Alice Coltrane circa 1970
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
'Ptah, The El Daoud' At 50: How Alice Coltrane Straddled Heaven And Earth
Every morning, the alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin rises before the sun, settles behind her 88-key electric piano and offers wordless thanks to the Creator. "My goal is to get to it before sunrise," she tells GRAMMY.com from her New York apartment. "That's when the universe is most receptive, right before the day is about to break and everyone gets in their prayers. I'm there before everyone."
Right then, Benjamin plays a composition that means more to her than any denominational hymn: "Turiya And Ramakrishna," the worshipful blues from pianist, harpist, and composer Alice Coltrane, off her 1970 album Ptah, The El Daoud.
Benjamin last performed "Turiya And Ramakrishna" for a paying audience back in March. That was at Dizzy's Club at Jazz At Lincoln Center during the release show for her tribute album, Pursuance: The Coltranes, on the cusp of the national COVID-19 lockdown.
"'Turiya And Ramakrishna' puts me in a place of worship," Benjamin says of her setlist, which invariably features the tune. "I usually take that moment to get deeper into how the audience and I are feeling. I try to bring them into a place of worship to realize this song is not the same as the rest. It's not a church song, but for her style of music, it is. Whether they take it as a church song or not, I'm going to the next step."
These days, critics are reappraising Coltrane as an artistic equal to her husband, John. But of all her albums, from her early days as a Detroit bebopper to her recordings as the spiritual director of an ashram, Journey In Satchidananda (1971)—Ptah's follow-up—gets the most ink. (It was her only album to make Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list, at No. 446.)
But Ptah, The El Daoud, which turns 50 this year, deserves a seat at the table, too.
Ptah, which Coltrane titled in tribute to the Egyptian creator god of Memphis and patron of craftspeople and architects ("El Daoud" means "the beloved" in Arabic), contains abundant hypnotic power and emotional import. These qualities relate to the inner journey Coltrane underwent at the time, the fact she recorded Ptah at home, her quintet's performances, and the album's matrix of ancient Vedic and Egyptian references.
By all accounts, Coltrane conceived Ptah, The El Daoud, and its predecessors, A Monastic Trio (1968) and Huntington Ashram Monastery (1969), during a period of grief and spiritual evolution. In the years after her husband, John, died of liver cancer in 1967, she experienced physical, mental and metaphysical phenomena, as documented in her 1977 spiritual memoir, "Monument Eternal."
"Sometimes, my heartbeat shifted to the right side of my body. All of the hair on my head would stand on end as if it were electrically charged," Coltrane wrote, citing the "extensive mental and physical austerities" she underwent during this time.
As evidenced by the track titles from this period, like "Lord Help Me To Be" and "IHS" (or, "I Have Suffered"), she interfaced with her traumas and pushed past them into a transcendent space. "My meaning here was to express and bring out a feeling of purification," Coltrane stated in Leonard Feather's liner notes to Ptah, The El Daoud. "Sometimes on Earth, we don't have to wait for death to go through a sort of purging, a purification."
"A lot of those tracks [on A Monastic Trio], like 'I Want to See You' and 'Gospel Trane,' I think of them as mourning because she'd suffered that loss," harpist Brandee Younger tells GRAMMY.com. "And by the time we get to Huntington Ashram Monastery, you know, that title speaks volumes. So then we have Ptah, The El Daoud: 'This is my next phase, and it's more than what you got before.'"
"You know what I think is cool about this album, but also [about] just her in general?" pianist Cat Toren asks GRAMMY.com. "She had four young kids, and she had lost the love of her life. I think that's huge. It speaks to her power as a woman, to go forth no matter the adversity of what else is going on in her life. I would be interested to know her support network and how she was able to produce this incredible work under such challenging conditions."
Vijay Iyer, a pianist, composer and Harvard professor, is careful to note that Coltrane's spiritual quest was more far-reaching than her husband's loss. "She was in public life from 1960 until [her death in] 2007, and for four of those years, she was married to John Coltrane," he says. "Yes, she was grieving, but there was something else she went through in those years that was the beginning of a much larger transformation. Not to reduce her role in the family or her relationship to [John] or anything like that, but she was on her own journey, too."
