Universal Consciousness Orchestra, with the Ashram Community Choir and Flying Lotus
Japanese American National Museum, August 9, 2007
By Randall Roberts
It's a heady goal, for sure, and takes a pretty confident bunch to even name themselves the Universal Consciousness Orchestra. As if any dozen humans would be sold bold as to presume, through music, the ability to collectively float above (or over, or within, or without) the corporeal world and meet together on the astral plane — let alone outside on a concrete stage between two buildings. But last night in front of the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, the dozen-odd members of the Universal Consciousness Orchestra, whose mission is to honor the music of the late Alice Coltrane, did indeed tap into the mystic.
It was weird, how it happened. After a performance by Alice Coltrane's Ashram Community Choir – which, alas, I missed due to the earthly plague of traffic – a ragtag crew of musicians, some in dashikis, others in skirts or jeans, ambled into their chairs and tuned their instruments – among others, saxophone, flute, harp, bassoon, French horn, bass, piano, percussion/congo/bells, and drums. Standing in front holding a violin was the orchestra's leader, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. In the back was the evening's curator, Carlos Nino of the Dublab collective.
Then, with a casual nod from Atwood-Ferguson, the instruments let out a gentle moan of brass, bells, percussion and piano. The song, “Journey in Satchidananda,” ambled over the crowd like a shimmering fog, resonated in the eardrums of a few hundred souls with a gentle grace and disappeared. Then came the groove, a solid bass, bell, brass and drum rhythm which seemed to tether the music to the ground like it had lassoed the fog. For the next hour, the crowd, some sitting in neatly lined rows of folding chairs, others sprawled on the ground, the youngsters racing on autopilot, bathed in a spiritual glow. At stage right, a framed photo of Alice Coltrane – those eyes! those forgiving eyes! — lorded over the proceedings.
The weird event happened when ace vocalist Dwight Trible stepped up as the orchestra moved into John Coltrane's “A Love Supreme.” The amazing vocalist, best known for his work with Pharoah Sanders, let out a hum which slipped out of his mouth, grew into a grunt and slid like a trombone into a bellow. The musicians gazed on him and grinned as they rode the classic “Love Supreme” groove as though it were in control, not the players. It was then that the breeze came – at least I think that's what it was.
It glided through the crowd like it was lubricated, and made the skin on my head tingle (an odd sensation I get when my music-adoring circuits are firing on all cylinders). Trible began to chant, “A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme.” The musicians joined in, then the crowd. A little girl, probably four, looked at the people, then started opening and closing a Chinese fan in rhythm. The band moved toward a rejoiced cacophony. The girl flapped her fan, open and shut, open and shut. “A love supreme, a love supreme….” The musicians roared, and the cool breeze picked up. The girl stared at us, then puckered her lips and started blowing. Who knows if she made a sound? I couldn't hear her, specifically. But I'm sure she was in there somewhere, deep inside the everything that the Universal Consciousness Orchestra managed to conjure.