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Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane (Music Culture)
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2013
Format: Paperback
Feeling great music deeply and thinking deeply about great music shouldn't be mutually exclusive. It's a shame that the corporate and religious right takeover of our culture has led so many people (such as Mr. Hatfield) to only appreciate the hyperbole and overstatement of journalistic writing, and made them fundamentally suspicious of critical thinking and academic writing. This book may omit some details of Alice Coltrane's career, but it does an excellent job of giving context to her unique and hybrid creativity and the author deserves praise for her careful, appreciative work.

If another book comes along on Alice Coltrane that fills in these omissions, it will have to take Franya Berkman's sophisticated musical and cultural analysis as a point of departure. "Eight crayon box" - are you kidding me? Berkman has viewed Alice Coltrane through the complex prisms of race, gender, jazz style, spirituality, globalization and cultural studies, just to cite a few of the lenses she uses here. If people like Mr. Hatfield are unwilling or unable to grapple with these complex issues, they should simply admit that instead of placing the blame on the author. What is beyond doubt is that all of these issues were crucial shapers of Alice Coltrane's art.

Furthermore, Berkman made a deliberate point of departing from the discographical emphasis of so many jazz biographies - an emphasis that only appeals to jazz record collectors and typically only to men - in order to tease out the complicated themes that are fundamental to understanding Alice Coltrane's creativity in the big picture. This is a victory and a major contribution in itself.

Regarding Mr. Lankester's review: I get tired of reading so many reviews by British readers who criticize books for their supposed "lack of humor." Since when did "humor" become an expected component of academic writing about music (or ANY writing about music)? I think the problem here is that the British musical establishment has been so ridiculously conservative (i.e. devoted almost exclusively to the study of classical music) that writing about any other type of music (popular, jazz, world music, experimental music) has been forced into the sphere of journalism, where writers are expected to "entertain" their readers in order to sell the product that their magazines advertise. I'm not advocating for dry, boring academic prose, but I think we need to make a distinction between entertainment and serious scholarship. Why spend your hard-earned cash on a full-length book if you only want the level of discussion associated with Mojo or New Musical Express?

Fundamentally, the problem with the reception of this book has nothing to do with the author's inclusions or omissions. The criticisms on this site actually mirror the complexities inherent in Alice Coltrane's art: those drawn to her music for its spiritual content resist reading a more theoretical analysis of her music. And the jazz collectors really need to take their heads out of their record stacks once in a while and be open to an understanding of the music and musicians that is bigger than personnel listings, matrix numbers and alternate takes. This book does an excellent job of clarifying the misunderstandings that have dogged Alice Coltrane's exceptional career for decades and highlighting what is so important about her contribution to jazz.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2011
Format: Paperback
Alice Coltrane (1937-2007) was an accomplished musician well before she met John Coltrane, the legendary jazz saxophonist, in the early 1960s. Born Alice McLeod to a musical family on the East End of Detroit, she was exposed at a young age to black religious and folk music in her church, where she served as the three choirs' pianist and arranger, and to modern jazz at home, where her half-brother Ernest Farrow was an accomplished musician, and throughout the Motor City, as she studied under and played alongside well known artists such as Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef and Sonny Stitt. Her fellow musicians described her as an innovative pianist, whose phrasing integrated her knowledge of those different musical genres into a unique style. Unfortunately her talent earned her little recognition, due to the double prejudice of race and gender, as many "girl musicians" who were not singers or hard driving musicians were not taken seriously, and because most jazz musicians gained their fame in New York, Los Angeles or elsewhere.

McLeod decided to further her career by moving to Paris along with a local scat singer, who she married before leaving Detroit, but she soon returned to her home town with her young daughter after she divorced him. She performed locally with Terry Gibbs' band, until she met John Coltrane on tour. The two married soon after, and after three years of being a mother to their three children, Trane invited her to replace McCoy Tyner as the group's pianist in 1965, as he replaced his classic quartet with musicians that better fit his abstract music that stretched the boundaries of jazz and incorporated elements of Eastern music. Trane's health failed, and he died in 1967 of liver cancer at the age of 41. However, Alice continued where her husband and teacher left off, and continued to explore his music in her own fashion, as she used her past experiences to produce her own music that incorporated avant garde jazz with Indian music. She recorded more than 20 albums over the next 40 years, including "Ptah, the El Daoud" (1970), "Universal Consciousness" (1972), "Transcendence" (1977) and "Translinear Light" (2004), and became a spiritual leader of a Hindu center in California. The success of "Translinear Light" led to a brief comeback in 2006, as she played with her son Ravi Coltrane, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Roy Haynes, but passed away the following year.

Alice Coltrane's life and music has long been under-recognized, and Franya Berkman chose her as the subject of her PhD thesis in ethnomusicology, which she extended into this work. Through interviews with Alice and those musicians who performed with her, Berkman effectively dispels the falsehoods about this talented musician and spiritual seeker, and the reader gains an appreciation for her talent prior to, during, and after her years with Trane. This book would be best appreciated by those with some familiarity with Alice Coltrane's music, as it is more of a musical analysis than a biography, but it is an excellent introduction to this amazingly talented artist.
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Roger Hatfield and I live on different planets (but I can tell him that the word he wanted in his review was "than," not "then"); here are my 5 stars to counter his damning 1.

