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Alice Coltrane was an unlikely guru. She was a 9-year-old prodigy pianist accompanying Baptist church choirs in Detroit. A jazz instrumentalist who came of age when women in jazz only found fame for their singing voices. The devoted wife, then bereft widow, of a musician so literally stellar his fans made him a saint.
But she was a genius musician in her own right. And she was John’s partner not only in music, but in a broad and deep spiritual quest that led them to meditation and the study of Eastern philosophy, including Vedanta. When he passed in 1967, she continued to carry on their familial, musical, and spiritual mission.
A spiritual journey
Her personal journey is the stuff of movies: She was a friend and follower of Swami Satchidananda and Sathya Sai Baba, traveled to study yoga and music in India, experienced a harrowing spiritual initiation that was the definition of tapasya. Ultimately she followed her divine calling to become a guru in her own right—founding a 48-acre ashram in the Santa Monica mountains that became the spiritual home for a devoted community of some hundred mostly Black and brown followers.
At the center of her work—leading meditation, teaching philosophy, and healing the hearts and bodies of her followers—there was always music. Even her spiritual name, Turiyasangitananda, was a Sanskrit word meaning “highest song of praise.”
Her daughter, vocalist Sita Michelle Coltrane, remembers the sound of Sundays at the ashram: “Everyone in the community attended a kirtan, which involved singing bhajans, songs of praise containing all the names of the supreme lord,” she says. Her mother taught the songs in Sanskrit but her gospel roots and her jazz experience were clearly present in the music.
There were five studio recordings of those bhajans, “the majority of which are noncommercial and fairly difficult to obtain,” according to her biographer Franya Berkman in Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane. Most appeared on B sides of her recordings or were released on cassettes especially for her followers and featured Turiya on her Fender Rhodes piano, accompanied by the voices and percussion of her choir.
But in 1981, she recorded Turiya Sings. “It was the first time we in the ashram community had ever heard my mother’s God-given, celestial vocal talent,” her daughter says. (An ad in an archival copy of Yoga Journal offers a dolby cassette recording of Turiya Sings for $8.98.)
A voice revealed
Today, Impulse! Records releases a never-before-heard album of her devotional songs. Described as intimate and spiritual, the songs contain the essence of all her influences—blues, gospel, bebop, Motown grooves, and Carnatic singing style of southern India—under her rich voice singing Sanskrit verses. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the release coincides with John Coltrane’s passing 54 years ago on July 17.)
“The original release of Turiya Sings was a multi-layered orchestration of voice, organ, string arrangements, synthesizers, and even some sound effects. …My mother always arranged her recordings utilizing a grand musical vision,” says her son Ravi Coltrane, noted jazz saxophonist and producer of the new album. But he uncovered tracks from the original recording featuring only Alice’s voice and her organ accompaniment—no effects or overdubs.
“Hearing my mother sing and play in this stripped-down, intimate setting revealed the true heart and soul of these songs,” he says. “And most importantly, in this setting I felt the greatest sense of her passion, devotion, and exaltation in singing these songs in praise of the Supreme.”
As the album’s producer, he says it was difficult to make a creative decision that may have been counter to Turiyasangitananda’s original artistic vision. But his mother may have left a hint that his intention, ultimately, aligns with hers.
“Music can be very complex, very technical, very experimental, but it can also be very spiritual,” she told a Yoga Journal writer in a 1982 article. “Out of all of these considerations, spirituality, as music, is what I appreciate the most.”
Yoga Journal Exclusive
Here, in a Yoga Journal exclusive, you can hear for yourself the power of Turiyasangitananda’s voice—and her spirit. For the next 72 hours you can chant and meditate along with her, guided by this beautiful visualized recording of music from Kirtan: Turiya Sings.
Watch the visualizer below:
From the liner notes:
“The devotional songs voice the glory of God. They chant the praises of the Lord and express sincerely of divine inspiration and appreciation. These religious songs have not detracted from the ancient purity of the holy language even though Western instrumentation has been added as accompaniment. Because each song is sung in Sanskrit, a booklet of English translations is provided for the listener. This presentation of devotional music is earnestly offered from the soul to God, the Supreme Lord.”
Kirtan: Turiya Sings will be available on vinyl, CD, digital download and streaming, as well as hi-res streaming in studio quality sound, and can be pre-ordered here.
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