THE ECSTATIC MUSIC OF ALICE COLTRANE TURIYASANGITANANDA
An EXCLUSIVE Q&A with Luaka Bop’s YALE EVELEV
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: WORLD SPIRITUALITY CLASSICS, VOLUME 1: THE ECSTATIC MUSIC OF ALICE COLTRANE TURIYASANGITANANDA is about to be released. How are you feeling about the journey you took to put this project together and the way it turned out?
YALE EVELEV: Well we are super proud of this album. I would say it is the biggest, most involving record we have ever released. Usually we are working with artists that are somewhat unknown or at least unknown outside of their country. Alice Coltrane is an icon to many, and so the expectation is much greater and we are starting with so much more foreknowledge. With the type of music we often release, it is a long period of education, where we work up to people understanding and caring about the artist and the music. Here we are starting from a place where the two of us at Luaka Bop, (Eric Welles and I), from our little office in NYC, have to move a world full of people who care from the start.
SPAZ: While many people might be familiar with this side of Alice, not many have actually heard it. What was the initial inspiration in putting this project together and making it the first volume in the WORLD SPIRITUALITY CLASSICS?
YALE: I had known about Alice’s cassette music, but had not heard that much of it when I ran into a DJ, Prince Language, on the street near our office. He was telling me how moved he was by this music and when I told him I had only heard a bit of it, he sent me all four cassettes. I was blown away. This was during the election, but before the outcome. Even so, the discourse during the election was so dispiriting; I was really feeling that we needed to do a series of positive albums. Music can make us feel better about things, even if the things remain the way they are. There is a hope though, that if the general tenor is a positive instead of a negative one, that indeed can make a difference.
SPAZ: When some think of ‘spirituality’, they automatically think of ‘religion’. However, this music certainly touches the soul and enriches the spirit even if you aren’t a follower of the teachings of any particular religion. In some ways, isn’t that the point of this music she created in the first place? And isn’t most music ‘spiritual’ since it moves and inspires the listener?
YALE: Well it is something I have been thinking a lot about, especially lately. I was talking to a quant at a cocktail party, (I do live in NYC you know :), and he mentioned the Big Bang like it was a given. And I asked if that’s accepted fact in the world of nuclear physicists, (which was what he was before he was a quant), and he said yes. So I asked him what did they call before the Big Bang. And he said they call that The Creator. I asked if he believed in God and he said no. So I have been trying to work out if you were a follower of Alice Coltrane or some other spiritual teacher, what is it actually that you are learning? What does spirituality mean, not in the abstract, but in the actual? I have separated the idea of spirituality from religion, for the purposes of our series of albums at any rate, and instead focused on what I think is the basis for religion, which are tenants for us to be able to live with each other and treat each other fairly, and have a society that is civil and has agreed upon morals and codes of conduct. Those ideas are so important. They are not there to oppress anyone or create a set of people who are chosen or not chosen, or whose belief system is true while judging others as not true. Why are we not getting closer to these ideals and not, seemingly, further away?
SPAZ: The music on this release is anywhere from 20 to 35 years old, yet it sounds remarkably timeless. Do you think that working outside of the music industry for these recordings worked in her favor?
YALE: Well I am not sure, especially these days when everything ever recorded is available in some way to all of us, that those concepts of ‘sounding timeless’ are valid anymore. When you don’t have to look for music from other eras because it is just there, in the same way new music is, then the idea of new or old is perhaps a lot less relevant. If it’s new to you, who is to say it’s not as new as music made now?
SPAZ: Recorded between 1982 and 1995, Alice was generally out of the limelight. Did she feel that this music was much more personal and sacred? Or was she aware that there was the possibility that major labels wouldn’t even consider releasing it? Some might even consider some of this ‘New Age’, which was very big during that time period.
YALE: OK I think this is interesting. These cassettes were made for the people who came and lived on Alice’s Ashram. They were there as a way to have the music with them even when they were not singing together at Sunday service. There was an open Sunday service at the Ashram every week. In fact there still is. So these were not a ‘product’ per se. They were there for you to use in your life as part of your beliefs. And the folks at the Sunday service never considered their group singing as performances. So there was never a thought that any of this music would exist outside of the context of the Ashram. Alice was not judging whether it would make sense on a record label. That consideration was not the place she was in.
