Coltrane's Cosmic Music Part I: From the Penthouse to Infinity

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Coltrane's Cosmic Music Part I: From the Penthouse to Infinity

By Matt Silver

1965 was a year of upheaval and a year where things were happening on a grand scale in America. The space race was on, the heat was on in Saigon, and Martin Luther King led marchers demanding equal voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. Muhammad Ali stood like a conquering hero over Sonny Liston after knocking him out with a punch no one saw, least of all Liston; riots erupted in Watts and Malcolm X was assassinated — by whom exactly, we still don’t know. 

What we do know is 1965 was the end of the line for John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet.

By January 1966, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones had left the band; their musicality was simply no longer evolving along the same path as Coltrane’s. The band now employed additional horns as well as multiple drummers and bassists. Tyner and Jones complained that Coltrane’s increasing tendency toward atonality and crowded bandstands left little room for them to hear themselves, let alone each other.

And yet, while two-thirds of his classic rhythm section may have felt alienated by the direction of the group, Coltrane’s output during the summer and autumn of 1965 was prolific, even for him. In late September, the quartet began a residency at The Penthouse in Seattle; Pharaoh Sanders joined as a second saxophonist and Donald Garrett was added as a second bass player.

Their first night in Seattle was memorialized on 1971’s Live at Seattle LP and two nights later this same sextet — at the same venue — performed A Love Supreme in its entirety, a performance released by Impulse in 2021. The latter is one of only two live recordings of A Love Supreme; the other was recorded just over two months earlier at Antibes, France. 

Included in that visit to the Pacific Northwest was an unlikely recording session at a Seattle-area studio that was posthumously released as Om in 1967, a 29-minute psychedelic trip that, although it was said to have embarrassed Coltrane, was a success from a marketing standpoint, timed to be released on the heels of 1967’s Summer of Love.

Next up, in mid-October of ’65, were the final recording sessions for Kulu Sé Mama, an album once again featuring Pharaoh Sanders alongside an additional bassist in Donald Garrett, and, this time, an additional drummer in Frank Butler. Released in January 1967, it would be the last album released during Coltrane’s lifetime. One standout track is the ballad “Welcome,” and, in the album’s liner notes written by Nat Hentoff, long of the Village Voice, Coltrane explains what he intended the word “welcome” to mean in this context. “Welcome,” Coltrane says, “is that feeling you have when you finally do reach an awareness, an understanding which you have earned through struggle. It is a feeling of peace. A welcome feeling of peace.”

November 1965 brought the recording sessions that would produce Meditations, a five–part, album-length suite that author and Coltrane historian David Wild has called “the summation of all the elements of the year’s music.” In Wild’s words Meditations incorporates “the compositional foundation, control, and religious depth” of A Love Supreme and “the freedom, intensity, and cathartic joining of voices” of Ascension, the latter of which explicitly signaled Coltrane’s crossing the rubicon into the avant-garde, otherwise known as the new thing. 

Meditations again included Pharaoh Sanders on tenor sax and, this time, Rashied Ali as the second drummer. It also marked the last time Tyner and Jones would record with Coltrane. 

There’s also something to be said about this particular suite of music and finality. Two months earlier, Coltrane, Tyner, Jones, and Garrison had recorded the same suite with no additional sidemen. Released as First Meditations (for quartet) in 1977, that session marked the final time the four would record together as the classic quartet.

If Coltrane grieved the dissolution of his old band, he either didn’t take long or did so while getting back to work because February of the new year 1966 found Coltrane back in the studio. 

Amidst change, there was continuity. Alice Coltrane slid into Tyner’s seat; Rashied Ali, no longer the additional drummer, was now the main guy. Pharaoh Sanders was doing Pharaoh Sanders things… playing sax, contributing on percussion and also on piccolo and wooden flute, and Coltrane’s recorded playing a bass clarinet belonging to Eric Dolphy (not on the gig) on parts of two tunes, “Manifestation” and “Reverend King.” 

Cosmic Music would be the name of the album that came out of those sessions. And its story is an unusual one. 

