Jazz And Harmony
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Aluxury station wagon rolls up to the temple here at the Sai Anantam Ashram and everyone stands at the ready, even the little ones, hands clasped in prayer. The door opens, and from it, Swamini Turiyasangitananda, nee Alice McLeod Coltrane -- yes, that Coltrane -- steps out.
She is tall, mahogany of skin, swathed in a saffron sari, ebony hair pressed smooth, rippling past her shoulders, a long layer of dreadlocks snaking out from underneath. She smiles shyly. A devotee rushes to her side, drops to her knees, and, in the tradition of Vedantic followers everywhere, bows at the feet of her guru.
Inside this temple, located about 35 miles west of Los Angeles, worshipers practice a sort of ecumenical Hinduism: The men sit on one side of the royal blue carpet, the women on the other; Alice presides from a fuchsia velvet armchair. During a Sunday service, she kisses a baby and christens him with a Sanskrit name. Someone announces there will be no services next week, thanks to a rare concert that Alice is giving "back East" -- a reference to her show tomorrow at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. She gives a short sermon, quoting from the Bhagavad-Gita: "You don't need any religion to get devoted to God," she tells them. Some of the 30-plus present wipe tears from their eyes.
Then she sits at the electric organ. Places fingers to keys. Chants "Ommmmmm."
And begins to play.
Heads nod; bodies sway. They're singing in Sanskrit -- Bolo Bolo Asrita Bolo Om Namah Sivaya -- but something else is going on. The deep bass humming from the organ . . . the funk emanating from tambourines and hand drums . . . the soulful singing and fervent yeah yeahs . . . the sister crying out, hands raised, caught up in the rapture . . .
Indeed, watching Alice on organ, beaming till her dimples pop, it's not hard to catch a glimpse of the child prodigy from Detroit playing in the Baptist church. To see the young bebop player, the one with whom John Coltrane fell in love, back at Birdland so many years ago.
Another lifetime ago.
* * *
Hers is a life reinvented, in the classic American way of taking sorrow and spinning it into something that gleams brighter than gold. She's got a last name attached to one of jazz's all-time greats, and yet few know her for the highly gifted musician and composer she is: an artist admired for her righteously rumbling arpeggios, for the deep vibrancy of her tone, for her dynamism as an improviser. She joined John Coltrane's quintet in 1965, and together they explored the limits of avant-garde jazz, marinating in the mysticism of Eastern music, improvising their way into a deeply transcendent experience.