SPAZ: Initially released on cassette, is this the very first time anyone has gone back to the original recordings and prepared them for vinyl and CD?
YALE: Well a couple of them did come out on CD, but none of them ever were on vinyl. There was a bootleg vinyl from a 128 YouTube rip (grrrr) of one of them.
SPAZ: How difficult was it to track down the original source material and how did the family react when you approached them about this project?
YALE: Eric, Baker Bigsby (the original engineer on these sessions and 750 other records!) and Michelle Coltrane spent a day looking for the right tapes and I got a bunch of tapes that may or may not have had the right tracks in the studio when I did the transfers.
SPAZ: These recordings are very moving and inspiring. Did you have a lot of material to work with… and will there be more archive material from Alice released in this series? It must have been difficult to decide which tracks to release.
YALE: It wasn’t so difficult actually. With Onyeabor, Uchenna Ikonne (who originally helped us license the material), sent me a bunch of his tracks and I listened to many that Uchenna hadn’t sent me, and felt that the ones Uchenna had chosen were indeed the ones to choose. However, when we did all the Onyeabor albums my ears had really opened up to his sound and I loved most of what he recorded.
When I started working on the Alice record it was easy for me to choose these tracks. Now, going back, I love so many more and keep thinking to myself, why didn’t I pick that one. Hopefully we get to do more.
SPAZ: As far as you could tell, were these meditative live in the studio performances with very few additional overdubs? Or were these meticulously crafted recordings? Sonically, they seem to walk the line between the two. “Rama Rama” seems to be live for the most part but tracks like “Rama Guru” and “Om Rama” seem to be well arranged and produced…
YALE: Well they were recorded in a few different ways, sometimes based on the Ashram services, where at times they would segue from one piece into another. Baker Bigsby gave Alice a DAT recorder and she recorded some of the vocals at the Ashram and they flew them in. But also there would be sessions with 24 people singing in the studio. Surya, one of the kids who grew up living on the Ashram grounds, talks about being in a Valley studio owned by The Captain and Tenille with Van Halen recording in the next room! I also ran into a problem, as I worked from the mixed master tapes, not the cassette masters. And when they made the cassettes they would do edits and segues to make sure the cassette sides were equal. This was so confusing for me when the tracks I had were at times different lengths from the ones I had been listening to.
SPAZ: The resurgence of vinyl means that music fans will be able to experience this music on vinyl (with two bonus tracks) and CD as well as digital. What do you consider the best format to hear these recordings?
YALE: I am not a format person. I really don’t care. We made an incredible 52 page hard cover CD of this release. I think it’s quite an object of joy. And the LP, which the first pressing (which is stamped ‘first pressing’) comes with two extra booklets of interviews (which are also part of the CD’s 52 page book), is also an object of joy. And if you don’t want to own things, then there is still the music, which is so great, streamed or downloaded. Whichever way you want this sort of thing in your life. There is even a cassette version, in tribute to the original cassettes, which has a digital download card. Also, I should add, that Greg Calbi mastered the CD and digital versions. Paul Stubblebine, using a half speed mastering process (that I never believed in previously until I heard the amazing sounding ELAENIA, the Floating Points LP we released), mastered the LP version. So though there was to me a great difference in sound between the two versions originally in the test lacquer phase, now that they are much closer in sound than I would have expected.
SPAZ: When releasing this set, what type of reaction do you hope to evoke from the listener.
YALE: Kanye West said something about trying to make his records feel like Christmas presents, and I totally get that. We hope that we are making something that you care about, that we present the music in such a way that it speaks to you on a super pleasing level.
SPAZ: What’s next for Yale and Luaka Bop?
YALE: We have a new Floating Points record coming out in June. It’s a record that comes with a 30-minute film. Sam Shepherd recorded this with his band in the desert of California. Noticing the unusual acoustic properties of the desert and surrounding rock formations, he mixed the record in London and went back to the desert and played it though speakers placed around the landscape, recorded how that sounded and mixed that in. As he said “I didn’t just want to do another record.” This will also come with a 16 page glossy booklet of photos. And we have two albums coming in the Fall from Domenico and Kassin. Both ex-members of a Brazilian band on the label called the Plus 2’s. And of course there are WORLD SPIRITUALITY CLASSICS 2 and 3 in the works.
Thanks to Yale Evelev
Special thanks to Steve Dixon, Dave Rayburn and Nick Kominitsky