recorded by Coltrane's later ensemble (Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Garrison, Rashied Ali, and extra percussionist Ray Appleton). On the 1965 tracks, Alice retains the original rhythm section parts, adding string and tamboura parts only, but on the 1966 tracks, Garrison's bass parts are replaced with new recordings by Charlie Harden, and she herself records new solos.

In the end, I’d say that, as a project, it’s a lot more Alice than John, despite his presence on all of the tracks. If nothing else, it gives an intriguing approximation of what a ‘John Coltrane with strings’ album would have sounded like – and perhaps that would have been his next step in an attempt to create the ‘cosmic music’ that he was after. After all, he repeatedly told Alice of his admiration for Stravinsky, though his experiments seemed to be leading him more into realms of pure rhythm and sound, based on African influences, while Alice demonstrates a more oriental, Indian influence in the exotic harmonies that pour out from luscious string choirs, overlaid with sweeping droplets of sound from her harp. You could say the album is an uneasy fusion of the two influences, but, considering the ambition of what was being attempted, it could have a been a lot worse, and it’s interesting to hear the different feel that Alice gives to the original tracks – grander and more ‘epic’ (if not in length), and even less connected to the world of jazz.

‘Peace on Earth’, the opening track (issued, like ‘Leo’, in its original form, on the rare album ‘Jupiter Variation’), has a more serene feel to it than the original, and the ‘Live in Japan’ versions – whereas, in John’s hands, it became a plea for peace, a prayer at once peaceful yet also movingly mournful, as if he realised that the ideal would never be realised in his lifetime, if at all, with Alice, it becomes a representation of that perfect peace, the paradise rather than the quest for paradise – it’s got a quality of immense stillness, contemplation, quietness, reinforced by the fact that Alice replaces her own original piano solo with a harp solo that exists in a sort of state of suspended animation, moving yet not moving through time; by that, I mean, it concentrates on repeated phrases rather than on developing, or moving, from one phrase to another. The theme of ‘Living Space’ attains an immense, film-score grandeur as Coltrane’s saxophone is accompanied by soaring strings, and, though the solos have more of a conventional jazz feel to them (due to the fact the original rhythm parts, played by the ‘Classic Quartet’, are retained), the fact that a tamboura drones along in the background ensures that the exotic edge is never far away, and the climax, where his repeated figures are undercut by booming timpani, achieves some kind of nirvana that comes from a place that seems very different from that the Quartet were exploring in 1965…

The third piece, ‘Joy’ is perhaps less successful than the other three – the throbbing grandeur/hallucinatory weirdness of the orchestral arrangement sits a bit uneasily with the jazzy thrust of Coltrane’s saxophone and the Classic Quartet rhythm section (particularly Jones’ drumming), but Jimmy Garrison’s central bass solo is effective enough, with its employment of strumming, and impression of deep sobriety and seriousness. Overall, though, there’s so much detail in the background that it detracts from the emotional and technical power of Coltrane’s playing, something that’s less the case on the other tracks. The album close with ‘Leo’, a theme that was immensely powerful in its original incarnation as ‘The Father & the Son & the Holy Ghost’ on ‘Meditations’, and became a concert staple of Coltrane’s last band. Here, the orchestra makes it incredibly dramatic, with the addition of tambourine and timpani giving it a nervous, edgy wildness that’s both exhilarating and frightening in a way that his best late-period music always was. The timpani interlude (played by Alice herself) is a touch of genius – a respite of sorts from the manic energy of John’s bass clarinet soloing, it’s a queasy, unearthly and vaguely sinister, leading into solos by Alice on first piano, then organ, before the theme returns.

While I wouldn’t take this over the originals, I would argue that, in its own right it’s one of Alice’s more successful albums, the tight arrangements saving it from drifting into the meandering meditativeness of some of her work. And it does have a sort of unearthly brilliance about it – maybe that’s just due to its beguiling strangeness, its uniqueness, but, whatever it is, it’s a trip...

[I believe that this album is out of print: you can download it at]