meta-script'Ptah, The El Daoud' At 50: How Alice Coltrane Straddled Heaven And Earth |
Alice Coltrane circa 1970

Alice Coltrane circa 1970


Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


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

The pianist-harpist's home-recorded album, featuring Joe Henderson, Pharoah Sanders, Ron Carter and Ben Riley, is otherworldly yet drenched in the blues

GRAMMYs/Dec 31, 2020 - 09:39 am

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 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.

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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 "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 "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."

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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.

Read: Hank Mobley's 'Soul Station' At 60: How The Tenor Saxophonist's Mellow Masterpiece Inspires Jazz Musicians In 2020

"When I hear that record, the first thing I hear is the room," saxophonist-clarinetist Jeff Lederer tells, 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 "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."

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"It's homey. It has that Sunday-afternoon-after-church vibe," bassist Melvin Gibbs tells 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 

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 "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 "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."

Read: 'Bitches Brew' At 50: Why Miles Davis' Masterpiece Remains Impactful

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."

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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

"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 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, 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."

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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."

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Lakecia Benjamin
Lakecia Benjamin

Photo: Elizabeth Leitzell


Meet The First-Time Nominee: Lakecia Benjamin On 'Phoenix,' Dogged Persistence & Constant Evolution

"I decided the best thing I could do is to take my future into my own hands," says the ascendant alto saxophonist. Lakecia Benjamin shares her road to the 2024 GRAMMYs, where she's nominated for three golden gramophones for 'Phoenix.'

GRAMMYs/Jan 10, 2024 - 04:13 pm

Lakecia Benjamin didn't call her last album Pursuance just because it's a Coltrane tune. Sure, that guest-stuffed 2020 album paid tribute to John and Alice — but also to Benjamin's indomitable doggedness.

And over Zoom — where she looks crisp and prosperous in futuristic, trapezoidal glasses and a chunky, ornate gold necklace — Benjamin's tenacity is palpable.

"You've got to just say, Until the day I die, I'm not going to stop," Benjamin declares to "I only have one gig today. Okay, tomorrow I'll have two. The next day I'll have three, and I'm not going to leave. I'm not going to stop. Oh, I don't have a record deal. I'm not stopping."

So much could have tripped her up for good: The jam sessions she was laughed out of, with a dismissal to "Go learn changes." The epic cat-herding session for
Pursuance, which could have fallen apart completely. The car accident she suffered in 2021, on the way home from a gig, which could have easily been fatal.

Benjamin just wanted 2023's Phoenix to be a worthy entry in her growing discography. The jazz saxophonist didn't have GRAMMY dreams; she didn't even presume it would be more successful than Pursuance.

Now, Phoenix is nominated for three golden gramophones at the 2024 GRAMMYs: Best Instrumental Album, Best Jazz Performance ("Basquiat") and Best Instrumental Composition ("Amerikkan Skin").

"I was just trying to tell my story about what happened to me, what's continuously happening to me," Benjamin says of Phoenix, which was produced by four-time GRAMMY-winning drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington. "Just trying to give people an idea of what it's like to be resilient, what it's like to not give up, what it's like to fight.

Read on for an interview with Benjamin about her journey to the GRAMMYs, and where she unpacks her personal dictum, which should apply to creatives the world over: "Keep going. Keep going. Keep going."

This interview has been edited for clarity.

What role have the GRAMMYs historically played in your life?

I remember being a little kid, watching the GRAMMYs and all. As a musician, at least in America, it's the highest award you can get.

It's something that you dream about. You dream about being nominated. You dream about walking on that stage. You dream about being in that audience, seeing your other peers and superstars performing. I personally dreamed about the red carpet.

Are there past jazz nominees that you found super inspiring?

All of them, really. Chick Corea, Christian McBride, Ron Carter, Terri Lyne, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter. There are just so many.

I first interviewed you for JazzTimes about your album-length tribute to John and Alice Coltrane, Pursuance. What was the underlying theme of Phoenix?

Just the idea that things are possible. You don't have to get things done in a certain timeline, in a certain frame. You just have to keep going, with a lot of determination. That was my goal.

I did not think that the reception would have been bigger than Pursuance. There's no way I saw that coming. It's been a really wild rollercoaster year, for sure.

Working with Terri Lyne Carrington was a huge step. It seems like you were swinging for something bigger. What was that thing?

