\\ Spiritual Jazz is supremely alive

In July 2017 – the month that marks fifty years since the passing of John Coltrane – we’re releasing a collection of content dedicated to the pioneer of Spiritual Jazz. Gail Tasker assesses the movement’s resurgence in the context of a troubled world. 

Sun Ra once said “music is not material… It is spiritual.” Sun Ra’s words here encapsulate the thought-process of a musical movement that emerged in the sixties known as ‘spiritual jazz’. This movement marked a reaction within the jazz world to an era of anger and discontent marked by war and racial prejudice. The Vietnam War was raging. The hippie movement was staging its “summer of love”. Martin Luther King, to be assassinated a year later, was leading the American civil rights movement. In these conditions, spiritual jazz emerged.

Whilst being somewhat sidelined by jazz purists and critics, Spiritual Jazz was a peace-inspired art form that was recorded and performed by some of the greatest jazz musicians of the sixties and seventies. Interest in Spiritual Jazz is resurfacing once again in British as well as international music scenes, perhaps in reaction to war, social inequalities and roaring fascism. If we can understand music as a signifier of public consciousness, it’s clear that jazz and its listeners are yet again seeking spiritual respite from bleak times.  

“Spiritual Jazz is re-emerging, like an opening in the clouds of a storm”

The origin of this music can be decidedly traced back to one key figure, John Coltrane, who passed fifty years ago. As a prolific jazz saxophonist, Coltrane went through various phases of musical exploration throughout his career, and is especially well known for his pioneering efforts of bebop with Miles Davis. It was in the final years of his life however that he recorded some of his greatest and most far-reaching material. In the liner notes of his seminal album A Love Supreme, Coltrane describes the religious awakening he experienced in 1957; the year he finally kicked drugs and alcohol. He describes the richer and fuller life that followed, and in gratitude, offers the album to God.

The depth of John Coltrane’s quest for spiritual awakening and transcendence is evident in this album. Each of the four clearly divided parts encapsulate a certain stage of Coltrane’s journey. The first section, Acknowledgment, is propelled by a melodic motif that Coltrane explores to its limits. He begins with free improvisation before taking over the opening riff from the bass, and ends with the chanting of  A Love Supreme over and over. In contrast, the final section, Psalm, contains practically no harmonic movement, offering a musical impression of meditative stillness as the final state of enlightenment. Featuring the classic quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on double bass, the album was to become an enduring and influential achievement.

Read Church Of Sound: How a London duo created an alternate place of worship

A Love Supreme marked Coltrane as the pioneer of the spiritual jazz movement. Although he was to pass away two years later, many others would follow in his musical footsteps, including his widow Alice Coltrane. Pharoah Sanders – who played with him on Ascension and Meditations – is still performing live today. Sun Ra, Don Cherry and Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner took this idea further to offer their own take on spiritual truth in reaction to the political turbulence of the late sixties and early seventies. Today, too – perhaps in reaction to liberation movements and threatening Nationalism – Spiritual Jazz is re-emerging, like an opening in the clouds of a storm.

Looking first at the U.S., Spiritual Jazz has been very much alive in the last few years within the West Coast music scene, particularly through the recent releases of tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington. His extravagantly long debut The Epic, released in 2015, is a contribution to Coltrane’s spiritual legacy. Tracks such as The Message and Malcolm’s Theme hark back to the political context of sixties jazz, with the latter tune containing quotes said by Malcolm X talking about Islam and the socially oppressed position of African-Americans.

Kamasi Washington also released a music video for Truth from his forthcoming EP earlier this year that follows up on this same musical and philosophical outlook. This fifteen-minute long piece is a journey through textures, from a full-blown choral arrangement to a string section, but always with the same bass pattern and chord progression as a comforting constant. Fellow LA resident, Kendrick Lamar collaborator Trumpeter Josef Liemberg, also represented the growing scene with his debut Astral Progressions. Not limited to the West Coast, the late Kelan Phil Cohran made an impact in Chicago. He made a huge contribution to Spiritual Jazz through his life in his own compositions, collaborations with Sun Ra, and in founding the impactful AACM, too.

