Alice Coltrane,
Translinear Light
(Impulse, 2004)

The Coltranes might be considered the First Family of jazz, with the late and legendary founding father John, probably the most influential musician ever to pick up a tenor (and soprano) sax; his wife Alice, who not only played keyboards with him, but went on to build a solid career of her own; their second son Ravi, who followed in his father's footsteps, also playing saxophones, and brilliantly; and youngest son Oran, who plays alto sax. Mother and sons collaborate on the first new CD to be released under Alice Coltrane's name in several decades, and Translinear Light was worth the long wait.

The 11 compositions (four traditional, five by Alice and two by John) are mostly steeped in Eastern and Indian musicality, and all are deeply spiritual, in keeping with Alice Coltrane's deep involvement with Eastern religions and philosophies. They are all, however, as musically rewarding as they are spiritually. Alice plays piano, Wurlitzer organ and synthesizer, and is supported by two separate rhythm sections, one composed of Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums and James Genus on bass, and the other of Jack DeJohnette on drums and Charlie Haden on bass. Whatever the combination, the results are equally outstanding.

"Sita Ram" starts off with Alice on Wurlitzer, and the Hindu melody works brilliantly on the instrument, with Alice bending notes the way one would do on a sitar. Her keyboard skills are phenomenal throughout, with notes cascading from the piano like water on "Walk With Me," a tune that opens freely and settles into a blues groove. It's great to hear Ravi and Alice together on the title track, a modal tune in which Haden and DeJohnette keep up a constant rumbling undercurrent, the engine that drives the voyage. I'm not as taken with "Jagadishwar," one of two tunes on which Alice plays synthesizer. Whether it's the tone of the synth or the composition itself, the sound is too new-agey for my tastes.

"This Train" starts out with Haden and DeJohnette's marvelously understated conversation before Alice comes in with the melody, making "This Train" sound like the Bombay Express. It's a total reimagining of the classic song that begs for superlatives. The use of synthesizer is perfectly realized in "The Hymn," due to its freer and more contemplative mood. Oran Coltrane's alto sax speaks with a clear and pristinely beautiful voice that makes the listener long to hear more from him. Alice's "Blue Nile" receives an elegant reading with a wonderfully soft-spoken Charlie Haden solo, and John Coltrane's classic "Crescent" gets a gently swinging version. "Crescent" is back to back with "Leo," John's other composition here, and the contrast is extraordinary. Alice gets amazing sounds out of the Wurlitzer, and at the tune's most chaotic moments it seems like a cross between a sitar and a sax on acid. When Ravi enters on tenor, the glorious cacophony becomes even stronger and wilder, all propelled by DeJohnette's powerful drumming.

"Triloka," a duet between Alice's piano and Haden's sympathetic bass, provides some calm after the storm, and on the final track, "Satya Sai Isha," Alice goes full tilt boogie into spirituality, her Wurlitzer blending with the chants of the Sai Anantam Ashram Singers. It's a deeply moving way to end a deeply moving album.

Translinear Light maintains its brilliance throughout, both musically and emotionally. It's a remarkable comeback album, and makes us hunger for more from the fertile mind and spirit of Alice Coltrane. Ravi has never sounded better, and Oran's single contribution is enough to make us wish for a full album from him very soon.

by Chet Williamson
19 August 2006

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