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Alice Coltrane: Translinear Light

Album: Translinear Light
Label: Impulse

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For an artist forever fated to lurk in a matrimonial shadow, Alice Coltrane carved out an impressive identity during her heyday. After coming up in Detroit and playing with a few jazz artists of note, she met John Coltrane and married him in 1965, thereafter replacing pianist McCoy Tyner in the band that supported the saxophone giant until his death in 1967. That alone would be enough to stake a career on, but Alice Coltrane truly found herself on her own, with expansive albums that served the "cosmic jazz" muse waving a wand over a genre in search of peace through bigness.

Translinear Light is Coltrane's first new album in 26 years, but its best moments sound at home next to her '70s hallmarks like Journey In Satchidananda and Universal Consciousness. For Coltrane, such portentous album titles are more than empty signifiers: Her playing, on the harps of old or on the piano, organ, and synthesizer of the present, sounds meditative and spiritual in undirected ways. In the album-opening "Sita Ram," she runs a Wurlitzer organ around the shady side of a melody, sounding reserved over a simple bed of hand-drums. After switching to piano for "Walk With Me," she drifts through lyrical measures and moody refrains in which she sounds more interested in certain chords' decay than in their tunefulness.

Some of the songs veer perilously close to New Age: "Jagadishwar" and "The Hymn" suffer from unfortunate synthesizer settings, and some of the Wurlitzer tracks sound hokier than probably intended. But Coltrane's playing proves compelling throughout, even though it makes minimal use of its place within an impressive band—including the Coltranes' son Ravi, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, among others. Translinear Light won't storm the jazz canon, but it marks the welcome return of an artist whose last name only tells half the story.