She was actually the catalyst for the whole thing. I picked her before I even had the music — everything — because I wanted someone that could get the best out of me. Someone who's going to tell me the truth, tell me when it's not good enough, tell me what's not possible.

I felt that the guests that I have picked in mind — and they had already agreed to the project — were in her sphere of people that she's worked with. I felt she could understand my dedication in this project to highlight women musicians, and to highlight [how] women musicians have had to climb the ladder, and sometimes they fall back down and climb back up again.

I felt that her story is a true testament of that. I just felt she embodied where I am right now, and what I'm trying to do.

Terri Lyne commands such a musical universe. You could have made Phoenix with so many different configurations and ensembles. What made these particular folks perfect to tell your story?

The fact that [pianist] Patrice Rushen started as a jazz musician, moved into the pop world, super megastar, back into the jazz world, back into the trenches, still teaching and still educating.

Angela Davis — a huge iconic figure — had her own adversities. They all represent in their own stories the idea of persevering, the idea to keep going, but also doing that while operating at an extremely high level.

As a musician myself, there's always self-doubt about the past. I wish I did this when I was younger, I wish I made this choice, I wish I pushed harder, blah, blah. But it took until my thirties to realize that I have all this life to live. I don't have to cram everything into the now and beat myself up. It seems like you had a similar moment of self-realization.

I guess I still have those struggles as well too. I think we all do, but I think you start to realize you're alive right now.

You can't control what you did 10 years ago. You can't control what you did five years ago. You can only control what's happening right now, and you could sit around and sit in that regret and doubt, and that becomes your story. Or, you could choose to get up and decide, I'm going to make a new reality for myself. I'm going to brand myself, and I'm going to try to accomplish the things that I'm dreaming about.

Why dream about, If I had known this 10 years ago, I would've did this? But it's right now, you know it. You can go ahead forward and try to get there. You don't have to listen to other people's limitations, the part of their life and their reality. But it's not a part of yours.

We're all on Jazz Instagram. We see everyone competing over gigs and vibing each other out. It seems like you're trying to get out of that rat race and be like Terri Lyne, where it's a whole life — a continuum.

That's what I started thinking. Even as a bandleader, everyone's in this pool, crabs in a barrel trying to drag each other down, waiting for a call, waiting to say, "I have more gigs," waiting to say, "I have more GRAMMYs," and I decided the best thing I could do is to take my future into my own hands.

If I become a bandleader, if I'm making the calls, I'm the one doing this. I have a little bit more control, and then I can choose to say, You know what? I'm going to try to live out my dreams, and if it doesn't work out for me, I can die knowing I gave it my all. I did everything I can to get the things I want in life.

And to me, that's enough — if I know that I've tried the very best I can to do something.

What helped you get out of that tunnel-vision mindset?

I wouldn't say I'm all the way out of it, because those thoughts creep in; you're programmed this way. But I do think you have to just say, There's no other road I can take. I'm going straight. I'm not going through the sewer. If there's a roadblock, I'm not going to the left. I'm going straight down this road.

When I did Pursuance [I thought], You know what? I got all 45 of these cats up in here. I did it myself, on my dime, on my time, the way I wanted to do it.

After that, there's immense pressure. What's going to happen with Phoenix? Is it going to be good enough? Is it going to be this? And to know I was able to tell my own story. I was able to get these guests the same way, figure it out, get this music together and get it together, lets me know that I may be crawling to get there, but I'm getting there.

I'm moving forward, and I'm doing it in a way that I'm getting better as an artist. I'm not just getting more, I guess, accolades and noteworthy my actual talent is because I'm choosing to put the music first.

Here's a spicy question. How have people treated you differently now that you're a first-time GRAMMY nominee?

It's only happened recently, but it is drastically changing. I will say that. There are some people that this whole year, the last two years, it started to seriously change. There are people that went from thinking, I'm just an ambitious girl out there, "Good luck. She's trying her best," to taking me a little bit more seriously when I have these [nominations]; they're not dreams anymore. They're like, "She's making things happen."

Where are you at in your development as a saxophonist? What's the status of you and the horn?

I've got a long way to go, but you spend three years playing Coltrane, you'll definitely expedite the process of: at each gig I'm forced to be at a certain level, minimum.

