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The Return of Alice Coltrane

You can call a live performance many things: a gig, date, show, or what you will. But Alice Coltrane's recent concert at UCLA's Royce Hall, her first U.S. public appearance in three decades? Now, that was than an event. Mrs. Coltrane, playing piano, organ, and synthesizer, led a stellar quartet featuring son Ravi on tenor and soprano saxophone, the legendary Reggie Workman on bass and drummer Trevor Lawrence. Providing ample support on the bill were local heavyweights the Dwight Trible Quintet.

Alice Coltrane left the music business at the end of the seventies to join an ashram. Her distinctive keyboards were not heard for more than twenty years by a general audience until a couple of very recent recordings, a guest turn on violinist Lili Haydn's Light Blue Sun and her own Verve release Translinear Light. Those impressive efforts revealed her musical abilities still very much intact. But it is one thing to play in a studio and another to perform in front of a sold out audience. Accordingly, then, there was a palpable sense of curiosity in the hallway before the show about what Alice Coltrane would sound like after all these years. There was every expectation of musical excellence, sure, but less certainty as to what form it would take.

Dwight Trible's opening set started the night off on a very hip foot. Trible's music is certainly indebted to the music of Mrs. Coltrane's late husband John, imbued with a spiritual vibration that recalls in particular the later work of the saxophonist with his wife and Pharaoh Sanders, among others. The opening act at a concert is sometimes referred to as a 'warm-up band' and vocalist Trible and his five-piece group certainly raised the crowd's temperature with a set that included original music, songs dating back to Trible's tenure with the late Horace Tapscott, and a potent rendition of the standard "Wild is the Wind."

Alice Coltrane did a little bit of everything in her in nearly two hours on stage. The group opened up with some music from and in tribute to the late John Coltrane, whose presence informed so much of the evening. These included the Quartet-era piece "Crescent" as well as "Leo," one of the last things he ever recorded. The ballad "Crescent" as well as another piece that followed a fairly straight blues progression, both with Alice Coltrane seated at the piano, were interesting inclusions; Mrs. Coltrane's originals draw heavily from Indian raga and avant-garde jazz, so hearing her and the band play pieces in more traditional forms with such mastery and beauty established a type of credibility for them as they went on to take the music into freer territory.

No saxophonist since Charlie Parker has been more influential on the instrument than John Coltrane. He had his followers in life and has spawned exponentially more since his death nearly forty years ago. One would image that this legacy has its burdensome aspects for his son Ravi as he follows in his father's footsteps, but he gives every indication of bearing it well. Hearing him play the same instruments and in some cases the same songs that his father made famous and really listening to the way he approached it, I was surprised and impressed to hear him emerge as an original stylist in his own right. There was some of his father in his sometimes elongated phrasings, yet his tone was lighter and he tended to keep on-register. Actually, hearing his playing alongside his mother's, he seemed to be influenced by both of them almost equally. Alice Coltrane, particularly on her solo organ pieces, displayed an almost dizzying ability to string fast runs of notes together, and you could hear echoes of that in Ravi's playing.

Reggie Workman, who recorded with Coltrane, displayed the consummate skill on the bass that has made him a first-call player for generations of musicians. He was able to match whatever the music demanded, anchoring well-defined pieces for other soloists or leading the ensemble through more exploratory passages. Trevor Lawrence was a late replacement for Jeff Watts on drums, but he managed to fit in seamlessly with the group.

The final selection of the evening was an extended medley through several of John Coltrane's most famous pieces. It began with the high intensity of "Om" and also included an excerpt from "A Love Supreme." Each of the four musicians got a solo feature, and Workman's revisitation on his original line from "Ole" was a particular standout.

Part of the magic of hearing music performed in person is the fact that you can’t know for certain what will happen in advance. That’s true in all kinds of music, but it’s particularly true when it comes to jazz. You can have an idea, sometimes a fairly good one, but you don’t know exactly what live music is going to sound like until it is played. When the artist in question hasn't played publicly for decades, as Alice Coltrane hadn't, it deepens the sense of alchemy that much further. That enigmatic quality never quite left the performance, even as the music unfolded. Such was the sublime nature of the concert, striking awe into the audience and inviting them to delight in the mystery of music, of life.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Alice Coltrane
  • Concert Date: 2/18/2006
  • Venue: Royce Hall, UCLA
  • City State Country: Los Angeles, CA
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