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Alice Coltrane's 'Kirtan: Turiya Sings': Inside The Unearthly Beauty Of Her Long-Lost Devotional Album

Alice Coltrane in 1987

Photo: Frans Schellekens

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Alice Coltrane's 'Kirtan: Turiya Sings': Inside The Unearthly Beauty Of Her Long-Lost Devotional Album

Alice Coltrane only made a few hundred copies of 1982’s 'Turiya Sings,' but it has the ability to change your life. 'Kirtan: Turiya Sings," an unadorned variation of the record, draws you even deeper into its transformative power

GRAMMYs/Jul 14, 2021 - 09:05 pm

Even if you don't know Alice Coltrane's music or feel compelled to check out a "jazz" artist, there's an ambient tape floating around YouTube that will break your heart. 

Turiya Sings, a droning 1982 cassette of chanted Sanskrit vocals, organ, synthesizer and orchestra, is not only a sad, haunted jewel but one of the most convincing available arguments for a higher power. But for Coltrane's son, Ravi, what sounds like a transmission from beyond was just a fact of life around the house.

"That's the sound I grew up hearing. That is the sound," the now-55-year-old saxophonist tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom. "I'd come home from school and she'd be at the organ, playing these songs, singing quietly to herself." This also extended to when he went to church—a.k.a. services at her Agoura Hills ashram—every Sunday, and Coltrane led the congregation in original devotionals like "Jagadishwar," "Krishna Krishna" and "Govinda Hari."

In both scenarios, Coltrane didn't have a rack of synthesizers nor an orchestra at her disposal, but a simple Wurlitzer. And that's the version of Turiya Sings that is finally getting a wide release, offering an alternative to the spectral tape rip hanging out on the internet. Kirtan: Turiya Sings, a fresh "reduction"—Ravi's word—of the original album, arrives July 16 on Impulse Records/UMe. Now, listeners worldwide—Hindu, Christian, agnostic, or atheist—can access the album's boundless spiritual riches.

Alice Coltrane is often discussed in the shadow of her towering husband, John. But the truth is, her marriage to the groundbreaking saxophonist only spanned a few years; her life and career stretched for years before and after him. When she and John met, the pianist was already a known quantity as a Detroit bebopper in vibraphonist Terry Gibbs' band. And by the time she replaced McCoy Tyner in his group in the final year of his life, she was a downright veteran.

Read More: 10 Essential Cuts From Jazz Piano Great McCoy Tyner

After John's 1967 death from liver cancer, she recorded a succession of albums for Impulse!, then Warner Bros. In the '70s, she moved out of the Long Island home she shared with John and headed out to California, establishing the Vedantic Center northwest of Los Angeles and adopting the name Turiyasangitananda. By the dawn of the '80s, she was through with the rat race of commercial music.

"By '81, she was just done with record contracts," Ravi says. "She felt that she had done everything she wanted to do in music and wanted to shift directions to a more spiritual life, so that's what she did."

Turiya Sings was her first functional rather than commercial work, serving as an offering for congregants rather than something meant for a wide release. Every Sunday, the group would sit on the floor, clad in white, for a kirtan service, shaking tambourines and bells as Coltrane sang and played. ("Kirtan" means "narrating, reciting, telling" in Sanskrit.)

"My mother, who we would call 'swami'—I still called her 'mom'—would sit behind the Wurlitzer," Ravi recalls. "The very same Wurlitzer you hear on the recording."

Coltrane recorded the album in 1981—mostly in first takes—at a studio near the ashram. Then, she overdubbed synthesizers and a self-conducted orchestra, pressed a few hundred copies under the Avatar Book Institute imprint, and sold it in the ashram's bookstore. "This is celebratory music of the highest order," the rear sleeve attested, calling it the product of "a soul that has already traversed far."

Of this sumptuous sound-world, only various secondhand versions were available for years—at press time, even eBay doesn't turn up an original cassette copy. But when Ravi finally heard a stripped-down, Wurlitzer-and-voice mix in 2004, he felt the embellishment-free version was the most gripping and immediate. The only problem was that he couldn't find a 24-track master—until recently when he found it sitting in a closet for decades.

Photo: Courtesy of Impulse Records/UMe.

While the original subsumed listeners into its undertow, this bare-bones version bends the ear to its lyrics and melodies. And without the overdubbed atmosphere, you can hear more clearly the gospel-ish angles in the chords and click and clack of the Wurlitzer's pedals.

"As dynamic and bold as the original version is, hearing my mother sing and play in this stripped-down, intimate setting revealed the true heart and soul of these songs," Ravi wrote in a producer’s note. "In this form, I could hear every nuance and inflection in her vocal performance and feel the weight of her rock-solid pulse and timing and (dare I say it) groove on the Wurlitzer. And, most importantly, in this setting, I felt the greatest sense of her passion, devotion, and exaltation in singing these songs in praise of the Supreme."

"It's powerful in a different way," Ken Druker, the Vice President of Jazz Development at Verve Label Group, tells GRAMMY.com. "You can hear what she's doing on the organ. You can hear the gospel influence. As Ravi said, you can hear the Motown in her voice—things that weren't as apparent on the cassette where there were all these other layers going on."

Druker is quick to call Kirtan: Turiya Sings a "variation" of the album, not meant to supplant it. To that end, Ravi says the decision to release this unadorned music wasn't to insert his own agenda but to get at the essence of the work. "That's the primary motivation," he says. "It wasn't me trying to tinker with Alice's creative works. I'm a custodian of my mother's music, my father's music, and a guardian of this music."

As for the lyrics, you don't have to learn a foreign language to feel them—even as a Sanskrit-to-English translation in the booklet helps bridge that gap. "They're just praising the Supreme—the Highest," Ravi says. "They're songs to elevate the spirit, and I don't see this as religious music. I see this as devotional music. Music that is for everyone, from any religious background—or no religious background."

