Skip to content

Blissful company

QuintessenceWhat’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? The fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love might be a good time to reconsider Nick Lowe’s rhetorical demand. In these harshly polarised times, we might look back with wonder on a brief era when a young generation commanded the world’s headlines with a philosophy that was essentially generous, outward-looking and benevolent.

Quintessence were purveyors of Indian sounds and philosophies to the heads of Ladbroke Grove between 1969 and 1971. A lot of their material, some of it previously unreleased, has been unearthed in recent years on several albums compiled for the Hux label by the author and researcher Colin Harper, including a terrific live recording of their memorable 1970 concert at St Pancras Town Hall, released in 2009 as Cosmic Energy. Now their first three studio albums, recorded for Island, are compiled on Move into the Light, a two-CD set on Cherry Red’s Esoteric imprint.

Naturally, being an underground band, they were featured in IT and ZigZag, but they had their fans in the straight music press, too. I wrote favourably about them in the Melody Maker at the time, as did my friend Rob Partridge in Record Mirror. I remember their flautist and leader, Raja Ram (born Ron Rothfield in Australia), telling me that he’d studied in New York with the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano: “A dollar a minute, but believe me it was worth it.” Their singer, Shiva, another Australian, had been a star back home leading a blues-rock band under his birth name, Phil Jones. The excellent drummer, Jake Milton, was Canadian. Alan Mostert, the lead guitarist, was from Mauritius. The bass guitarist, Shambhu (Richard Vaughan), was American. Their rhythm guitarist, Maha Dev (Dave Codling), was British. The band’s manager, the somewhat intense Stanley Barr, was a poet.

They became regulars at places like the Roundhouse, Friars in Aylesbury, the Temple (formerly the Flamingo) in Soho and elsewhere before graduating to bigger venues around the country, including the Albert Hall, which they filled in December 1971. A disagreement over a deal to release their album in the United States provoked a rupture with Island, but they were already starting to disintegrate by the time they moved on to RCA, with whom they released their fourth and fifth albums in 1972.

The beatific preachiness of their lyrics would draw the odd chuckle today, and there’s a certain amount of 1970-style clumpiness in the rhythms, but much of the music on the three albums making up Move into the Light (In Blissful Company, Quintessence and Dive Deep, all produced by John Barham), still sounds pretty good. Taking their cue from the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, they mixed songs and extended jams as effectively as any band in Britain at the time, with confident flute and guitar solos.

But how things have changed in the part of London they once called home. “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We all sit around and meditate,” Shiva sings on a track from the first album. The hedge fund managers and investment bankers who nowadays populate the once shabby and affordable streets of London W11 might have their own variant on that refrain: “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We sit around and rig the LIBOR rate…”

Alice Coltrane

There’s more peace, love and understanding on The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane, the first volume in a series on the Luaka Bop label titled “World Spirituality Classics”. This is music made by John Coltrane’s widow for semi-private circulation after ending her recording career with commercial labels and taking herself off to become the spiritual director of an ashram in Malibu, California, where she was known as Turiyasangitananda.

Between 1982 and 1995 she made four cassettes available to initiates: Turiya Sings, Divine Songs, Infinite Chants and Glorious Chants. The Luaka Bop CD is a compilation drawn from those recordings (the vinyl edition, a double album, has two extra tracks), featuring individual and choral chants, based on drones created by various keyboards — harmonium, organ, synthesiser — and harp, strings, sitars and tamburas, sometimes accompanied by hand percussion. The result achieves a quietly glowing blend of South Indian timbres and tonalities and African American spirituals.

