Pitchfork Essentials: Astral Traveling: The Ecstasy of Spiritual Jazz

Andy Beta

In the summer of 1965, in the midst of the civil rights movement, simmering racial tensions erupted in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, leading to 34 deaths, hundreds of destroyed buildings, and thousands of arrests. In the aftermath of the Watts riots, nearby UCLA student Maulana Karenga envisioned a holiday called Kwanzaa that would incorporate African, Arabic, and Swahili traditions and “give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and their history rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” It wasn’t the only alternative to arise in opposition to America’s dominant Christianity of the time, as Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam was ascendant, along with ideas of Eastern mysticism. During the tumultuous '60s, there was a religious revolution to accompany the grand societal, sexual, racial, and cultural shifts already afoot.

Concurrently, the era’s primary African-American art form reflected such upheaval in its music, too: Jazz began to push against all constraints, be it chord changes, predetermined tempos, or melodies, so as to best reflect the pursuit of freedom in all of its forms. Rather than the Tin Pan Alley standards, modal explorations, and cool poses that previously defined the genre, there was now chaos, noise, and tumult to be found. And amid the disorder out on the street and on the bandstand was also a quest for a spiritual center, a search for communion with the divine.

This musical exploration was epitomized by tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, whose 1965 album A Love Supreme was conceived as “a humble offering to Him, an attempt to say ‘THANK YOU GOD’ through our work.” Coltrane soon began to break through the boundaries of jazz even further on albums like OM, Meditations, and especially 1966’s Ascension, which featured a collective improvisation by an 11-piece band that included many leading luminaries of what would be called “The New Thing” in jazz.

In that record’s wake, there arose a crop of jazz artists who strove for the transcendent in their work. Some embraced the sacred sound of the Southern Baptist church in all its ecstatic shouts and yells, while others envisioned a Pan-African sound or sought enlightenment from Southeastern Asian esoteric practices like transcendental meditation and yoga. It’s a sound that has recently come back to the fore thanks to the horn work of Kamasi Washington as well as in the electronic productions of artists like Four Tet and Caribou.

John Coltrane

“Welcome”

1967

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After Coltrane released A Love Supreme, the saxophonist continued to seek out new vistas with his Classic Quartet, which featured pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and formidable drummer Elvin Jones. Originally appearing on Kulu Sé Mama, the last album released in Coltrane’s lifetime, “Welcome” offers one of the last glimpses of the Classic Quartet in all of its elegance and might, before Coltrane added a fiery young saxophonist named Pharoah Sanders and free percussionist Rashied Ali to the mix, leading to Tyner and Jones’ departure. As Coltrane explained in the album's liner notes, this song expresses “that feeling you have when you finally do reach an awareness, an understanding which you have earned through struggle. It is a welcome feeling of peace.”

Albert Ayler

“Our Prayer”

1967

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Coltrane served as a mentor to the young saxophonist Albert Ayler in the late ‘60s, and Ayler’s playing greatly influenced the elder statesman, inspiring him to move further from the notion of notes and more toward pure sound. Ayler’s music could touch upon children’s songs and Dixieland while also shooting out the sharpest noise. One of the brightest proponents of “fire jazz,” Ayler inhaled the old jazz tradition and exhaled something uncanny, visceral, and startlingly new through his horn. Take “Our Prayer”, which sounds solemn as an old spiritual, drunk as a night on Bourbon Street, and as ecstatic as a prayer meeting all at once. Ayler’s horn—in conversation with two basses, his brother’s trumpet, and a violin—traces the outline of the melody before inserting all manners of shouts, growls, and cries en route to a feeling of unfettered joy.

Sonny Sharrock

“Black Woman”

1969

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During the ‘60s, the sound and fury of free jazz primarily arose through screeching, wailing, testifying horns. But thanks to his asthma, Warren “Sonny” Sharrock was forced to pick up the guitar instead. Using an array of furious strums, heavy chording, and gales of feedback, Sharrock presaged the deafening likes of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. His debut album, Black Woman, recorded with his then-wife Linda, is as wild, wooly, and moving as any music of the era. While percussionist/herbalist/healer Milford Graves conjures dust storms, Linda’s hair-raising shrieks place her between gospel belter and banshee, the sound of feminism screaming to be heard.

Tony Scott

“Kundalini-Serpent Power”

1972

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A clarinetist who worked with the likes of Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday in the ‘50s, Tony Scott left the United States in the ‘60s and traveled through Southeast Asia as bebop took over and the clarinet fell forever out of fashion. His studies of Buddhism and Eastern folk informed 1964’s Music for Zen Meditation, which is often considered the first New Age album. Eight years later, Scott released Music for Yoga Meditation, finding common ground between his horn and the sitar of Collin Walcott, whose buzzing strings could be heard on albums from the likes of Miles Davis and Don Cherry.

Alice Coltrane

“Journey in Satchidananda”

1971

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When John Coltrane died from liver cancer in 1967, his wife and pianist Alice was left to continue his pursuit of a universal form of music. While scorned by much of the jazz establishment, with each successive solo album, Alice Coltrane soared into uncharted territory. She began to perform using harp and, for her fourth album, Journey in Satchidananda, she fused the standard rhythm section of jazz with the timbres of Indian classical music. Here, shaker bells, oud, and tambura mingle with Pharoah Sanders’s soprano saxophone and Alice’s harp glissandi to create a mesmerizing sound that’s transportive—not just to exotic new worlds but also to inner realms.

