Alice Coltrane's "Translinear Light" is not an album for cynics. Its spiritual themes -- whether Hindu, Christian or the more secular visions of modern jazz -- are offered up without a trace of irony. On her first jazz-related album in 26 years, Coltrane puts her heart on the line.
In a sense, she's picking up right where she left off. A gifted pianist, organist, harpist and composer, Coltrane is the widow of an icon and the mother of a rising star. In 1965 Alice Coltrane had the unenviable task of replacing McCoy Tyner in husband John Coltrane's historic ensemble. Nearly three decades later, Alice and John's son Ravi enjoys a steadily growing reputation as a solid improviser on tenor and soprano saxophones, the very horns his father elevated to a new instrumental stature. (Ravi was named after the brilliant sitarist Ravi Shankar, whose own offspring, Norah Jones, has recently garnered enormous success.)
Soon after John Coltrane's death in 1967, Alice began recording a series of albums -- most featuring musical associates of her husband -- that reflected her absorption by and commitment to John Coltrane's modal musical principles, as well as her own growing devotion to Hinduism. (Coltrane has presided over her own spiritual center since 1975 and has released albums of a religious nature during the past two decades.) The Ravi Coltrane-produced "Translinear Light" may curb the unbridled intensity of some of the 1960s and '70s albums, but it remains a stirring comeback.
Coltrane forgoes harp on the album, but the signature sound of her Wurlitzer organ, as well as her still swinging, gospel-infused piano work, acts as a virtual musical fingerprint. (Her lighter synthesizer work grounds two of the album's 11 tracks, including "The Hymn," a consoling ballad featuring a lyrical turn from the Coltranes' youngest son, Oran, on alto saxophone.) Heard on three songs, including a walloping nine-minute-plus version of John Coltrane's "Leo," the Wurlitzer emits a distinctive, mesmerizing tone that sets it off as a different animal altogether from the more common Hammond electric organ. Buzzing like a hyperactive bumblebee, the instrument permits Alice to launch into snaking solos that recall John's fevered soprano saxophone excursions.
"Translinear Light" also benefits from the contributions of sympathetic collaborators, including Ravi Coltrane (whose sturdy saxophone excursions effectively avoid, for the most part, overt echoes of his father's work), bassist Charlie Haden (beautifully intertwining with Alice's piano on the reflective duet "Triloka") and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Placing gospel tunes ("Walk With Me," "This Train") alongside Eastern-tinged work and compositions by both Alice and John Coltrane lends this album a conspicuously biographical nature, a personal testament suffused with sincerity, much welcome in a period of expertly performed but often faceless and frigid jazz productions.