This is my comment posted to a glowing review published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (11/14/10):

Thank you for this substantive attention to a subject and work that merits it. I happen to be somewhat familiar with the book, but the idea that John Coltrane's most signature brilliance was stoked and energized by his relationship with Alice was new to me until I read it here, and one worth pondering long and hard.

Gender issues have become an important aspect of this kind of music scholarship, but couples who are that deeply bonded in the music along with their marriage or erotic bond are rare (Lil Hardin with Louis Armstrong comes to mind, also a connection that contributed much to his development as an artist). I remember the impression it made on me to see John and Alice perform in San Francisco in their prime together-his soprano sax tilted into the open lid of her grand piano, so the two were facing each other as they played for an extended period of improv. Quite the facial/body-language conversation to observe...palpably different in quality than if the pianist had been McCoy Tyner, assuming they would have positioned themselves that way at all.

Franya Berkman attracted those scholars you mention to her dissertation committee because she has a mind and instinct for what is important and interesting in under-reported subjects to match theirs. May this be the first of more such work the academy should have gotten to sooner.

Mike Heffley
Author of The Music of Anthony Braxton: (Contributions to the Study of Music and Dance) (Greenwood, 1996)
"Northern Sun, Southern Moon: Europe's Reinvention of Jazz (Yale University Press, 2005)
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Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Great book and introduction to this amazing musician's life and music. Not a complete biography but contains many biographical details. Definitely written in an academic treatise style, with a socioligical and musicological slant, but also contains warmth, a clear love for its subject, and attention to detail which makes it a joy to read.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2012
Format: Paperback
Sorry to say this is not a great read. The author's writing style is too academic and dry; it lacks humour and a deft touch. Great if you are examining an academic thesis yet dull for the lay reader.

I also felt that there was too much opinion (feminist) and it was light on in depth details of Alice's life journey. Photographs of Alice were sparse also.

I suppose that we should be grateful for any evaluation of Alice's contributions to the music world, however, I think we will have to wait for a more able author to compose a biography of merit.

If you are investigating Alice, rather than buy this book buy her CDs!

15/10/21012
I have now had the opportunity to re-read this book a further two times out of the desire to be fair and I must tell you the review becomes worse. I feel I know the iconic Alice even less. In this book, the chronology of her life is at best skimpy at worse non existent since years pass in a sentence. (Very little exists about her life after 1978 especially her concerts with her son, Ravi.) Where are the references to her family? None. Where are the discussions and references to her musical peers and collaborators on her Impulse and Warner albums? None.

Mention of her final album (Translinear Light from 2003) amounts to just 12 words and that is just to mention the year of release!

As I said before, avoid this lousy book and instead buy Alice's excellent musical legacy on CD and cassette.

Please avoid this book and await a worthwhile memorial for this truely great and spiritual lady.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 26, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This book certainly has merit - as an academic survey, it takes Alice Coltrane as a musical subject with a seriousness that few other books have yet taken. The chapter, especially, surveying Coltrane's career prior to her association with and marriage to John Coltrane is to my knowledge unprecedented, and for that reason especially valuable to the Alice Coltrane completist. The musical analyses of some of her solos are especially valuable.

My biggest complaint is that it sometimes walks an uneasy line between an academic and a critical tone. The author spends a good bit of time on certain albums (Universal Consciousness especially) and basically dismisses World Galaxy and Lord of Lords. Only a passing mention is made to her last studio album, Translinear Light, even though it is quite significant in her discography for including new versions of compositions recorded earlier (and in much different versions) on albums like Ptah the El Daoud, Transfiguration and Universal Consciousness. The author's reason for doing so seems to be that she simply favors them less, which seems lazy in a book that aims to examine Coltrane's body of work in great detail.

The editing is also sloppy - numerous typographical errors abound that seem like mistakes of a spell-checking program, and there are several awkward turns of phrase that could've benefited from a closer editorial eye. I understand that the work began as the author's Doctorate dissertation but I wish the same editorial vigor would've been applied to this published version.

Nonetheless, for what it is, Monument Eternal provides some crucial information, and more importantly dares to view Alice Coltrane as independent from the legacy of her husband, which is a feat itself.
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10 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I was so eager to read the book! It was almost like a romantic evening. My wife built a fire, and I put on some of my own "spiritual music". I eagerly read through the preface entitled "In Search of Divine Music". That's what I came here for! Oh Boy!

Let me save myself some time. As I read the first chapter I found myself disagreeing with the author's conclusions in paragraph after paragraph. With a subject so nuanced, Ms. Berkman works from the eight Crayon box. Alice is such a transcendent figure; to see her legacy interpreted in pedestrian terms as "feminist" and "racial connotations" is so beneath her. Ms Berkman almost gets it, sometimes, mostly not.

I probably am not qualified to review this book. I have come to hate it in the first chapter. The author, an academic, has completely missed the point. I won't read any more, I can't. It makes me angry. l really wish that Alice's words were more the feature, rather then the author's opinions.

History will judge the contribution of Alice, and John, and Alice and John. At least I have some more pictures of Alice. You are better off buying some of Alice's music. It will tell you everything you need to know, if you listen.

RH
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