Review Summary: Impressive album combining elements of Eastern music with modal/avant-garde jazz.
The 1960s saw an increased interest in Eastern spirituality, philosophy and music, which was seen and heard not just on the fringes but even in the most prominent places in popular culture later in the decade, particularly at the height of the psychedelic movement. Jazz musicians had experimented with the notion of Indian/Eastern music several years prior and tended to focus on the opportunities those styles could provide musically, rather than anything aesthetic. John Coltrane
had developed a fascination for music of different cultures, notably Africa and India, incorporating different modes but often still performing the compositions with the typical instrumentation of a jazz band. Although receiving mixed receptions at the time, all of those moves made perfect sense given the era, with artists shifting focus and approach from bop to modal jazz – the new influences gave added possibilities and freedom as a soloist. Yusef Lateef
displayed Eastern influences even in the 1950s, and by the early 1960s was performing songs (often blues based or standards) with more exotic instruments, not commonly heard on jazz records in the era.
In 1970, Alice Coltrane expanded on these ideas and experiments with Journey In Satchidananda
, the most renowned record of her career and arguably her best. The influence of Middle Eastern music is immediately obvious with the use of the tamboura, which lays a dreamlike, droning backdrop. The rest of the line up is far more typical, with piano, drums, bass, soprano saxophone and various percussion, but the performances are fittingly far from rigid. Bass lines are memorable, fairly simple, repetitive, and they fit seamlessly – functioning almost as if they were repeated mantras. That’s part of the charm for much of the album – repetition without being redundant. In addition to piano, Coltrane also adds her harp flourishes which are extremely effective on the title track in particular and sound much more integrated than they did on some of her previous recordings in a sparser trio setting. Pharoah Sanders
plays saxophone, more in the vein of his late 60s/early 70s albums, as opposed to the unrestrained recordings of the mid 60s.
The title track is a clear highlight and essentially sums up what’s to follow – built around the drone of the tamboura and a straight-forward bass line. Another standout is Isis And Osiris, notable for several reasons – it’s a live cut, with the other four songs being studio offerings. The tamboura is omitted in favour of oud, which provides a sonic contrast. It makes full use of its twelve minutes and develops into a piece more urgent, up-tempo and energetic than anything else that preceded it, without disrupting the flow or feeling out of place.
The album is strangely accessible, especially when compared to her husband John’s music towards the end of his life and other spiritually inclined music from the era. It was Alice’s second release of the year, following the impressive Ptah, The El Daoud
. At a time when many of jazz music’s big names were leaning towards fusion and beginning to use electric instruments, this bucks those trends and sounds all the more distinct for doing so. She would go on to release several more excellent records in the 70s, as well as sporadic releases until her death in 2007, but nothing quite as engaging and cohesive as Journey In Satchidananda