Don Cherry

“Malkauns”

1975

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Known for his trumpet playing in Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking ‘50s quartet, at the start of the ‘70s, Don Cherry began to fuse his pocket trumpet lines to a wide array of world music. He worked with Indonesian gamelan ensembles, experimental composer Krzysztof Penderecki, and South African pianist Dollar Brand. Drawing on African, Arabic, and rock music, the title track of 1975’s Brown Rice espouses the benefits of the macrobiotic diet while “Malkauns” nods to an Indian raga meant to placate the god Shiva. Built from the sinuous drone of a tambura played by his wife Moki, Cherry teams up with his old Coleman quartet bandmates bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins to show a new shape of jazz to come.

Sun Ra and His Solar-Myth Arkestra

“Pyramids”

1972

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While some jazz musicians rediscovered their gospel roots or else embraced exotic world religions, pianist-bandleader Sonny “Sun Ra” Blount was a cosmology unto himself. His massive discography—around 500 albums—touches upon ancient Egyptology and anticipates Afro-futurism while fusing the stride piano playing of early 20th century jazz with modern noise music and more. He released his music primarily on his own El Saturn imprint, but in the early ‘70s, he released a few albums on the free jazz French label BYG that showcased his ability to move from large ensemble improvisations to heavily percussive pieces that hearkened to the drums of Africa. This electric piano miniature shows his sense of melody and rhythmic play.

Kelan Phil Cohran and Legacy

“The Dogon”

1993

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A trumpeter on Sun Ra’s early ‘60s recordings, Phil Cohran also showed an aptitude for more exotic instruments like the zither before striking out on his own as a composer and bandleader. A mainstay of adventurous jazz music in Chicago, Cohran was involved in the foundation of the non-profit Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians alongside other artists like Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie, and Anthony Braxton. For much of the 20th century his music was only known via proxy: former bandmates formed Earth, Wind & Fire, and his sons comprise Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. More recently, some of Cohran’s crucial work has been reissued, none more stunning than this composition from 1993’s African Skies. The small excerpt, rendered on mbira and hand percussion, is named after the Malian tribe who documented their encounters with an alien race via striking sculpture.

Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes

“Astral Traveling”

1973

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A pianist for the likes of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis, when Lonnie Liston Smith joined Pharoah Sanders’ band in the wake of John Coltrane’s death, he clarified his sound. During the recording of Sanders’ 1971 album Thembi, Smith came upon the Fender Rhodes electric piano in a corner of the studio. Playing around with the new instrument, he wrote “Astral Traveling”, a song inspired by his recent reading about astral projections. His sustained keys evoke the sensation of floating in space, adding a sense of contemplative calm to the tempestuous horns around him.

Michael White

“The Blessing Song”

1972

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In addition to being a member of Pharoah Sanders’ band, violinist Michael White lent his talents to the likes of fusion group the Fourth Way, blues guitarists like John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and, more recently, to Bill Frisell and Eyvind Kang. While his debut album, 1971’s Spirit Dance, paid tribute to the late John Coltrane and his mother, his second album, Pneuma, features an Afro-jazz symphony on one half and more soul and R&B structures on the other. Four female vocalists coo and buoy White’s lithe violin accompaniment on “The Blessing Song”, which recently appeared on an Erykah Badu mixtape.

McCoy Tyner

“His Blessings”

1970

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Lost in the increasingly cacophonous din swirling around him on the bandstand, McCoy Tyner felt lost in his final days as a member John Coltrane’s band. "All I could hear was a lot of noise,” he once said of the experience. “I didn't have any feeling for the music." He left in 1965 and set out on his own career as a bandleader. But for his 1970 album Extensions, he teamed with drummer Elvin Jones (who also left Coltrane’s band in ‘65) as well the person who replaced him on the piano bench, Alice Coltrane. She plays harp here, weaving through Tyner’s gorgeous piano chords, the horns of Gary Bartz and Wayne Shorter, the bowed bass of Ron Carter, and Jones’ restrained drum work. The album offers a glimpse of what might have been had their mentor lived.

Pharoah Sanders

“Summun Bukmun Umyun”

1970

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In the wake of Coltrane’s death, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ run of solo albums on Impulse!—spanning 1967’s Tauhid through 1974’s Love in Us All—remains the pinnacle of spiritual jazz, showing how the caustic fire music that he once embodied could be sublimated into a sound of exquisite beauty. Sanders brought Coltrane’s vision of a universalist sound to fruition, drawing on free jazz as well as African highlife, Arabic folk music, Afro-Cuban, Indian classical, gospel, and R&B. There may be no better summation than on his 1970 album Summun Bukmun Umyun, which quotes the Quran in its title as it delivers a vibrant sound for 20 glorious minutes.

Charlie Haden

“We Shall Overcome”

1970

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Bassist Charlie Haden provided the steady foundation for Ornette Coleman’s wild improvisations in the ‘50s. But as the ‘60s continued to roil, Haden formed his own ensemble, taking inspiration from both the songs of the Spanish Civil War and a moment during the Democratic National Convention in 1968, when the California and New York delegations began to sing “We Shall Overcome” from the floor as the convention band attempted to drown them out. With his 13-strong group, he reprised that protest song on his debut album, Liberation Music Orchestra.