"When [John] passed, it's not just his passing; it's the combination of his passing, plus mothering, plus careering, plus the world is in unrest," Younger says. "I feel it would be impossible not to be affected by that combination of factors. In the big picture, she went through a serious transition, and there's no question about that because it's written in the book."
"I mean, think about it," she adds. "That happened in that house, where she recorded that record. How could one not affect the other?"
John and Alice Coltrane's home in Dix Hills on Long Island, New York | Photo: Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty Images
As with A Monastic Trio and Huntington Ashram Monastery, Alice Coltrane recorded Ptah, The El Daoud in the basement of her ranch-style house at 247 Candlewood Path in Dix Hills on Long Island, New York, which she and John shared from 1964 until his death; she remained there until 1973. Tenor saxophonists and flutists Joe Henderson and Pharoah Sanders, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Ben Riley accompanied her on the recording.
"When I hear that record, the first thing I hear is the room," saxophonist-clarinetist Jeff Lederer tells GRAMMY.com, describing the rich, boomy atmosphere of Ptah, The El Daoud as "comforting." "It's not a [Rudy] Van Gelder sound or anything, but you can feel [like], 'Wow! She was making this record in her house.' It's not the kind of sound you'd expect."
In that regard, Steve Holtje, a keyboardist, writer and the manager and producer of the long-running, Bernard Stollman-founded label, ESP-Disk', views Ptah as something of a landmark.
"It's not the first time anybody ever did this—it's not even the first time she did it—but I have a certain fondness of placing this album in the lineage of DIY recording," he says. "It happens that Ed Michel at [jazz label] Impulse! got the producer credit on this, but I'm not sure how much a producer he was in terms of influencing the music."
"Was she a Billie Eilish in the making?" Ashley Kahn, the author of "A Love Supreme: The Story Of John Coltrane's Signature Album" and "The House That Trane Built: The Story Of Impulse Records," asks GRAMMY.com. "The self-produced, self-sufficient musician idea has been around for many, many years and expressed in many different ways."
"It's a Black female artist taking control of her music," Holtje states. "That's really important."
"It may be that that sensibility was in the air at that time," Iyer adds. "A sense of self-determination to make this work for you on your terms, rather than a transaction with a corporation, which doesn't necessarily have your best interests at heart. Particularly for Black artists in the 1960s and '70s, that was a movement."
"It's homey. It has that Sunday-afternoon-after-church vibe," bassist Melvin Gibbs tells GRAMMY.com of the feeling "Turiya And Ramakrishna" exudes. "Even the Van Gelder records were recorded in a living room, so it's not that far out of context in the sound of jazz, but it feels like your relatives were playing for you. That's evocative for me."
"The room is the invisible instrument. The other member of the band is the room in which you record the live date," vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Georgia Anne Muldrow tells GRAMMY.com.
But when it comes to record-making, a lush-sounding room doesn't mean much without stellar musicians within its walls.
"Ptah, The El Daoud has darkness and richness of tone that speaks to me, and some of that comes from the incredible sound of every musician [on the album]," keyboardist Jamie Saft tells GRAMMY.com. "The musicians on this record, their tone is as rich and developed and important as it gets. Joe Henderson and Pharoah [Sanders] have some of the greatest saxophone tones of all time. Alice Coltrane's piano tone and Ron Carter's bass tone are so important to jazz music."
Aside from "Lord Help Me To Be" on A Monastic Trio, where Sanders tears a hole in the firmament, Ptah, The El Daoud is Coltrane's first album with horns.
"I think what makes this album so great is that you get to hear her comp with great horn players," pianist Matthew Shipp tells GRAMMY.com. "The beautiful plant and flower that her chordal language and her touch had [relates to] the interplay of those two horn players."
Joe Henderson circa 1970 | Photo: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The musicians featured on Ptah hail from both the avant-garde and straight-ahead jazz scenes.
