Alice Coltrane’s “Universal Consciousness”

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Universal Consciousness

アリス·コルトレーン : 普遍意識 *

April-June, 1971, Impulse AS-9210

  1. Universal Consciousness            5:06
  2. Battle at Armageddon                 7:20
  3. Oh Allah                                       5:00
  4. Hare Krishna                               8:14
  5. Sita Ram                                      4:47
  6. The Ankh of Amen-Ra                 6:09

*The Japanese kanji spelling of Universal Consciousness translates into Mandarin Chinese as “general awareness,” the opposite of the titular implication!

Universal Consciousness  is an enigma when compared to the success of husband John Coltrane’s album  A Love Supreme (1965). It utilizes innovative string orchestration by Ornette Coleman (similar in form to Coleman’s own symphonic work Skies of America), as well as two harp or drum/organ duos evocative of John’s later work on Interstellar Space (both albums featuring drummer Rashied Ali). It also contains a religious motif of praise for the Eternal similar to A Love Supreme and comparatively beautiful moments, the track Hare Krishna or the beginning of The Ankh of Amen-Ra being of a type with the joyous Acknowledgement from A Love Supreme (both Hare Krishna and Acknowledgement too feature bassist Jimmy Garrison). But for all its inherent beauty and musical excellence, it is not as well known or as lauded as A Love Supreme, and it is made scant mention of in jazz history texts.

One reason may be that whereas A Love Supreme is dedicated to a featureless God that may be the Judeo-Christian Yahweh (track four is entitled Psalm), Mrs. Coltrane’s recording is a pantheistic tribute to the major gods of the world’s religions. Those worthy of praise via the album are Jesus Christ, Zoroaster, Baha’u’llah, the Way (Tao), and even John Coltrane himself under the name Ohnedaruth: all holy “Manifestations”. This pantheism may make it difficult for the average jazz fan to relate to the message of the recording if they are not familiar with the significance of each figure and/or how they may be related, if at all, for it is difficult to ascertain for example what inherent or transitive divine properties Jesus Christ would share with the Tao.

Also, Universal Consciousness was released a number of years after A Love Supreme, possibly creating the view that it is derivative or sourced from her then late husband’s work which, by 1971, was not in the vanguard. It also was released at a time when second-wave free jazz and jazz-fusion were the emerging styles of the day, with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Les Stances à Sophie both making extremely innovative advances in the improvised music of the times. John Coltrane’s lingering legacy of later works may have also played a factor in the reception of Alice’s album, as Interstellar Space and Ascension were dismissed by many as “anti-jazz,” and hostility towards the new music(s) was common amongst jazz critics. But all creative and socio-economic considerations aside, it still seems almost criminally conspiratorial that an album as evocative and as well made as Universal Consciousness has not had more critical attention or impact on jazz history.

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