What is it about spiritual jazz?

Following on from the Tony Allen feature with a similar title, this CJ post takes a long hard look at spiritual jazz. As we have noted in a previous CJ, this blanket term seems to be applied to almost any reissue which features a dashiki-wearing tenor saxophonist who recorded in the 1970s for a private press label and has just had his album reissued on Soul Jazz Records, Jazzman or similar labels.

Well – and mentioning no names here – that may or may not be bonafide spiritual jazz. So what are we talking about? We were probably not using the term ‘spiritual jazz’ in 1965 but that’s as good a starting date as any and, of course, we’re talking John Coltrane and A Love Supreme – an album of deliberate transcendence, an entry into the world of musical mysticism and a record that has been lauded as one of the greatest jazz records ever. The thing is, it’s true. A Love Supreme is a work that has been both enjoyed and analysed for over 50 years and the more we investigate, the more there is to explore. For the deepest understanding of this truly awesome record, check out Ashley Kahn’s authoritative study at the book’s website here and for a superb investigation of Coltrane’s sound, read Ben Ratliff’s absorbing book Coltrane: the story of a sound.

In his final years Coltrane was moving forward at a dazzling pace, fusing the intensity of free jazz on such records as Ascension (1966) and Eastern-influenced experimentations like Om (recorded 1965, released 1968). A new world of exploration was opening up in jazz: the African heritage was being explored, Indian time signatures revealed new possibilities. Sound and space was now as important as music. Like-minded artists like Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, and Philip Cohran were each in their different ways exploring music both meditative and primal.

So what is spiritual jazz today? You’ve been crate digging for Don Cherry et al and you’ve come up with some great music – some celebrating the ‘trane tradition, and some not. But what of contemporary musicians? This post looks at three artists, each with a debt to Coltrane but with their own unique voices too. We’ll start with UK tenor saxophonist Nat Birchall who has been quietly releasing his own albums over the last few years and gathering acclaim from the jazz press. Best start with the 2011 album Sacred Dimension which superficially creates a Coltrane sound world (that’s Alice and John) with the use of bells, shakers and harp in addition to the more conventional quartet instrumentation. There’s Corey Mwamba on vibes too – and so the result is very definitely influenced by Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner and more. Of course, there are modal bass grooves, rolling drum figures and tenor sax solos that are Coltrane influenced but what come across with all of Birchall’s releases is the sheer confidence of his sound. As reviewer Daniel Spicer noted in his online BBC music review It’s a deeply sincere homage to a master, presented with an open heart, full of passion and love. The lead track is Ancient World – presented here in this alternative take from the Live at Larissa album, recorded in Greece in 2013. Available on a double vinyl release, this album is also a must. In fact, any Birchall album from this point is recommended as are Birchall’s recent excursions into dub reggae – a long held passion that’s fully explained on Birchall’s own website, Sound Soul and Spirit where some of his favourite records includes a list of dub classics, like the glorious Java Plus from Prince Buster. Birchall has now achieved what must have been a long held ambition of recording with reggae masters Al Breadwinner and Vin Gordon on two dub recordings, Sounds Almighty (2018) and the soon to be released Upright Living. You need vinyl copies of both – head to Birchall’s Bandcamp site for more information. And – by the way – Birchall’s new jazz release, Mysticism of Sound, is a lockdown solo recording that’s as much Sun Ra space jazz as Coltrane’s Interstellar Space. All instruments – tenor and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, Korg Minilogue synth, bass, drums, hand drums, bells, shakers – are played by Birchall. It’s essential listening!

Up next is Vancouver-born pianist Cat Toren, now resident in New York (rather than the UK’s northwest) and soon to release her new album Scintillating Beauty. We’ve championed Toren’s music here before on Cosmic Jazz and with advance notice of the new release here on Bandcamp it’s time to check out her take on the spiritual jazz tradition. Toren’s music is influenced by the free-form, socially conscious jazz of the late 60s but she’s also a passionate advocate of the current (and much needed) civil rights agenda. Indeed, inspiration for the music came from two quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. that Toren includes in the liner notes. The first, from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, gave the album its title as well as a pointed social imperative: Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty. The second quote, from the sermon Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, begins We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality and that thought provided the title for the second track on the new album, Garment of Destiny.

Toren’s previous album, released in 2017, was an inspirational one for us here at CJ and cuts featured on several shows. Human Kind was the debut of Toren’s band of that name, and the same lineup has recovened for the new album. Toren on keys, saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo, oud player Yoshie Fruchter, bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Matt Honor. Buy here from Toren’s site and the proceeds will go to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). You can check out all tracks before you buy, including the superb Legacy (for A.C.) and right here listen to an excellent live version from the Rockwood Music Hall in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Cat Toren’s music is highly recommended and the new album is highly recommended. Cat assures me that there will be a CD version as well as the download – both available in September from her own site or the ever-reliable Bandcamp.

Finally, we come to Muriel Grossmann, a tenor player now based in Ibiza, but born in Paris and a long time resident in Vienna. Her current quartet is very much international with Radomir Milojkovic (Belgrade) on guitar, Gina Schwarz (Vienna) on double bass and Uros Stamenkovic (Belgrade) on drums and is recently augmented by Llorens Barcelo (Mallorca) on Hammond organ. Grossmann’s quartet/quintet is very much influenced by Coltrane but – as with Toren – the bands have their own sound. You can hear just how different that is when you compare Grossmann’s take on Coltrane’s Traneing In, a track he first recorded with the Red Garland Trio in 1958. The Coltrane original is right here – and Grossmann’s soprano sax take is here on her Bandcamp site. This is intense music and – whatever we want to call it – has a spiritual deepness that truly does inherit the questing, yearning qualities of Coltrane’s unique sound. Traneing In comes from her album Golden Rule and is available from Bandcamp in all three formats – vinyl, CD and download.

The new album Reverence takes a different direction. The African influence is stronger and as Grossmann says, What jazz and African music have in common and what makes it so unique is that at its very core, as the strongest part of its foundation, each musician is dealing with a particular rhythm that contributes to the whole, therefore generating multidirectional rhythms also known as polyrhythms. The addition of Llorens Barcelo allows interplay between guitar and organ and the churning percussion maintains the kinds of locked groove over which Grossmann’s solos twist and turn. Check out this live take on Light, the final reflective track from Golden Rule.

So that’s three exploratory musicians and their bands: firmly embedded in a jazz tradition, but consciously searching for new sounds and influences from around the world to extend and develop their sound. Please support each of these artists by listening to and buying their music in whatever format you choose. Our preference remains vinyl: that symbiotic relationship in which the medium influences how the message is perceived (McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’) is never more true than when the disc is on the turntable, visibly in contact with the stylus and the listener is checking out the gatefold images or liner notes while listening to the music. As always, we promote Bandcamp whose heritage of supporting and paying artists is exemplary. It’s a service that values ownership, connects listeners directly to the artists and even rewards you with a message if someone buys music after finding it through you. Make lockdown more bearable and support those jazz musicians creatively enhancing your life.

Music is the healing force of the universe…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *