Spiritual Jazz, also known as Astral Jazz, evolved out of the free jazz of the 1960’s as musicians looked to express their own spirituality and search for transcendence in musical expression.
In this article, we take a look at some of the most influential artists and albums in this style of jazz music, with examples of each.
While Free Jazz, or ‘the new thing’ as it was often referred to, took on a life of its own, spiritual jazz evolved along a parallel path as a sub-genre of the music that would continue the quest for new sounds and modes of expression.
This fusion of musical cultures – from Africa, to India and The East – coupled with the intensity of free jazz would prove to have a significant impact on many of the influential musicians of the late sixties and early seventies.
So let’s take a look at 10 of the most famous albums in this style that will help you better understand this other-worldly genre…
10 Influential Spiritual Jazz Albums
A Love Supreme (1964): John Coltrane
Arguably the first ever spiritual jazz album, John Coltrane’s masterpiece laid down a template that has never been equaled, and certainly not bettered. The music is a powerful declaration of spiritual awakening, and the saxophonist’s prayer and thanks to God.
The resultant music, recorded in a single session on 9th December, 1964 transcends anything that came before it in an outpouring of human emotion that was incredibly captured on magnetic tape.
Coltrane’s ‘Classic Quartet’ were a finely tuned unit.
The music may have been new and presented to them on the day of the recording, but spurred on by the leader’s impassioned tenor saxophone the music reaches incredible heights.
The music is exhausting and exhaustive, yet leaves the listener feeling that they have shared something that has touched them profoundly.
Thembi (1971): Pharoah Sanders
Saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders was there almost there at the beginnings of spiritual jazz, and would develop this side of his musical persona alongside John Coltrane.
Performing with Coltrane on some his later works after A Love Supreme, he can be heard on the big band recording Ascension, and would be ‘Trane’s choice of second saxophonist playing alongside the classic quartet on Meditations and Expressions.
Sanders’s excursion in the idiom however would follow a different path.
Comprising of relatively short composition based pieces, Thembi would lock into structured rhythmic grooves with a clearly defined melodic line, as on the title track with Sanders on soprano and shadowed by violinist Michael White.
‘Astral Traveling’ would capture the mysterious nature of spirituality with the ethereal sound of the Fender Rhodes (apparently this was Lonnie Liston Smith’s first encounter with the eclectic piano) and flute, and the delights of the East explored on ‘Morning Prayer’.
The freer side of the music was expressed in ‘Red, Black & And Green’ and ‘Bailophone’ without losing sight of the ethnic and astral connotations of the other titles.
Sahara (1972): McCoy Tyner
Another (extremely close) associate of John Coltrane, pianist McCoy Tyner had never been entirely comfortable with later music, and after his departure from the band seemed to lose his direction and not sure in which area he should focus his music.
With Sahara came a return to form in a set that is engaging, exciting and focused.
A core quartet is used for the recording with all four musicians playing additional instruments including koto and percussion, and this is particularly effective on ‘Valley Of Life’ with percussion, koto and flutes conjuring up sounds of the Far East.
The pianist plays with a real ferocity on ‘Rebirth’ driven along by drummer Alphonse Mouzon, and Sonny Fortune on alto wastes no time in getting in on the action in an exciting solo.
However it is the long title track that reveals the most about Tyner’s musical thinking of the time. The piece took up all of side two of the original LP and features some of the pianist’s finest playing.
His comping is assured and he directs the performance from the piano, keeping the music grounded even as Fortune on soprano sax looking to push the music further out, while his own solo recaptures much of the dynamism of his playing of the early and mid-sixties.
Music Is The Healing Force Of The Universe (1969): Albert Ayler
The music of Albert Ayler has never been an easy listen, but then that is not what Ayler was about.
From his earliest recordings the saxophonist was in search of new sounds and ways to express himself and his message on his instrument.
While he was often lambasted during his short career, Ayler mission statement was not blindly forge ahead with the “new thing” but to reconnect the present with the music of the past.
It is not difficult to trace Ayler lineage back to the New Orleans brass bands, the blues, gospel and R’n’B, what was misunderstood was the vernacular that he chose to express his music.
With his big braying sound on tenor saxophone and command of the full range of the horn from the bell notes into the altissimo register Ayler’s saxophone could veer wildly from a gentle folk song to full throttle blues complete with multi-phonics in a couple of notes.
With music and lyrics written by Ayler’s partner, Mary Maria Parks who is also featured on vocals it can be construed that this detracts from the impact of the saxophonist’s music, but Parks was so in tune with her husband’s vision that her words assist in enabling Ayler to take his music back to its roots.
Music For Zen Meditation (1964): Tony Scott
Tony Scott has become something of a forgotten man in jazz.
Being a clarinettist with an affinity for bebop immediately made him stand out from the crowd.
During the forties and fifties, he would frequently be heard working with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bill Evans.
However, he would become disillusioned with the jazz scene in America and mourning the loss of friends Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Hot Lip Page he left the US bound for the Far East.
His interest in Buddhism and its teachings inevitably found their way into his musical thinking, and Music For Zen Mediation was the first of a series of recordings that explored the music of Japan in a largely improvised set.
With music for clarinet, koto and shakuhachi (a Japanese wooded flute) the music is calming and contemplative and widely regarded as the first new age recording, along with it’s spiritual connotations.
