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By Bob Weinberg
Almost a year had passed since John Coltrane died when his widow, Alice Coltrane, and his former bandmates, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Rashied Ali, recorded the tracks that make up A Monastic Trio. (One track, “Ohnedaruth,” featuring Pharoah Sanders on bass clarinet and Ben Riley on drums, had been recorded earlier that year.) Her debut album as a leader, it continued John’s musical and spiritual ideas, while establishing Alice as a remarkably fresh instrumental and compositional voice.
To be sure, Alice had earned her bona fides alongside her husband, performing and recording with him as McCoy Tyner’s replacement in John’s band. Now she was leading a session on piano and harp at the studio in the Dix Hills, New York, home she had shared with John, and playing her original compositions with other important contributors to his sound.
From the opening “Ohnedaruth,” Alice blends Eastern and Western devotional traditions, her dark, rhythmic piano chords briefly deviating into the harplike arpeggios that are more prominent on later tracks. Sanders’ ecstatic runs punctuate the proceedings, a reminder of John but hardly the focus of the piece. “Gospel Trane” draws the connection to church music more explicitly, while connecting the spiritual to the earthly with overtly bluesy passages, and the blues to its African antecedents, as well. The profoundly moving “I Want To See You” showcases the piano trio at its best. Garrison evinces a beautiful, woody resonance and Ali provides shimmer and rumble dynamics on his kit and what sounds like temple bells or tambourine. Without becoming maudlin or melodramatic, Alice expresses a yearning to see … whom? God? John? It works either way.
Side 2 showcases Alice’s dextrous mastery of the harp, which sounds like an extension of her piano. “Lovely Sky Boat” nearly levitates, but Alice’s sublime strings are anchored and oared by Garrison and Ali’s rhythms. The harpist conjures lapping waves and inexorable tides on “Oceanic Beloved,” while the concluding “Atomic Peace” reads like a prayer for unity and sanity in the nuclear age.
Alice would continue to refine her individual voice on albums such as Journey in Satchidananda, moving beyond John’s overt influence, but never dismissing its spiritual underpinnings.