Indeed, Vedic Hinduism wasn't the end for Coltrane, but the means. Even as Kirtan: Turiya Sings is firmly hooked to that tradition, it's meant as a vehicle for universal God-consciousness. 

"People have heard this music and not heard the translations nor the Sanskrit, but they can feel it," Ravi continues. "There's something compelling about these chants and these songs in a way that's not pushing one specific religion's doctrine, but promotes the universal in all divine music."

Despite being just one stop on the long continuum of Coltrane's music, nothing else in her discography quite sounds like it—and now that it's out for real, its influence and impact have the potential to be as borderless as its spirituality. Will Sheff, the GRAMMY-nominated leader of the long-running rock band Okkervil River, found himself bewitched by the original version of Turiya Sings years ago.

"I feel like she's going down to this depth, and the depth is heavy. You're sinking down and down and down and down into the darkness, but I don't think of that necessarily as bad," he tells GRAMMY.com. "That's where everything comes from and where everything goes, or something like that."

For Sheff, the quality of the music—coupled with the fact Coltrane didn't make it as a capitalist object—makes Turiya Sings an incredibly rare bird. "I don't want to get into some kind of weird, purist state of mind, but I guess I just feel like there's something so beautiful about hearing a musician do something where their soul is reaching out to God and they put it out to people who share the same faith as they do as a prayer aid," he says. 

"At no point in that process does 'I want to be rich' or 'I want to be famous' or 'I want to be well-thought-of' come into that," Sheff adds. "That's very refreshing because those are the biggest prizes of our culture right now." This might hold true for the foreseeable future, as far as music is concerned. 

But we'll always have Turiyasangitananda, praising the Most High softly, solemnly, as if singing to herself.

'Ptah, The El Daoud' At 50: How Alice Coltrane Straddled Heaven And Earth

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

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ReImagined At Home: Watch Ant Clemons Croon The Cosmic Blues In Performance Of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine"

Singer/songwriter Ant Clemons puts his own spin on Bill Withers' immortal "Ain't No Sunshine" in an exclusive performance for ReImagined At Home

GRAMMYs/Jun 15, 2021 - 08:13 pm

Why has Bill Withers' immortal hit, "Ain't No Sunshine," endured for decades? And, furthermore, why does it seem set to reverberate throughout the ages?

Could it be because it's blues-based? Because it's relatable to anyone with a pulse? Because virtually anyone with an ounce of zeal can believably yowl the song at karaoke?

Maybe it's for all of those reasons and one more: "Ain't No Sunshine" is flexible

In the latest episode of ReImagined At Home, check out how singer/songwriter Ant Clemons pulls at the song's edges like taffy. With a dose of vocoder and slapback, Clemons recasts the lonesome-lover blues as the lament of a shipwrecked android.

Giving this oft-covered soul classic a whirl, Clemons reminds music lovers exactly why Withers' signature song has staying power far beyond his passing in 2020. It will probably be a standard in 4040, too.

Check out Ant Clemons' cosmic, soulful performance of "Ain't No Sunshine" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of ReImagined At Home.

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Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Janet Jackson

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

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Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Selections by Albert King, Labelle, Connie Smith, Nas, Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, Kermit the Frog and others have also been marked for federal preservation

GRAMMYs/Mar 25, 2021 - 02:37 am

The Librarian of Congress Carla Haden has named 25 new inductees into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. They include Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Nas’ “Illmatic,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” and more.

“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said in a statement. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”

The National Recording Preservation Board is an advisory board consisting of professional organizations and experts who aim to preserve important recorded sounds. The Recording Academy is involved on a voting level. The 25 new entries bring the number of musical titles on the registry to 575; the entire sound collection includes nearly 3 million titles. Check out the full list of new inductees below:

National Recording Registry Selections for 2020

  1. Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)

  2. “Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917) (single)

  3. “Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)

  4. “When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)

  5. Christmas Eve Broadcast--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (December 24, 1941)

  6. “The Guiding Light” — Nov. 22, 1945

  7. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” — Odetta (1957) (album)

  8. “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)  

  9. Roger Maris hits his 61st homerun (October 1, 1961)

  10. “Aida” — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)

  11. “Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)

  12. “Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King (1967) (album)

  13. “Free to Be…You & Me” — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)

  14. “The Harder They Come” — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)

  15. “Lady Marmalade” — Labelle (1974) (single)

  16. “Late for the Sky” — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)

  17. “Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)

  18. “The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)

  19. “Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)

  20. “Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs” — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)

  21. “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)

  22. “Partners” — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)

  23. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)

  24. “Illmatic” — Nas (1994) (album)

  25. “This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)

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Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"

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Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"

In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, singer/songwriter dodie conjures a bleary last call in a hushed performance of "Four Tequilas Down"

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2021 - 07:38 pm

"Four Tequilas Down" is as much a song as it is a memory—a half-remembered one. "Did you make your eyes blur?/So that in the dark, I'd look like her?" dodie, the song's writer and performer, asks. To almost anyone who's engaged in a buzzed rebound, that detail alone should elicit a wince of recognition.

Such is dodie's beyond-her-years mastery of her craft: Over a simple, spare chord progression, she can use an economy of words to twist the knife. "So just hold me like you mean it," dodie sings at the song's end. "We'll pretend because we need it."

In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, watch dodie stretch her songwriting muscles while conjuring a chemically altered Saturday night—and the Sunday morning full of regrets, too.

Check out dodie's hushed-yet-intense performance of "Four Tequilas Down" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of Press Play At Home.

Press Play At Home: Watch Yola Perform A Rock-Solid Rendition Of "Stand For Myself"