Jazz review: Alice Coltrane tribute at Royce Hall
“When it rains, it promises an auspicious event,” harpist and vocalist Radha Botofasina assured the audience at Royce Hall Sunday night as she opened a concert dedicated to the memory of Alice Coltrane, who died in 2007. As the crowd shook off their umbrellas and a surprisingly powerful cloudburst outside, Botofasina was quickly proven right.
Presented by UCLA Live, the concert was an appropriately free-flowing smorgasbord of jazz, world and improvised music that ran in harmony with Coltrane’s musical legacy. Though often overshadowed by her husband's work, the music Alice created after John Coltrane’s death in 1967 is just as immediately unmistakable and, as evidenced by the gifted array of performers on hand, influential.
After Botofasina set the tone with a soulful interpretation of a piece from Coltrane’s sacred music series, joined by L.A. composer-producer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson on viola, the evening evolved into a musical short-attention span theater as diverse ensembles took the stage for what was generally a single piece.
After 30 years of performing, free jazz saxophonist Daniel Carter made his West Coast debut with a solo improvisation that circled so gently around a theme that his tone suggested a reverent whisper, and Kyp Malone, one of the evening’s co-organizers and guitarist for the indie rock band TV on the Radio, brought the first of two groups to the stage with a bluesy piece soaked in an hypnotic, Southwestern atmosphere joined by local favorite Nels Cline on guitar.
Cline returned for one of the evening’s highlights with a large ensemble that also featured twin brother Alex on drums, harpist Zeena Parkins and violinist Jeff Gauthier. Offering a uniquely L.A. take on Charlie Haden’s “For Turiya,” a duet piece Haden performed with Coltrane in 1976, the song ebbed and flowed around the musicians before Todd Sickafoose's agile bass vamp staked a tent pole in the ground for the rest to build upon. As the harmonious mix of strings, percussion and guitar reached a beautiful climax, the result sounded like soul music of the spheres before finally dissolving to a graceful close.
Genre-defying electronic musician Flying Lotus -- also known as Alice Coltrane’s great-nephew Steven Ellison -- enjoyed one of the evening’s biggest ovations. Offering an intensely personal piece inspired by a trip to India with “his auntie,” Ellison mixed a monologue about the spirits and afterlife with footage of an Indian procession, conducting an ensemble that included electric harp, piano and Atwood-Ferguson’s viola as he triggered subtle textures behind a bank of knobs and switches.
Though much of the evening beautifully countered the idea that free jazz needs to be raucous or noisy, Dutch drummer Han Bennink cut through the air of reverence with a joyfully manic snare solo that incorporated his cheek, bare leg, shoe and even the wood floor. “It’s raining outside!” he shouted before flinging his sticks into the crowd, honoring Coltrane by leaving all he had -- including his emptied kit bag -- on the stage.
Aging piano master McCoy Tyner kept with the second half of the night’s rowdier bent with two solo pieces, including a chunky-chorded take on “Mellow Minor,” but did not answer when Coltrane’s daughter called for him during her set-closing piece from “A Love Supreme.” Perhaps he didn’t want to supplant Michelle Coltrane’s pianist, who was more than holding his own as Carter and Atwood-Ferguson returned to trade inspired takes on the master’s signature.
As Michelle Coltrane and Botofasina led the crowd through the album’s titular chant, it wasn't the first time an already “auspicious” event felt like something even more fitting: transcendent.
-- Chris Barton
Photo of Alice Coltrane by Jeff Dunas