The opening track, “Om Rama”, gets straight under your skin, synths whooshing and skirling around an infectious group chant that changes gear and develops a gospel-music edge, featuring an impassioned male lead singer who reminds me a little of Philippé Wynne. There’s some poised solo singing — by Alice Coltrane herself, I’d guess — on “Rama Rama”, and “Er Ra” is a short piece for her solo harp, almost koto-like in its delicacy, and voice. A 10-minute version of “Journey in Satchidananda” (which had been the title track of one of her Impulse albums in 1970) is almost as stately and uplifting as one of her late husband’s musical prayers. She died in 2007, aged 69, having outlived John by 40 years. But when you listen to this music it’s easy to convince yourself that neither of them is really gone.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nice to see Quintessence getting some good press with an absence of the usual sniggering. Of all those guitarists in thrall to and enthralled by Jerry Garcia I always thought Allan Mostert was one of the best. Live he was phenomenal as the St Pancras and other recordings reveal. I was in touch with him for a while. Very strange guy, very intense, and he sent me lots of his unreleased recordings but he seems to have disappeared again. Have you ever noticed the similarity between Shiva’s singing at the end of the title track on Dive Deep and Del Shannon’s Runaway? That’s because he was directly quoting. Phil was a big Del Shannon fan. There’s two artists you never expected to see in the same paragraph eh? My predictive tried to spell that as Dhanon, which sounds like a former member of the band don’t you think?

    May 4, 2017
  2. Paul Crowe #

    Ah, Quintessence. Brings me way back. As far as I can recall they never played in Ireland but I was introduced to them by an Island budget sampler – “Nice Enough to Eat” ?

    May 4, 2017
  3. Paul Tickell #

    Yes, I had that sampler. I saw Quintessence live in Norwich around 1970. I was in quest of heavier stuff so I was impatient of them. But, thanks, Richard, for making me reconsider… Don’t get me started on Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove today – a sort of oligarch’s gated toy-town. It was great to see black activist and broadcaster Darcus Howe’s funeral cortege going against the flow and ending up in All Saints’ Rd for a street party a couple of weeks ago. By the way, the word ‘gentrification’, coined by sociologist Ruth Glass in 1964, was first used by her in relation to Notting Hill – or Rotting Hill as the vituperative old fascist writer and painter Percy Wyndham Lewis called it in the early 1950s when he lived in the area.

    May 4, 2017
  4. Nice to hear that about Darcus Howe’s funeral stirring up the spirit of Vietgrove, thanks for that info Paul. Jonathan Raban’s Soft City (Flamingo 1974) is also good on the things you mention. A good little bit in there about free shop era W11. Also good on the ‘villaging’ of London which began apparently with Highgate. And yeah, I think most of us cash strapped teens started with those Island Samplers didn’t we? (Nick Drake passim….)

    May 4, 2017
  5. Paul Tickell #

    Thanks, Rob – Jonathan Raban taught me at University of East Anglia, specifically a great course on the Black Mountain poets (Olsen, Creeley, Synder et al)… Traffic, Spooky Tooth and Dr Strangely Strange were also on those samplers, I think… Another good book on Notting Hill and the Grove is Mark Oaten’s Murder In Notting Hill about the ’58 Riots and the murder of black carpenter Kelso Cochrane (he has a blue plaque at the Trellick Tower end of Goldbourne Rd where he was stabbed).

    May 4, 2017
  6. hamertheframer #

    Thanks for the reminder, Richard. I loved this band – – and I eagerly await the ecstatic music of Alice Coltrane.

    May 4, 2017
  7. Gareth Hickery #

    Fair and accurate review of Quintessence, they played Cardiff many times and were great live. Maybe they will be cool this time around. I still occasionally enjoy those early cds and the live ones come out now and again, but after living in Adelaide for the last forty years my Australian wife says, ” Oh no he’s gone dippy hippy again!”. Aren’t headphones and iPods great? Remember the Island comps very well as they introduced me to a lot of good stuff.
    Looking forward to the Alice Coltrane too, very different from the Impulse! Albums I imagine.

    May 4, 2017
  8. I’m sorry but even at the time I couldn’t understand the idea of a flute as a rock instrument! Great piece, Richard. Looking forward to more of the Summer of Love on your blog.

    May 5, 2017
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Hmmm .. Really ? Tull , Traffic , Tim Weisberg , Firefall etc et al ? Hmmm ……….

