Music interview: Harpist Alina Bzhezhinska on her tribute to Alice and John Coltrane

Alina Bzhezhinska
Alina Bzhezhinska
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Last year’s 50th anniversary of the death of John Coltrane tended to eclipse the fact that it was also the tenth anniversary of the passing of the iconic saxophonist’s wife Alice, harpist, pianist and composer, whose often extraordinary music, fuelled by an ever-questing spirituality, has struggled to emerge from the shadow of her husband’s reputation.

Emerging from that anniversary and turning the spotlight on Alice’s music, a striking tribute album by London-based Ukrainian-Polish harpist Alina Bzhezhinska will receive its Scottish launch at Glasgow’s City Halls on 22 June as part of this year’s Glasgow Jazz Festival.

Bzhezhinska had already started investigating Coltrane’s music when, amid last year’s anniversary events, she heard an admirable BBC Radio 3 programme, Alice Coltrane: Her Sound and Spirit, presented by Kevin Le Gendre, that made her sit up: “I set myself on a mission to tell Alice and John Coltrane’s story, through my own interpretation of their music and my compositions.”

She participated in an acclaimed concert celebrating Alice’s legacy, along with jazz heroes Denys Baptiste and Pharaoh Sanders, at the Barbican during last year’s London Jazz Festival. With her superb quartet from that concert – saxophonist Tony Kofi, bassist Larry Bartley and drummer Joel prime – she recorded Inspiration, an album steeped in the music and spirit of both Coltranes. As Le Gendre writes in his album notes: “No tribute to them was more graceful than that of harpist Alina Bzhezhinska and her fine quartet.”

Bzhezhinska is no stranger to Scotland, having lived here for 12 years, teaching at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow and collaborating with such established Scottish jazz names as Martin Kershaw, Ryan Quigley and Euan Stevenson and Konrad Wiszniewski’s New Focus. She still maintains a duo project with singer Niki King.

Alice Coltrane was an established musician in her own right before she met John. As a classically-trained pianist steeped in the gospel and jazz of her native Detroit, she played with numerous jazz musicians, joining John’s band in 1966.

They had married the previous year but their time together was short, John dying of liver cancer in 1967. He had ordered a concert harp for his wife, but sadly it didn’t arrive until after his death. However, she went on to make this decidedly non-jazz instrument her own, combining mighty glissandi with vocals, organ and synthesisers in her often ecstatic compositions.

“Being the spouse of a famous person is always a challenge,” says Bzhezhinska. “As a musician, Alice was respected by her colleagues. The press didn’t like the idea that, at that time, John was moving away from bebop and experimenting with free jazz and universal jazz. She understood and supported that, but she was partly blamed for it, so she was put into this corner of being John Coltrane’s wife.”

Little of her music seems to have been notated, with Bzhezhinska and her band learning from recordings: “Her music is so free that I would just get a melody or some chant she used, then get together with the band and we’d make something out of it, usually putting loads of our own ideas into it.”

The richly-textured result opens with a solo harp exposition of Alice’s Wisdom Eye, a beguiling portal into her music as the rest of the band swing in for Blue Nile, Kofi’s soprano sax sounding a reedy clarion with distinct echoes of ’Trane.

John’s After the Rain receives a sweeping rendition, harp and percussion conjuring the elements, tenor sax lingering fondly over the tune, while a key track is Journey in Satchidananda, with soprano sax sailing over increasingly stormy waves of harp.

Satchidananda was the Indian guru who deeply influenced Alice’s thinking, and under whose influence she established an ashram of her own in California. “His ideas,” explains Bzhezhinska, “had a strong spiritual connection for her and influenced her music, and her understanding of the world.”

The Glasgow Jazz Festival runs from 20-24 June. For further information, see www.jazzfest.co.uk and www.alina-harpist.com