Sleeping Beauty (1979): Sun Ra And His Intergalactic Myth Science Solar Arkestra
Sun Ra, born Herman “Sonny” Blount, claimed that he hailed from Saturn and was sent to earth on a mission to preach peace.
Sun Ra’s music is often described as futuristic but in reality, is a bland of the traditional, the avant-garde and Ra’ own ingenuity as an arranger, composer and pioneer of the synthesizer.
Astral jazz for all it’s association the with free jazz of the sixties has always retained strong links with the history and development of jazz, and this was fully embraced by Sun Ra with the music for his various incarnations of his Arkestra being all inclusive from ragtime, New Orleans jazz, swing, bebop and fusion.
Sleeping Beauty can be viewed as one of the Arkestra’s late night listening recordings, and something to relax to.
But beware, while the overall mood is on the gentle side, there is still plenty of action from the band that will give you a start both in the arrangements and with some knockout solos from longstanding saxophonists Marshall Royal and John Gilmore.
Journey In Satchidananda (1971): Alice Coltrane
A fascinating album that blends the spiritual with the combined musical thinking of pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane, and her late husband John Coltrane.
Itis not unkind to suggest that the vision presented on Journey In Satchidananda is not all Alice’s, it was only recorded three years after her husband’s death and she had been inextricably bound in his final band and recordings.
But, there is enough of her own individual playing and composing to mark this album as a significant achievement in her discography.
With Pharoah Sanders, a fellow colleague in John Coltrane’s alter groups, is heard only on soprano saxophone which blends nicely with the drones that are an integral part of the music.
Throughout Alice’s playing is confident and assured with her piano playing commanding and decisive, while the harp swirls around the music on ‘Isis And Osiris’ like eerie mist that draws in Sander’s soprano.
Perversely, it is the comparatively straight forward ‘Something About John Coltrane’ that centers around scale of D-minor is the least successful offering.
Perhaps compared to the other tracks it almost seems too familiar, and the real substance is to be found in the other compositions recorded.
Prepare Thyself To Deal With A Miracle (1973): Rahsaan Roland Kirk
Kirk was a blind multi -instrumentalist renowned for playing three saxophones simultaneously. He once asserted that he was “out to catch the sound of the sun”, and claimed to breathe through his ears.
However crazy these ideas may now sound, Kirk’s multi-instrumentalism was no party trick but a totally original playing technique that resulted in some unique three-part unison passages that have never heard before or since.
His ability to circular breathe thus maintaining a continuous stream of sound was often used to provide a drone through one of his three saxophones.
An outspoken character, and passionately committed to his music he may not have been too enamored by the term spiritual jazz, he always described his music as “Black classical music.”
But his playing did transcend all attempts to pigeon hole his individual and eclectic approach to music that encompassed New Orleans street bands, gospel, blues and European classical music all melded into his own unique concept and fusion of musical genres.
This is best expressed in the three part ‘Saxophone Concerto’ that not only shows his incredible virtuosity on saxophones and flutes, but also the artistic depth of his vision.
Brown Rice (1975): Don Cherry
Don Cherry was a true nomad, both in the literal sense and in the musical. If he would spend much of time in the late sixties and seventies in Europe he would also frequently turn up to learn and play in India, Korea and Latin America.
As such it is fair to say that his music was often of no fixed abode, and that is the beauty in listening to Cherry.
His music may have found its first maturity in the music and groups of Ornette Coleman, but the trumpeter was able to further his concept on a much larger scale incorporating music from his travels around the globe.
Originally issued as Brown Rice, the music has been available on CD simply titled Don Cherry, but however you discover this remarkable album you will be transported through Arabic, Indian and African music to a place that fuse together the ancient, present and future.
As well as the ethnic instruments deployed, Cherry serves up plenty of his wonderful trumpet playing demonstrating just how universal a language music truly is.
The Epic (2015): Kamasi Washington
If the heyday for spiritual jazz was the 1960’s and 70s, there has been a steady revival and interest in this particular sub-genre of jazz in recent years – not least due to the arrival of musician Kamasi Washington, and his major label debut released in 2015.
The Epic by name, and epic by nature: everything about this album was done large.
A three disc set that featured the tenor saxophonist with his regular bandmates and associates that often used double ups on bassists, drummers and keyboard players along with a horn section.
If this did not produce a big enough sound palette for Washington’s concept, then a string orchestra or choir was at hand to bring in that additional grandeur in the sound that the saxophonist was hearing.
With the band and additional musicians there to support the leader, this is very much Washington’s vision and quest.
If Coltrane is the immediately discernible inspiration, it is also fair to say that he has also been touched by Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders.
The music itself relies extensive jams, albeit carefully arranged with sections for strings, choir or horns and much of the interest comes from the leader’s tenor excursions.
At 172 minutes playing time it takes considerable resolve to listen to the album in a single sitting, but Kamasi Washington has perhaps found a way to incorporate music from the hard bop, free jazz, jazz-rock and astral jazz into a highly palatable and heady mix for the 21st century.
Thanks for reading!
Of course, we could have added many more albums, but we hope these 10 give you a good insight into the music that is so aptly named ‘Spiritual Jazz’ and a taste of where to find more of it!
Nick Lea is a British jazz writer who has been publishing articles, interviews and news about jazz for more than 20 years. He is editor and writer for Jazzviews.net