Alice Coltrane Transfiguration Review

BBC Review

Spiritually fuelled live date from 1978, with Alice's organ workouts supported by Roy...

John Eyles 2002

Understandably, reactions to Alice Coltrane have often focussed as much on her spirituality as on her playing. The twin focuses (obsessions?) of her music have been the legacy of her late husband and her religious devotion, the two hardly being separable at times.

Transfiguration was recorded live at UCLA in 1978, with Reggie Workman on bass and Roy Haynes on drums. To date, it is the last jazz recording that Coltrane has made. (She has made several subsequent recordings of devotional songs and chants.) In her pre-Coltrane years, Alice was reputedly quite a player of bebop, but by this stage of her career, her playing was a distant relative of those roots, with few overt traces of jazz.

Her electronic keyboard work seems far more influenced by African and Indian musics, and there are often strong affinities with the organ playing of (another devotional figure) minimalist Terry Riley. Her lengthy improvisations show little development, often using repetition and a limited dynamic range to achieve a kind of drone. If that reads like a criticism, it isn't meant to be; the combination of Coltrane's keyboards with Workman and Haynes is highly successful. They provide the flexibility and responsiveness that Coltrane needs to support her playing and stop the minimalism becoming one-dimensional.

One highlight of the album is the long closing version of John Coltrane's "Leo", with fine solos from bass and drums. Alice's long closing solo is also commendable, but the (rather dated) tone of the electronic keyboard she employs does become rather monotonous and wearying over the album's eighty minutes. For this reason, easily the best piece here is "Prema", on which Coltrane plays acoustic piano, and is joined by a nine-piece string section (overdubbed) that provides a perfect complement to her slow, gospel-tinged style. Consequently, this track works best as jazz, and also most closely approaches the universal spirituality that Coltrane seeks to convey.

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