This is Alice Coltrane's first album as a leader, made a year after her husband, John Coltrane, died. In fact, many of the songs seem to be dedicated to her late husbandó"Ohnedaruth" was John Coltrane's spirit name; "Gospel Trane" most likely refers to John; "I Want To See You" reflects how much Alice must have missed him; "Oceanic Beloved"... well, you get the point. Some people don't like this album because the musicians seem to be in "mourning" for Trane. I don't see this as a bad thing. The death of John Coltrane was a huge blow to the jazz world, and to many other worlds as well. It forced the musicians associated with him to dig deep into themselves in order to make beautiful music without his physical presence (not to say that they couldn't do so before). The musicians on A Monastic Trio (except for Ben Riley) made up John Coltrane's last group; they helped him make some of the most amazing music of his career, and of theirs as well. But they also made some great music after his death as well. A Monastic Trio documents the genesis of that great music.
The original album consisted of tracks 3-8. "Lord, Help Me To Be" and "The Sun" originally appeared on the album "Cosmic Music," which also included two tunes from the John Coltrane group. But since they came from the same session as "Ohnedaruth," they've been included here.
Nearly all the tunes here are based on modes and scales rather than actual melodies. "Lord, Help Me To Be," a 3/4 waltz, opens with a simple but hard-swinging bass line, followed by drums and piano. Alice's chords suggest a theme, but it's very loose. Pharoah comes in with the same loose theme before blowing an intense solo. It's incredible how Pharoah can come in on a song that's practically a blues and still give it an Eastern-African edge, simply by his choice of scales. He was always strongly influenced by Eastern and African music, but of course as a saxophonist in America, he grew up with the blues. The different styles may not seem like they would blend well, but the blues came from Africa, so it fits perfectly. This is something that Alice and Pharoah explored extensively in their solo careers. They blended the blues with other cultures; it was absolutely genius.
"The Sun" begins with a mantra: "May there be peace, love, and pefection throughout all creation, O God," spoken by John Coltrane, probably recorded in one of his later sessions. The tune itself is basically a 4 minute Alice Coltrane solo, again with only a loose theme based on a set of scales. It's in free rhythm, colored by bells and sparse bass. Although Pharoah is listed as playing flute here, he is barely audible. Something must have gotten messed up with the master tape.
"Ohnedaruth" is supposedly a chant that the last John Coltrane group used to perform, although there is no chanting here. Alice must have recorded it for this album as a tribute to Trane, as Ohnedaruth was his "spirit name" (see the liner notes to Alice's album Universal Consciousness). The tune is free in rhythm, with Riley just coloring the music with cymbals. At this point, you begin to wonder, "Who's playing the bells?" And it's a valid question. There are bells in the first three tunes, but every musician is playing at times, and the bells continue throughout the entire tunes. Pharoah often liked to pick up some bells or a tambourine before and after his solos, but the bells can be heard even when he is playing. The only possible conclusions one can come to is that either there was an unlisted musician, or they overdubbed the bells after they recorded the tunes. At any rate, the bells add a lot of color and beauty to the music, and it would sound very empty without them. "Ohnedaruth" is one of the few tunes on the record that has an obvious theme. It opens with a sort of chord progression on the piano, repeated a couple times. Then Pharoah comes in on bass clarinet and plays a great solo. I don't think I've ever heard him on bass clarinet other than on this record. He brings to mind an atonal Eric Dolphy. Alice does a solo filled with all kinds of modal changes, all within the context of the song. It's obvious that John helped her with her playing, because she does does a lot of the same harmonic things as he did.
The rest of the tunes on the album don't include Pharoah Sanders, and Rashied Ali replaces Ben Riley on drums. "Gospel Trane" is a modal blues. This tune also has a definite theme, complete with a swinging beat and a walking bass line. After the 12-bar melody, Alice goes into her solo. Rashied puts his signature on the tune and lets the time to, turning a blues into a free jam. He then takes a solo and brings back the time. Alice solos a bit more before playing the theme again and closing the tune.
"I Want To See You" is a free ballad, possibly dedicated to John Coltrane. The trio plays with a lot of space here. Rashied just barely touches the cymbals to add some nice color to the atmosphere.
The next three tunes are with the same trio, but Alice plays harp instead of piano. I love Alice's harp playing on Ptah The El Daoud and especially Journey In Satchidananda, but there is something different about it here. It is freer and looser. I didn't realize until listening to this what a modal instrument the harp is, not to mention beautiful and highly spiritual. The harp tunes may be difficult to enjoy at first, but they are very rewarding in time.
"Altruvista" is a solo piano piece that actually came from a session with the John Coltrane quintet. If anyone doubts Alice's virtuosity as a musician, they should hear this. The song seems to be based on wholetone scales, which are very difficult to master, but she runs up and down the keyboard with an amazing facility.
A Monastic Trio may not stand up as an obvious classic like Ptah The El Daoud and Journey In Satchidananda, but it certainly deserves a place in any Alice Coltrane collection, as it is a very significant and beautiful record. Check it out!