"This rapprochement between those two styles was very deliberate on [Coltrane's] part," Holtje says. "Ben Riley is best-known from Thelonious Monk's quartet. And before that, Riley had been playing with the Johnny Griffin/'Lockjaw' Davis quintet, which was very much a popular style."
Holtje goes on to note that while Carter played with Miles Davis and Henderson had come off a string of exploratory-yet-tonal albums on Blue Note, Sanders was "Albert Ayler-influenced—a real firebreather in Alice's husband's band."
"Aside from Pharoah, Alice's band on this record looks, to me, like a deliberate move away from associations with John," he observes. "And to do that, she put together a set of musicians who were not especially associated with each other."
As for the rest of the rhythm section?
"Ron Carter's walking on air. You can't get away from the fact that this is a blues-based, cosmic cat," Shipp enthuses.
"Ron is maybe one of the two or three most important bass players in the history of jazz from a harmonic standpoint," drummer Gerry Gibbs adds. "Alice's music only has a few chords; usually, it doesn't have a lot of chord progression. So that gives Ron a lot of space to use a lot of his harmonic brilliance.
"Ben [Riley] was a very soft drummer," he continues. "He never really played much with a crash cymbal; he usually played with a ride and a flat cymbal. He was never a basher."
"He's the kind of drummer I'd like to be," Muldrow adds. "The kind that supports what's going on and makes statements through the ways he supports the music. There are things he does with the brushes on that record that I'll never forget."
"There's this real attention to groove and the meaning, the importance of that," Iyer says of Riley's performance. "Even when the [music] seems to kind of wash along, there's precise attention and care for how the pulse is expressed. You hear her dealing with that in a way you don't as much as when she plays with Rashied Ali. It gives this album a certain backbone that's important."
Despite its harmonic and rhythmic dust devils, Ptah has an undeniable core and pulse.
"'Ptah, The El Daoud,' to me, sounds like a battle cry of sorts," Younger says. "The interplay between Sanders and Henderson, and the way Coltrane favors the low end of the piano for nearly the entirety of the head and horn solos, gives it this riveting edge."
"After it's all done," she continues, "'Turiya And Ramakrishna' is the perfect release. Spiritually, and she references this in so many of her composition titles and writings, she sought to express a state of nirvana. This track achieves just that. That blues, the way it just keeps going, this cyclical driving-home, and then how the bass moves underneath it to give all types of new qualities to this one scale—it's just beautiful how she did that."
"There's stasis in here, but it keeps moving. It's like a spiral," guitarist Brandon Ross says of Coltrane's pianism on "Turiya And Ramakrishna." "It's moving laterally, but not in a broad sense. It's elevating each time to the cycles in another dimensional field of its orbit."
"She's going back to the roots," Kahn says about "Blue Nile," for which Coltrane switched from piano to harp, with Sanders and Henderson picking up alto flutes. "But never mind bebop; it's a blues. It has that comfortable feel, yet the sound, textures and mysterioso, in-the-air feel is like waking up in the morning and looking out the window, the same window you're familiar with, and you see the lunar surface or the rings of Saturn. It's both comfortable and otherworldly at the same time."
"Whereas the harp can be more glissando-focused, the way she plays piano, she gives you everything. But the use of the blues is always present," vibraphonist Joel Ross tells GRAMMY.com.
"The only track where Pharoah asserts himself in the whole avant-garde sense is 'Mantra,'" Holtje adds. "That is the longest track, so that is the track where they have the most time to explore, if I can use that word. So that's kind of a natural thing to be happening there, but Pharoah also had a good grounding before he went out. I'm sure he respected Joe Henderson, and I'm sure Joe Henderson respected him."
While Muldrow characterizes Ptah as "a nice little cutaway, a rest stop," Iyer and Kahn see it more as an on-ramp.
"There are many effective doorways to Alice Coltrane's world," Kahn says. "It's an unbelievably kaleidoscopic mixture of music that'll leave stretch marks on your ears and brain as far as what is possible. It combines so many different musical traditions on this planet in a way that feels very organic and satisfying on a bunch of different levels: culturally, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. Ptah, The El Daoud is as effective as any other doorway that I would recommend for any listener trying to get into Alice Coltrane and grasp what she's about. But it shouldn't be the last stop, either. It should be a welcome mat, and it's a very effective one."
