LIVE AT THE BERKELEY COMMUNITY CENTER 1972: ALBUM REVIEW
Alice Coltrane is one of the few artists whose music can make your whole body shake. Her blistering and deep-reaching harp and organ solos truly have the power to change your entire outlook on what music can mean. After her husband’s death in 1967, Alice changed her sound and approach to music. She began a three-album run in 1970 of spiritual and profound jazz music, capped off by a blistering performance at the Berkeley Community center in 1972. During this period, Alice Coltrane alternates between the piano, organ, and harp, crafting deeply spiritual sounds, rooted in the imagination of an external, better world.
The album begins with a drone, various instruments drifting in and out of the picture as Alice Coltrane gently describes the purpose of the music she makes. She describes traveling to the Himalayas and her own spiritual journey. It becomes clear that Coltrane’s music means something deeper to her than just the melodies and rhythms she strings together, through this music Coltrane reconstructs her own spiritual journey.
The spiritual journey that Coltrane takes us through is not a relaxed affair. From the very first track of the album, she makes it clear that this music is meant to challenge the listener. After the drone and Coltrane’s introduction, the opening performance of her song, “Journey In Satchidananda” bursts into an energetic, free-jazz interpretation of her music. More and more instruments are added to the mix as tones devolve and any harmonies that once existed immediately disappear. The original track is completely transformed as Coltrane interpolates her own tunes to create something completely alien.
The solos on this record take the entire project to another level. At various points during the project, Coltrane takes 4-5 minute long solos on her Wurlitzer organ, and her fellow performers hold their weight and continually present new ideas to each track. Bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ben Riley provide the backbone for each track but are not afraid to go off the rails with the rest of the group. Aashish Khan absolutely kills it on the sarod, an instrument that Alice Coltrane often includes in her compositions and one that sounds surprisingly at home in the jazz landscape. Pranesh Khan on tabla and Bobby W. on tamboura and percussion round out the all-star lineup that Coltrane introduces, and it sounds like they have been playing together for their entire lives.
After the album opener, Alice takes some time to take on a few of the tunes that John was most famous for, “A Love Supreme” and “My Favorite Things” (both of which she had already tackled on her own solo projects), but the new spin she manages to put on these tracks is incredible. She completely transforms “My Favorite Things” from a Western musical number to a long-winded piece led by a tabla and tamboura duet that stretches over the course of 5 minutes and segues into an absolutely stunning tabla solo from Pranesh Khan backed by Coltrane and Bobby W. The song lulls you into a sense of security as major scales and relaxed tempos are used until it settles into a nice groove that each musician settles into.
My favorite track on the album is the finale, “Leo.” This song takes all of the elements that made the entire performance so stunning and merges them together to create something different and unimaginable. The song begins with cascading scales, and several different solos happening at once. Somehow, the track never feels chaotic at all, in fact, once everything begins to come together, each performer fits right in their place. The track takes many twists and turns, continually working to surprise the listener. “Leo” represents the power of Alice Coltrane’s entire musical project.
Alice Coltrane was one of the most creative and talented musicians to ever live. She continually showed a willingness to evolve beyond what anyone believed she would be able to and she still inspires young musicians to this day. Alice Coltrane's Live at the Berkeley Community Center in 1972 is one of the most powerful live recordings you can find, and shows the importance of Coltrane and her vast musical legacy.