I think I'm making some progress — and we'll have to battle that out with Terri Lyne, but I think I'm getting better, and that's the most important thing. I wish I could expedite that a little faster, but these albums are just pictures of where I am at the time.

John and Alice were such outstanding models for how to live a creative life.

It's inspiring. I tell you that. For everyone out there that is wondering how to keep pushing forward, how not to give up, every time you get a minor victory, that's another example of going the right way.

My first two albums were projects that were more, let's say, ear friendly. You would think people would gravitate to that more because they understand that music is more contemporary, and they [performed] decently.

But then I come out with this Coltrane project and it does exponentially better, and that's being true to myself, then I do another project that's even deeper into the pool of what it's supposed to be, and then has even more success.

I just think that we got to spend less time trying to find these gimmicks, and people really respond when something is authentic, when it's a live show and they see you pouring your soul out there authentically, that's what gravitates them — not trying to find a way to get over on them.

"Get over on them." What do you mean by that?

I feel like that's what a gimmick is. If I say, I'm going to hold this note for 10 minutes because the audience will really love it. I'm trying to find a way to convince them that this is good, this is cool.

I'm like, Let me dress up in this outfit, because this'll convince them. Rather than just coming out and just being like, This is who I am. This is what it is. And putting it all on the stage, and then they can see authentically, This is who I'm voting for.

Do you see a lot of charlatans out there in the jazz scene, just trying to dazzle with cheap tricks?

I will say that I pray for humanity to be more authentic.

Terri Lyne Carrington Is Making Strides For Inclusion And Mentorship In Jazz. And You Can Hear All Of Them In Her Sound.

Linda May Han Oh
Linda May Han Oh

Photo: Shervin Lainez


A Year In Alternative Jazz: 10 Albums To Understand The New GRAMMYs Category

"Alternative jazz" may not be a bandied-about term in the jazz world, but it's a helpful lens to view the "genre-blending, envelope-pushing hybrid" that defines a new category at the 2024 GRAMMYs. Here are 10 albums from 2023 that rise to this definition.

GRAMMYs/Jan 9, 2024 - 02:47 pm

What, exactly, is "alternative jazz"? After that new category was announced ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations, inquiring minds wanted to know. The "alternative" descriptor is usually tied to rock, pop or dance — not typically jazz, which gets qualifiers like "out" or "avant-garde."

However, the introduction of the Best Alternative Jazz Album category does shoehorn anything into the lexicon. Rather, it commensurately clarifies and expands the boundaries of this global artform.

According to the Recording Academy, alternative jazz "may be defined as a genre-blending, envelope-pushing hybrid that mixes jazz (improvisation, interaction, harmony, rhythm, arrangements, composition, and style) with other genres… it may also include the contemporary production techniques/instrumentation associated with other genres."

And the 2024 GRAMMY nominees for Best Alternative Jazz Album live up to this dictum: Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily's Love in Exile; Louis Cole's Quality Over Opinion; Kurt Elling, Charlie Hunter and SuperBlue's SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree; Cory Henry's Live at the Piano; and Meshell Ndegeocello's The Omnichord Real Book.

Sure, these were the standard bearers of alternative jazz over the past year and change — as far as Recording Academy Membership is concerned. But these are only five albums; they amount to a cross section. With that in mind, read on for 10 additional albums from 2023 that fall under the umbrella of alternative jazz.

Allison Miller - Rivers in Our Veins

The supple and innovative drummer and composer Allison Miller often works in highly cerebral, conceptual spaces. After all, her last suite, Rivers in Our Veins, involves a jazz band, three dancers and video projections.

Therein, Miller chose one of the most universal themes out there: how rivers shape our lives and communities, and how we must act as their stewards. Featuring violinist Jenny Scheinman, trumpeter Jason Palmer, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, keyboardist and accordionist Carmen Staff, and upright bassist Todd SickafooseRivers in Our Veins homes in on the James, Delaware, Potomac, Hudson, and Susquehanna.

And just as these eastern U.S. waterways serve all walks of life, Rivers in Our Veins defies category. And it also blurs two crucial aspects of Miller's life and career.

"I get to marry my environmentalism and my activism with music," she told District Fray. "And it's still growing!

M.E.B. - That You Not Dare To Forget

The Prince of Darkness may have slipped away 32 years ago, but he's felt eerily omnipresent in the evolution of this music ever since.