Ptah, The El Daoud is a tribute to God through ancient Vedic and Egyptian lenses, and the parallels between the two cosmologies run deep.
"You're talking about ancient evidence of contemplating the universe. That's the point of relation," Muldrow says. "Ptah, that's coming from Africa, up from Ethiopia into the Nubian civilization, all the way into what we call Egypt today."
"Bringing the Black experience to the Sanskrit thing, I feel like there's a circle that gets completed," she continues. "What dovetails everything is the history, the landscape and the people. That's what brings it all together, and she was completely aware of it. She's quite a scholar."
The album's heavily stylized, Jim Evans-painted cover features a wealth of emblematic information.
"If you look at this album cover, it's got many different images in it," cultural scholar and essayist Menzi Maseko tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom from Zimbabwe. "What you see in the hieroglyphs are the names of God and of becoming. It says, 'The father of beginnings, the creator of the egg, the sun and the moon.' It's got the cobra at the bottom, which symbolizes cunning, superior intellectual capability and danger."
"The fact she even mentioned the word Ptah, to me, is like a whole history lesson," bassist Lonnie Plaxico tells GRAMMY.com, connecting Ptah to the ancient Egyptian vizier named after the deity. "I would tell people to go look at 'The Teachings Of Ptahhotep,' and you'll understand why she [evoked him]. I encourage people to go check out who Ptahhotep was. I think that was her intent. It's like a seed. I think she was putting the seed out there, like, 'You should know about this person.'"
Regarding the importance of Egyptian and Vedic systems to Coltrane, "I wouldn't put one over the other; it all becomes this percolating stew," Iyer notes. "There are all these different influences, from Islam to ancient, pre-Hindu Indian spiritual practices to Kemetic systems of knowledge. All of that intersected and had that transformative impact on Alice Coltrane to the point that she then took on the name Turiyasangitananda."
To Maseko, to make an album bearing Ptah's name is a sacred action.
"It is all in devotional service to the Supreme Being," Maseko says, with a hint of awe. "She's immortalizing the name of Ptah, but every musician is involved in the creation of that work. Pharoah Sanders carried on the tradition. Joe Henderson carries on the tradition. Last year, you probably didn't know you would be doing this, but you're doing it because it's the will of Ptah. We didn't plan it. It's something inside your DNA, inside you and inside me, that has brought us to this moment. It's a miracle, bra'. It's an unfolding of the divine will."
In early November, Benjamin, clad in white and gold, emerged from the lockdown for a livestreamed gig at Jazzfest Berlin, her first since the album release show at Dizzy's. Midway through the set, she, Plaxico, pianist Zaccai Curtis and drummer Darrell Green changed gears and took the socially distanced crowd to church.
"That last song we played was an Alice Coltrane song entitled 'Turiya And Ramakrishna,'" she said on the mic. "Most people tell me it sounds like a love song. It's a constant seeking out the Creator, your purpose, and why you are here and getting closer to the source of the one that gave you life. It is a love song, but it's a love song to the universe."
While that "love song to the universe" may be under-discussed among casual jazz fans, its inspiration ripples forth via these musicians' hearts, minds and hands. To the question of why a jazz layperson should hear Ptah, The El Daoud, Muldrow takes what feels like half a minute for silent contemplation.
"Because it will make you feel better," she finally allows. "You're going to hear something special in this record. You're going to feel love in this record. If I were to give this to a layperson, I'd say, 'Man, you're going to feel better after you listen to this.'"
"If you're not versed in Alice Coltrane, why do you need to hear it?" Younger asks. "Because 'Turiya And Ramakrishna' will save your life. If it doesn't save your life, it'll change your life."
Brandon Ross sounds captivated, serene, even a little solemn while reflecting on the same track. "What else can I say about this, man?" he asks as it burbles in the background. "It's self-explanatory. They need to play this when I die, as a lift."