To begin with, it was hard for anyone to approach this concert without some unrealistic expectations. When an artist is billed as "legendary" and then breaks a multi-year silence to give just three performances across the country, it creates a level of hype that would only be justified if she walked on water. As it was, Alice Coltrane and her group merely came out and played music. The first few minutes of this I missed, courtesy of a huge backup at the Lincoln Tunnel, although I heard much of the first composition, announced as a traditional piece called "Sita Ram" from the lobby. When I did get to my seat, what I heard for the first part of the program suggested that Coltrane's quartet, which consisted of her on piano and keyboards, Ravi Coltrane on soprano and tenor, Drew Gress standing in for an ailing Charlie Haden on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, was partly a vehicle for her own music and partly a John Coltrane tribute band. Perhaps this is inevitable as the highlight of Alice Coltrane's career so far came when she replaced McCoy Tyner in her husband John's group. Thus the music we heard in the first part of the evening consisted of two of her own compositions, "Translinear Light" and "Jagadishwar," plus "Africa" from John's classic Africa Brass album.
Again, I was gripped with ambivalence as I listened to these performances. On the one hand, it was wonderful to hear this music again, music that was so meaningful to so many musicians, including myself, and to be transported back to a period of such intense creativity. At the same time, the realization emerged that there was nothing new in this, that Alice could not move this music forward because it has no place to go. It was beautifully, lovingly, executed, with both grace and passion. DeJohnette was quite brilliant, Ravi was eloquent, although the format locks him more into sounding like his father than some other settings where he can move toward finding his own voice. And, while it was hard to hear them at times, Gress and guest artist Reggie Workman provided a strong foundation. As for Alice, she spun out the same rippling, harmonically ambiguous lines we remember from Expression and other late Coltrane albums. It did not, perhaps, work as well rhythmically, as DeJohnette was much closer to Elvin Jones than to Rashied Ali, especially on the selections from the earlier period, "Africa," and, in the second half, "Acknowledgment Part 1" from A Love Supreme. Alice's piano is less rhythmically incisive than McCoy Tyner's was when he partnered with Jones. At times this led to a new rhythmic synthesis, at others it didn't quite work. For all this, the music was absorbing throughout these sections, with its own compelling beauty, sometimes stark, sometimes lush.
After intermission another dimension emerged. In an attempt, perhaps, to present something that would meet the expectations generated by her publicity, Ms. Coltrane presented two selections from her forthcoming CD Sacred Language of Ascension, "Mata" and "Universe." For these she introduced a small orchestra of strings and woodwinds plus a sixteen-voice choir, attired, like Ms. Coltrane, in quasi-Indian garb. The pieces received a brief introduction from one Dr. J.J. Hurtak who made some elaborate and hard to substantiate claims about the nature of the music, which, apparently, he had a hand in composing.
Suffice to say that a religious movement has sprung up around the memory of John Coltrane of which Alice, who is referred to as "Swamini," is the high priest. These topics were further explored in a Q & A session after the concert attended by both Alice and Ravi Coltrane, joined by Hurtak, but it is evident that the New Jersey Performing Arts Society, who hosted the evening for its purely musical interest, was startled, and perhaps a little embarrassed, by the extra-curricula activities. Future concert goers and CD purchasers should be more aware of the nature of the total package.
It is perhaps beyond the scope of a concert review to discuss such philosophical issues. This reviewer happens to be a Ph.D. and a lifetime student of Indian music and philosophy, having taught at Universities in Delhi and Bombay and worked closely with leading Indian musicians and musicologists. I am aware that they are more than a little sensitive to Western musicians claiming to play or expound on their music. Returning to the music itself, it is hard to imagine how it could meet such lofty expectations, and, of course, it did not. The two pieces presented consisted of some vocal chanting supported by some string and synthesizer washes. It was pleasing, and well received.
The concert ended with a section of A Love Supreme, invoking anew the profound sense of nostalgia that sent me home to play the original recording. The influence John Coltrane has had upon the jazz tradition is inestimable. Whether he was a saint is another question; the qualifications are a little higher.