In M.E.B. or "Miles Electric Band," an ensemble of Davis alumni and disciples underscore his unyielding spirit with That You Not Dare to Forget. The lineup is staggering: bassists Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, and Stanley Clarke; saxophonist Donald Harrison, guitarist John Scofield, a host of others.

How does That You Not Dare To Forget satisfy the definition of alternative jazz? Because like Davis' abstracted masterpieces, like Bitches Brew, On the Corner and the like, the music is amoebic, resistant to pigeonholing.

Indeed, tunes like "Hail to the Real Chief" and "Bitches are Back" function as scratchy funk or psychedelic soul as much as they do the J-word, which Davis hated vociferously.

And above all, they're idiosyncratic to the bone — just as the big guy was, every second of his life and career.

Art Ensemble of Chicago - Sixth Decade - from Paris to Paris

The nuances and multiplicities of the Art Ensemble of Chicago cannot be summed up in a blurb: that's where books like Message to Our Folks and A Power Stronger Than Itself — about the AACM — come in.

But if you want an entryway into this bastion of creative improvisational music — that, unlike The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles boxed set, isn't 18-plus hours long — Sixth Decade - from Paris to Paris will do in a pinch.

Recorded just a month before the pandemic struck, The Sixth Decade is a captivating looking-glass into this collective as it stands, with fearless co-founder Roscoe Mitchell flanked by younger leading lights, like Nicole Mitchell and Moor Mother.

Potent and urgent, engaging the heart as much as the cerebrum, this music sees the Art Ensemble still charting their course into the outer reaches. Here's to their next six decades.

Theo Croker - By The Way

By The Way may not be an album proper, but it's still an exemplar of alternative jazz.

The five-track EP finds outstanding trumpeter, vocalist, producer, and composer Croker revisiting tunes from across his discography, with UK singer/songwriter Ego Ella May weaving the proceedings with her supple, enveloping vocals.

Compositions like "Slowly" and "If I Could I Would" seem to hang just outside the reaches of jazz; it pulls on strings of neo soul and silky, progressive R&B.

Even the music video for "Slowly" is quietly innovative: in AI's breakthrough year, machine learning made beautifully, cosmically odd visuals for that percolating highlight.

Michael Blake - Dance of the Mystic Bliss

Even a cursory examination of Dance of the Mystic Bliss reveals it to be Pandora's box.

First off: revered tenor and soprano saxophonist Michael Blake's CV runs deep, from his lasting impression in New York's downtown scene to his legacy in John Lurie's Lounge Lizards.

And his new album is steeped in the long and storied history of jazz and strings, as well as Brazilian music and the sting of grief — Blake's mother's 2018 passing looms heavy in tunes like "Merle the Pearl." 

"Sure, for me, it's all about my mom, and there will be some things that were triggered. But when you're listening to it, you're going to have a completely different experience," Blake told LondonJazz in 2023.

"That's what I love about instrumental music," he continued. "That's what's so great about how jazz can transcend to this unbelievable spiritual level." Indeed, Dance of the Mystic Bliss can be communed with, with or without context, going in familiar or cold.

And that tends to be the instrumental music that truly lasts — the kind that gives you a cornucopia of references and sensations, either way.

Dinner Party - Enigmatic Society

Dinner Party's self-titled debut EP, from 2020 — and its attendant remix that year, Dinner Party: Dessert — introduced a mightily enticing supergroup to the world: Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, and 9th Wonder.

While the magnitude of talent there is unquestionable, the quartet were still finding their footing; when mixing potent Black American genres in a stew, sometimes the strong flavors can cancel each other out.

Enigmatic Society, their debut album, is a relaxed and concise triumph; each man has figured out how he can act as a quadrant for the whole.

And just as guests like Herbie Hancock and Snoop Dogg elevated Dinner Party: Dessert, colleagues like Phoelix and Ant Clemons ride this wave without disturbing its flow.

Wadada Leo Smith & Orange Wave Electric - Fire Illuminations

The octogenarian tumpeter, multi-instrumentalist and composer Wadada Leo Smith is a standard-bearer of the subset of jazz we call "creative music." And by the weighty, teeming sound of Fire Illuminations, it's clear he's not through surprising us.

Therein, Smith debuts his nine-piece Orange Wave Electric ensemble, which features three guitarists (Nels Cline, Brandon Ross, Lamar Smith) and two electric bassists (Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs).

