Spiritual and transcendent jazz from Impulse! Records – 05/09/23

Cosmic Jazz shows of late have journeyed among the elements of life, stoked the fires of  jazz dancefloors and, for this show, we’ve ascended into spiritual and transcendent realms. Be prepared for some serious and intense music.

1. John Coltrane – Seraphic Light from Stellar Regions

Derek’s copy of The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary Vol. II (1933 edition) provides a 1668 definition of seraphic as Of discourse, actions, appearance: Showing ecstasy of devout contemplation. It’s certainly an appropriate description for John Coltrane’s Seraphic Light – indeed, as it is for much of John Coltrane’s later work. It’s also a pretty useful guide to the discourse, actions and appearance of this current Cosmic Jazz show as we reached out to those higher musical planes. Stellar Regions was recorded on 15 February 1967 near the end of John Coltrane’s life and it was one of the recordings unearthed after his death from liver cancer by his wife Alice Coltrane and son Ravi. Alice is significant for this recording in two other ways: it was she who provided the title for the tune Seraphic Light which was untitled when recorded and – from 1965 – she had become the pianist in the quartet.  Her freer approach was more suited to these new exploratory sounds than the more conventionally rooted McCoy Tyner, who had been a stalwart of the classic Coltrane quartet since its inception in 1960.  Indeed, when Rashied Ali was recruited as a second drummer, Tyner commented that he couldn’t hear himself above the two drummers and so left the group in late 1965. He was followed by original drummer Elvin Jones shortly afterwards. The new quartet was taking shape. Tyner had commented that Coltrane was always searching, like a scientist in a lab, looking for something new, a different direction… He kept hearing these sounds in his head and, indeed, the music was to become much more free as Coltrane began to be influenced by many of the younger Impulse! players he was listening to – Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler among them. In the album liner notes David Wild, the writer and critic for Rolling Stone, noted that These recordings all have a similar aura. Among Coltrane’s final phrases, they are almost the last notes to be captured on tape, performances thus haunted by our foreknowledge that what will follow them is silence. More importantly and perhaps even more compelling, they represent a suggestion of the evolution his music would have taken had his life not been cut so short, a tantalizing glimpse of an unrealized future. There could be no better way to open a programme around spiritual and transcendent themes.

2. Alice Coltrane with Strings – Galaxy in Satchidananda from World Galaxy

It seemed natural to follow John with Alice. World Galaxy comes from 1972 when Coltrane was developing in a new direction, much like her husband had done previously. The expanded group, now including Frank Lowe on tenor saxophone and Leroy Jenkins on violin, was augmented by by a full string orchestra and the voice of Swami Satchidananda who had achieved fame in the west as a ‘go-to guru’ for the new generation, appearing to rapturous acclaim at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. The music on World Galaxy is bookended by versions of My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme but these are not mere recreations of the John Coltrane versions. Alice Coltrane’s vision here is entirely her own – there truly is nothing else like this in jazz – and the three original Galaxy… compositions on the album have a mesmerising, immersive quality as Coltrane moves from Wurlitzer organ, piano and harp to create a unique soundscape that feels genuinely otherworldly.

3. Pharaoh Sanders – Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah from Jewels of Thought

And so on to another John Coltrane acolyte, Ferrell Sanders who was given the name Pharoah by none other than Sun Ra. Hum-Allah-Hum Allah-Hum-Allah comes from Sanders 1969 album on Impulse! Jewels of Thought and features one of his most hypnotic grooves over 15 minutes of saxophone and piano improvisations from Sanders and Lonnie Liston Smith who lays down one of his best performances on record. Leon Thomas adds his distinctive vocals with Cecil McBee on bass and the great Roy Haynes on drums. The excellent Aquarium Drunkard blog review emphasises the sheet joyousness of this music: On… ‘Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah,’ [Smith] gives Sanders a spruced-up base from which to launch, but Sanders seems just as happy to follow his pianist. The two play around one another cheerfully, each occasionally departing to take a solo trip through the sky before returning to the ground. Around them, the song develops with the same natural grace. Lonnie Liston Smith would go on to record the much-loved Astral Travelling album in 1973 which also featured Cecil McBee and little-known soprano saxophonist George Barron – here’s the magical title track.

4. Albert Ayler – Music is the Healing Force of the Universe from Music is the Healing Force of the Universe

Our cosmic journey continues with Albert Ayler’s extraordinary Music is the Healing Force of the Universe, recorded shortly before his early death in 1970. The album is complete with a bagpipes solo from Ayler, a spiritual recitation from his wife Mary Maria Parks (who wrote all the compositions) and contributions from former Mothers Of Invention/Canned Heat guitarist Henry Vestine playing his take on electric free blues. Much as on his previous record New Grass, Ayler’s raw sound attempts to integrate the worlds of R&B and free jazz: it’s not always successful but it is again unique – there was nothing else much like this in jazz either before or since. “Life is music” and is “sometimes not understood” as Mary Parks sings on this title track.

