Addicted to Alice


I got a chunky translation job last month, 61 pages of sobering and inspiring information about childhood in Senegal: sobering to read that children’s charity X allows a maximum grant of US$5 per month; inspiring when I think of the hundreds of people freely offering their time and experience to help others less fortunate than themselves.

My most immediate concern, however, was finishing the report ahead of schedule. In this business, the deadline has usually already passed by the time you sign the contract, so you have to work double fast just to make up for time lost by someone before you.

My boss in Rome had a much photocopied text tacked to her noticeboard: A lack of planning on your part does not justify an emergency on my part. True, true. But as a freelancer I’m sure I’d get a frosted stare if I repeated that before signing the contract.

In addition to the tight time pressure from outside, I still had a family life to … enjoy. The result was a work day from 9:30 to 11:30, when Baby-J took her morning nap, and from 20:30 onwards, when the other kids went to bed, finishing when I could no longer focus on the words dancing on the screen.

What kept me going? A podcast of some of the best work of Alice Coltrane: Alice in Wonderland compiled and spliced by Bending Corners. I’ve been a fan of Bending Corners for a couple of years, enjoying its eclectic mix of lesser known work from established jazzbo greyheads as well as Nu-jazz young turks, the best of whom are actually Scandinavian. Don’t take my word for it, though; get over to Bending Corners after you’ve finished here.

But back to Alice, Alice Coltrane, wife of John Coltrane, Boss Horn bar none. Somehow she had escaped my attention, despite my owning a nice vinyl collection of cosmic jazzsters from the same galaxy: Pharaoh Sanders, Lonnie Liston Smith, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef, and so on. I liked the unpredictability and dissonance of their music, as well as the sometimes bizarre sounds of African American jazz musicians interpreting Indian classical music, not as cringeworthy as the sitars in 60s pop bands, but still smirkable.

Maybe I thought Alice was cashing in on the Coltrane name and lacked her own voice. I’ve also read of a comparison between Alice and Yoko Ono, both of whom were blamed for breaking up a popular band, in Alice’s case, the “classic” quartet of J.C., McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison.

The judgements are unfair, however; Alice Coltrane made her own beautiful, beautiful music, both intimate and large-scale, sometimes profound, sometimes cheesy. Though even when it was cheesy it was well done. Such is the extract I’ve selected for you below, Om Supreme.

I’ve collected a dozen albums by Alice Coltrane in the last year, but when I needed to work on this job, I couldn’t resist going back to the Bending Corners podcast. There was something about it that gave me the ability to work for hours with great concentration. After a dozen listenings, each section becomes familiar in its own way and marks a break in my work — I shift position, review the previous section, or try to pin down the nuance of a particular technical term — each change determined by the shift in the music, it seems.

After the monumental Galaxy In Satchidananda, with its interlacing of delicate harp and the slow grandeur of the strings (picture elephants performing courtly Indian dance in the Forbidden City), after the free jazz twiddles of Sita Ram, the tension and release pattern continues throughout the podcast, ending with this extract. Every 46 minutes — the time of the podcast set on loop — I’d allow myself to sit back and close my eyes for a few minutes. In the opening, Alice’s powerful stabs on the keyboard get blown out on my puny headphones in a weirdly satisfying way. I also love the strong contrasts between violent dissonance and soft, reassuring melody. And of course I always smile when the singers begin, sounding like a bunch of blond, tanned hippies wearing white robes and beatific perma-smiles. Yes, it’s a load of mystic codswallop they’re chanting (I’ll Om-Supreme-Bhagavan you, matey!) … but it’s a wonderful thing to listen to in the still of a hot summer night in Africa with a cool breeze blowing off the ocean, rustling the palm tree in the garden.

(Click to play)

[audio:Alice Coltrane – Om Supreme.mp3]

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