In characteristically sagelike fashion, Smith described Fire Illuminations as "a ceremonial space where one's hearts and conscious can embrace for a brief period of unconditioned love where the artist and their music with the active observer becomes united."

And if you zoom in from that beatific view, you get a majestic slab of psychedelic hard rock — with dancing rhythms, guitar fireworks and Smith zigzagging across the canvas like Miles. 

Henry Threadgill - The Other One

Saxophonist, flutist and composer Henry Threadgill composed The Other One for the late, great Milfred Graves, the percussionist with a 360 degree vantage of the pulse of his instrument and how it related to heart, breath and hands.

If that sounds like a mouthful, this is a cerebral, sprawling and multifarious space: The Other One itself consists of one three-movement piece (titled Of Valence) and is part of a larger multimedia work.

To risk oversimplification, though, The Other One is a terrific example of where "jazz" and "classical" melt as helpful descriptors, and flow into each other like molten gold.

If you're skeptical of the limits and constraints of these hegemonic worlds, let Threadgill and his creative-music cohorts throughout history bulldoze them before your ears.

Linda May Han Oh - The Glass Hours

Jazz has an ocean of history with spoken word, but this fusion must be executed judiciously: again, these bold flavors can overwhelm each other. Except when they're in the hands of an artist as keen as Linda May Han Oh.

"I didn't want it to be an album with a lot of spoken word," the Malaysian Australian bassist and composer told LondonJazz, explaining that "Antiquity" is the only track on The Glass Hours to feature a recitation from the great vocalist Sara Serpa. "I just felt it was necessary for that particular piece, to explain a bit of the narrative more."

Elsewhere, Serpa's crystalline, wordless vocals are but one color swirling with the rest: tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Fabian Almazan, and drummer and electronicist Obed Calvaire.

Themed after "the fragility of time and life; exploring paradoxes seeded within our individual and societal values," The Glass Hours is Oh's most satisfying and well-rounded offering to date, ensconced in an iridescent atmosphere.

Charles Lloyd - Trios: Sacred Thread

You can't get too deep into jazz without bumping into the art of the trio — and the primacy of it. 

At 85, saxophonist and composer Charles Lloyd is currently smoking every younger iteration of himself on the horn; his exploratory fires are undimmed. So, for his latest project, he opted not just to just release a trio album, but a trio of trios.

Trios: Chapel features guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan; Trios: Ocean is augmented by guitarist Anthony Wilson and pianist Gerald Clayton; the final, Trios: Sacred Thread, contains guitarists Julian Lage and percussionist Zakir Hussain.

These are wildly different contexts for Lloyd, but they all meet at a meditative nexus. Drink it in as the curtains close on 2023, as you consider where all these virtuosic, forward-thinking musicians will venture to next — "alternative" or not.

Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer & Shahzad Ismaily On New Album 'Love In Exile,' Improvisation Versus Co-Construction And The Primacy Of The Pulse

Miles Davis
Miles Davis performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1969

Photo: David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images


5 Less-Discussed Miles Davis Albums You Need To Know, From 'Water Babies' To 'We Want Miles'

Despite not being mentioned nearly as much as 'Kind of Blue' or 'Bitches Brew,' these five albums are highly recommended — some for Davis neophytes, some for diehards.

GRAMMYs/Nov 3, 2023 - 09:00 pm

Joe Farnsworth couldn’t believe what he was watching. The leading straight-ahead drummer was sitting with the revered tenor saxophonist George Coleman, and a Miles Davis documentary happened to come on TV.

“This documentary went from Coltrane straight to Sam Rivers,” Farnsworth told LondonJazz News in 2023 — referring to the tenormen the eight-time GRAMMY winner and 32-time nominee employed in his so-called First and Second Great Quintets, respectively.

“What happened to ‘Four’ & More? What happened to My Funny Valentine? What happened to Seven Steps to Heaven?” Farnsworth remembered wondering. “Not a mention, man.”

Granted, Coleman’s tenure represented a transitional period for Davis’s group; his choice of tenorist would solidify in 1964 with the arrival of the 12-time GRAMMY winner and 23-time nominee Wayne Shorter. With pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams as the rhythm section — 18 GRAMMYs between them — the result was one of jazz’s all-time classic groups.