John Coltrane died of liver cancer in July 1967 without ever releasing any material from those February 1966 sessions. The master tapes, though, continued to live — in the Coltranes’ Long Island home, with Alice and their now four children. In January 1968, Alice decided to combine the two aforementioned tunes from those sessions — “Manifestation” and “Reverend King” — with two new tracks she’d recently recorded with her new band, a band which included Coltrane quintet holdovers Pharaoh Sanders and Jimmy Garrison and a new drummer, Ben Riley. 

Without telling Impulse records, which retained the rights to posthumously release any music Coltrane recorded for Impulse while alive, Alice released the album on the new record label she’d launched, Coltrane Records. 

This presented a problem for Impulse. 

Yes, Alice had breached her late husband’s contract by independently releasing material he’d recorded for Impulse. But it wasn’t just that. The record execs knew Alice had a lot of the unreleased Coltrane masters at the house on Long Island. They realized that this could be just the start of her releasing material Coltrane had recorded for Impulse under her own new label. Impulse was also well aware that legal action against the recently widowed Alice Coltrane would be a bad look and even worse for business. 

So they compromised. Impulse re-produced and re-released Cosmic Music in February 1969 with new, naturally cosmic, artwork and all the corporate marketing and distribution prowess a subsidiary of ABC could bring to bear. Dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. who’d been assassinated 10 months earlier, the Impulse release credited the short-lived Coltrane Records as a co–producer, which was probably somewhere between tactical and magnanimous on the label’s part.

They also signed Alice, who, by then, had already been recording new music with her new band in her home studio. If Impulse Records had truly been the House Trane Built, it was only right that Alice Coltrane would be able to live in it. And lest there be any cynicism about this part of the arrangement: Signing Alice as a leader may have been the best thing for Impulse to do at that particular moment to ensure John’s unreleased recordings stayed under Impulse’s roof without having to go a costly and unseemly legal route, BUT the prospect of Alice becoming a leader for Impulse had also been something that John Coltrane had discussed individually with both Alice and Impulse producer Bob Thiele before John’s death, according to Ashley Kahn, author of The House That Trane Built, the meticulously researched and authoritative history of Impulse Records.

So that resolves the Cosmic Music imbroglio. But, then, what of the other two tunes recorded during the same February 1966 session that produced Cosmic Music’s “Manifestation” and “Reverend King” (i.e. “Peace on Earth” and “Leo”)? 

The fate of these two recordings, too, would become controversial, combined, as they were, in an unorthodox way with an earlier pair of tracks recorded by the then-still-together classic quartet in June and September of 1965. 

Here’s what happened: In 1972, these tunes — all four of them — remained unreleased. Alice Coltrane, since relocated to Los Angeles with the Coltrane children, decided to do something with them. She went into a Los Angeles studio and recorded arrangements she’d written for four violins, two violas and two cellos. Alice, in addition to conducting the strings, was recorded alternately on harp, piano, organ, and vibes, and she’d recruited Charlie Haden to lay down some additional bass lines. ”Joy” and “Living Space” from the 1965 classic quartet recording sessions and “Peace on Earth” and “Leo” — from the February 1966 sessions would all be overdubbed with the newly recorded bed of strings plus Alice’s various parts, plus Haden’s supplemental bass accompaniment. 

The reconstructed whole was released as Infinity in September 1972. Some — many — thought it blasphemy but Alice thought literally the opposite, that the new tapestry she’d created would’ve been aligned with where Coltrane’s ever-evolving spirituality was headed.

“Some people didn’t like the addition of strings,” Alice told Wire magazine in 2002, explaining that she and John had had conversations about “every detail” of those earlier recordings. “They said, ‘We know that the original recording didn’t have any strings, so why didn’t you leave it as it was?’ 

“I replied, ‘Were you there? Did you hear [John’s] commentary and what he had to say?’.... John was showing me how the piece could include other sounds, blends, tonalities and resonances such as strings. He talked about cosmic sounds, higher dimensions, astral levels, and realms of music and sound that I could feel.”

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