There are many British creatives who are inspired by the legacy of greats like Coltrane, Cohran and Sun Ra, including Maisha, a group lead by drummer Jake Long. As well as playing their own material, they recently interpreted Alice Coltrane classics for a sold out Church Of Sound show in London. 

“For Spiritual Jazz in the UK, Manchester is the shining star”

Also in London, Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings is an articulate explorer of the spiritual jazz spectrum. Outside of his own projects – which are many and varied – Hutchings has also performed with Sun Ra Arkestra and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. Hutchings’ trio project The Comet is Coming combines Sun Ra’s legacy of Afro-futuristic jazz with elements of psychedelic rock, funk, and electronica. On tracks like Space Carnival from the 2016 album Channel the Spirits, saxophone riffs echo over a wash of cosmic synth chords and beats conjured up by production duo Danalogue the Conqueror and Betamax Killer (AKA Soccer96). The manifesto on their webpage states: “This is a time of darkness, requiring an honest expression of our generation’s rage, inertia, hopelessness but most importantly resilience, unity and love”. Amongst the more obscure cosmic and Afro-futurism references there is an honest questioning of the world’s current state and a championing of music as a tool for change.

Capital cities tend to propel themselves as trendsetters to music fans across their respective countries. However for Spiritual Jazz in the UK, Manchester is the shining star. Label Gondwana Records – founded and run by enigmatic trumpeter and DJ Matthew Halsall – have nurtured the UK’s reignited romance with Spiritual Jazz. Halsall’s own releases and performances with the Gondwana Orchestra have been consistently motivated by Spiritual Jazz influences. His featuring of Rachel Gladwin nods to pioneers Dorothy Ashby and Alice Coltrane. Halsall’s evident love for the legacy of spiritual jazz is represented in the music he re-interprets, including Alice Coltrane’s classic album Journey in Satchidananda, which includes Lisa Mallett on bansuri flute. Aside from his own releases as a trumpeter and bandleader, Halsall has supported the careers of GoGo Penguin, Nat Birchill and Mammal Hands via Gondwana Records.

There’s been a re-engagement of late with Spiritual Jazz of the past. Record label Luaka Bop has just released the first instalment of a series of spiritual music from around the world. World Spirituality Classics 1:The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda contains largely unheard music extracted from four cassette tapes that Alice Coltrane recorded and released between 1982 and 1995. The music ranges widely, from solo performances on her harp to a 24-piece choir and also includes the only recorded instance of Alice singing.

“The world was a different place when John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme”

A central characteristic of Spiritual Jazz is its inspired use and exploration of the instrumentation, timbres and harmonies of Eastern music, something that is especially evident in Alice Coltrane’s music. This trait was rooted in the rising appeal of non-Christian religions as a means of spiritual guidance for the troubled young African-Americans of the sixties. Particularly popular was Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam as well as the broader belief-systems of Eastern mysticism and Zen philosophy. Alice Coltrane was highly influenced by her friendship with Indian guru Swami Satchidananda and her trips to India, leading to her delving into the religious philosophy of Vedanta as well as Indian culture and music. In this particular album, this is most distinctive through her use of bhajans– the Hindu devotional hymns.

The tracks were recorded especially for the fellow members of the Sai Anantam Ashram, California. In Om Shanti, Coltrane’s deep voice ushers in a full choir of singers with soaring harmonies. It demonstrates the creative fusion of Western and Eastern Music. Luaka Bop chose 2017 to release the precious recordings, marking what would have been Alice Coltrane’s 80th year, and the fiftieth anniversary of her husband’s death.

The world was a different place when John Coltrane recorded A Love SupremeChange was in the air, but also violence and chaos. We’ve come a long way since, but even fifty years later, unease and confusion prevail. The re-emergence of Spiritual Jazz is symptomatic of a longing for peace, harmony and fulfilment.

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JS | Gail Tasker

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