5. Michael White – Fatima’s Garden from The Land of Spirit and Light

Violinist Michael White maybe under-recorded compared with our other jazz artists but there should be no chance of this one getting away. Not only Michael White’s best album but one of the finest on the Impulse! label. It’s an unusual group too – classical guitarist Bob King, the aforementioned Cecil McBee on bass, percussionist Kenneth Nash, pianist Ed Kelley and the great Prince Lasha on woodwinds.  The ten-minute Fatima’s Garden has piano, bass, shimmering bells, and violin treading a  gently modal path until the introduction of Lasha’s atmospheric flute. This is a truly joyous recording and one that should be much better known. And the cover art is magnificent too.

6. Gato Barbieri – Encontros Part Three from Chapter Two: Hasta Siempre

Fiery Argentinian tenor saxophonist Leandro ‘Gato’ Barbieri might look like the outlier in this show but he’s more linked to this august company than you might think. For one thing, he had a central rôle in Michael Mantler’s Jazz Composers Orchestra epic release of 1968 – as did Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry and the rather forgotten George Barrow (see above). The whole shebang was something of a prelude to the epic Escalator Over the Hill three record set from 1971 and which had an even more expansive lineup. Check out the wonderful A.I.R (All India Radio) here. Encontros Part Three comes from a series of four ‘Chapters’ recorded for Impulse! between 1973 and 1975. All four records are highly recommended and great places to start with Barbieri’s music. As we’ve noted on the show before, Barbieri subsequently went straight down the middle of the jazz road, embracing the disco bubble with enthusiasm but much weaker material (and, it must be said, some rather dodgy album covers). Perhaps the starting point for this decline was the 1978  album Tropico which allied his distinctive rasping tone to lush string and wordless vocals. However, most of these later albums are often redeemed by that uniquely recognisable tone and so are still worth a listen.

Now, if this show has whetted your appetite for more jazz on the Impulse! label (and, yes, it’s always written with that exclamation mark) then check out some of the many compilations that have been issued over the years. We’ll begin with Transcendence, one of a series of records issued by the label in the 1990s, and compiled by DJ Patrick Forge and music promoter Kerstan Mackness. As the title suggests, this tends toward the spiritual end of the jazz spectrum and includes some of the artists we’ve featured – for example, the Coltranes, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler. Never released on vinyl, you can find the CD on Discogs right here – it’s a great starter selection. Also highly recommended is the First Impulse: Creed Taylor 50th Anniversary 4CD set released in 1998 – and there are copies here on Discogs. Neil thinks that another (and even better) place to start is the book and CD combination of The House That Trane Built, released in the wake of Ashley Kahn’s excellent label biography. You can find the book here on Amazon and the 4CD set with liner notes by Kahn again here on Discogs – this one’s a bargain!

The mega-label Universal covers Verve, Impulse! ECM and, thanks to the ongoing vinyl renaissance, several select titles are now being reissued on high quality 18gram vinyl. in association with the audiophile label Acoustic Sounds. You’d do well by starting with Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda from 1971 which sounds superb on the black stuff and comes in an authentic classic Impulse! gatefold too. Many of these reissues are limited editions so buy now… Finally – and soon to be released in a lavish box set – is another superb compilation, this time on both vinyl and CD. There are eight records in the set:  John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass (1961); Passin’ Thru by Chico Hamilton (1963); singer Lorez Alexandria’s Alexandria the Great (1964); Charles Mingus’ 1964 classic Mingus Plays Piano; Hungarian guitar master Gabor Szabó’s Jazz Raga (1967); Chicken Fat by Mel Brown (1967); Pharoah Sanders’ Karma (1969) and, last but not least, from 1970, Alice Coltrane’s Ptah the El Daoud. All albums come on 180g black vinyl, packaged in facsimile sleeves and most are mastered from the original analogue sources. Check out the promo details from Jazzwise magazine right here.

Neil is listening to…

This selection is partly informed by the X platform choices of micro-chop (or Gino Sorchinelli). Follow this guy on Twitter/X and get access to a really informed music selection across many genres. We featured two versions of The World is a Ghetto, Mongo Santamaria, Raphael Saadiq and Norman Connors. “Music for grown folks” indeed! There’s also a nod to the amazing lineup at the 2023 London Jazz Festival beginning in November with music from Makaya McCraven, and great new albums from Yussef Dayes and Matthew Halsall. Brazilian superstar Joyce is about to start a European tour and, finally, we celebrate the music of the late bassist Richard Davis who played with so many artists over the years. He’s represented here by a superb version of Everything Happens to Me from Elvin Jones’ tribute album to John Coltrane.

More from Cosmic Jazz soon…

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