But Farnsworth’s point is well taken: in the recorded canon, jazz tends to lionize the rulebook-shredders and boundary-shatterers, at the expense of merely excellent work. But there’s not only room for both; in order to exist, the former requires the latter, and vice versa.

And given that Davis is, in many respects, the quintessential jazz musician, this wholly applies to him and his formidable discography — where the capital-P pivotal ones, like Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, get the majority of the ink.

After you check out Seven Steps to Heaven and the like — and absorb Coleman’s important contributions to Davis’s story — take a spin through five more Davis albums that deserve more attention.

Water Babies (rec. 1967-1968, rel. 1976)

Axiomatically, anything Davis’ Second Great Quintet — and keyboardist Chick Corea and bassist Dave Holland, to boot — laid to tape is worth hearing.

But Water Babies should be of interest to any serious Miles fan because  it reveals the connective tissue between Davis’ acoustic and electric eras.

The first three tracks, “Water Babies,” “Capricorn” and “Sweet Pea” — Shorter compositions all — were retrieved from the cutting room floor circa 1968’s Nerfiti. (Tellingly, that turned out to be Davis’ final fully acoustic album.)

Tracks four and five — “Two Faced” and “Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony” — add Corea and Holland to the mix; on electric piano, Corea adds a celestial drift to the proceedings. For reasons both

Miles in the Sky (1968)

Miles Davis and George Benson on record? It happened — lucky us. The 10-time GRAMMY-winning, 25-time nominated guitar genius can be found on two tracks from the 1979 outtakes compendium Circle in the Round, and on “Paraphernalia” from Miles in the Sky.

While Water Babies is something of a dark horse for the heads, Miles in the Sky — also featuring the Second Great Quintet —is a fleet, aerodynamic stunner and one of the most unfairly slept-on entries in his discography.

Outside of the Shorter-penned “Paraphernalia,” Miles in the Sky features two Davis tunes in  “Stuff” and “Country Son,” and a Williams composition in “Black Comedy.”

It’s sterling stuff, right at the tipping point for fusion — and its obfuscation says nothing about its quality, but speaks volumes as to the volume of masterpieces in Davis’ discography.

Agharta (1965) and Pangaea (1976)

Two primo dispatches from Davis’ experimental years, capturing two concerts from the same evening in Osaka, Agharta and Pangaea are amoebic, undulating wonders.

Across the nearly 100-minute Agharta and 88-minute Pangaea, Davis and company — including alto and soprano saxophonist Sonny Fortune, and guitarists Reggie Lucas and Pate Cosey — conjure everything we expect from electric Miles.

Abstracted drones, worldbeat textures, Davis’ trumpet funneled through twisted wah-wah: check, check, and check. One critic characterized the music as “ambient yet thrashing,” compared it to “Fela Kuti jamming with Can,” and identified hints of Stockhausen, and nailed it on all three counts.

Fans of thick, heavy, electrified Miles typically reach for Bitches Brew or On the Corner first. But if those don’t completely whet your thirst, there’s a whole lot where that came from.

And given that Davis put down the horn, ravaged by illness, for six years afterward, Agharta and Pangaea represent something of a culmination of Davis as the intrepid deconstructionist.

We Want Miles (1982)

Despite what you may have heard, ‘80s Miles — his final full decade on earth, and the one where he drew heavily from pop sounds and songs — is nothing to sniff at.

From 1981’s The Man with the Horn to 1983’s Star People to 1989’s Aura, Davis produced a number of rough-hewn gems. And despite Davis’ bulldozed health during its recording, the live We Want Miles, recorded in ‘81, is among them.

Despite requiring oxygen between songs and wearing a rubber corset to keep playing, Davis is in fine form.

Plus, he’s flanked by heavyweights, from saxophonist Bill Evans (no, not that Bill Evans) to six-time GRAMMY-nominated guitarist Mike Stern and two-time GRAMMY-winning bassist Marcus Miller.

We Want Miles proves that Miles never lost his ability to produce inspired, inspiring work — no matter what his failing body or, erm, ‘80s textures threw at it.

Davis passed away in 1991, and we’ll never see his like again — so savor everything he gave us, whether illuminated or obscured by shadow.

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Kendrick Lamar GRAMMY Rewind Hero
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic


GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

Looking for more GRAMMYs news? The 2024 GRAMMY nominations are here!

He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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