      May 7, 2017
    • GuitarSlinger #

      You have my sympathies/condolences Mr Richards because you’re missing the whole point . That being the distinction and contrast between the flute and electric guitars / bass / keyboards . Heck … what am I talking about electric . Even acoustically the combination of flute and guitar(s) … is pure magic . And yes in both instances this I know first hand .

      PS; In addition to my first list .. Frank Zappa and the MoI .. Genesis .. the essence of flute/recorder in a rock setting Gryphon … the Moody Blues … etc – et al .. sigh … oh well … your loss

      May 10, 2017
  9. Paul Tickell #

    “Flute as a rock instrument”: what about Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull? Saw them live in Norwich too…

    May 5, 2017
  10. GuitarSlinger #

    As for the first paragraph . Amen . We made our mistakes [ drugs ] etc … but in the long run as is being made more obvious by the moment … We Were Right

    As for Quintessence .. funny.. their presence was never really a factor here in the US .. unlike say .. ISB etc . And I was a Melody Maker reader back then . Hmm …. Odd how some bands make it over when equally if not more interesting groups can’t

    May 7, 2017
  11. Richard Barrowclough #

    I saw them live at the Holcombe Rogus Village Hall in deepest Devon in either 1970 or 71 – difficult to be sure after all this time. It was a cracking gig for all 150 (approx) present, enlivened for me by the presence of the Devon Constabulary Drug Squad – three men and a dog – who were very suspicious of the untipped Gitanes I was then smoking.

    May 8, 2017
  12. John Evans #

    According to the Carlos Santana biography The Universal Tone, published in 2014, Alice Coltrane’s final project was ‘an amazing album called The Sacred Language of Ascension’, which combines her melodies and organ playing with lyrics and chanting in English, Hebrew and Aramaic based on the writings of the ‘metaphysical historian and multidimensional archaeologist’ J.J. Hurtak. Santana (who had introduced Alice Coltrane to Hurtak and encouraged them to work together) expressed the hope that this album would ‘be released soon’. Does anyone know whether this album is any closer to being released?

    May 9, 2017
    • GuitarSlinger #

      From what both the NYTimes Stereophile along wth a couple of the jazz sites are reporting the answer is a definitive yes .. with all of Alice’s album/projects coming out on CD by the end of 2017 .. though knowing the industry .. plan on 2018 for all to hit the shelves . Oddly [ and ironically ] enough this is happening because of all things … a resurgence of interest in New Age music .. so although Alice’s music in my opinion hardly qualifies as New Age .. what ever it takes to get the job done

      May 10, 2017
      • John Evans #

        J.J. Hurtak certainly has strong New Age associations, and collaborated with the quintessentially New Age keyboard player Stephen Halpern to produce a 2013 CD based in part on material from his ‘Book of Knowledge: The Keys of Enoch’ (one of Carlos Santana’s favourite texts). Hurtak appeared on stage with Alice Coltrane on October 22, 2006, when she performed two pieces from the ‘Sacred Language of Ascension’ project during a concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. According to Ben Ratliff’s review in the New York Times, the musical basis of these pieces ‘amounted to fairly simple gospel-soul, agreeably modulating upward in whole steps’. At Alice Coltrane’s next concert in San Francisco on November 4, 2006 (which was to be her final public performance), she appears to have omitted these new pieces and concentrated instead on familiar material, mostly with a strong jazz content.

        May 11, 2017
  13. Colin Harper #

    Malcom Dome does a good job on the notes to the new ‘Move Into The Light’ gathering of all three Island albums and the three stray single/Bumpers comp tracks, with new quotes from Phil and Maha Dev. It’s a nice one-stop shop for the Island ‘canon’, but to my ears the mastering on the still-available Repertoire CDs of each individual album (plus the strays) is superior – more expansive, the sound seems to breathe more, truer to the vinyl… Chris Welch does the notes on those – sketchy memoirs on the first two, interviews Phil and Dev on ‘Dive Deep’. The Repertoire packaging also includes several exclusive pics from live shows. But if one if a casual buyer, MITL is perfectly good.

    Thanks for mentioning the Hux releases, Richard. The most recent one, last year’s ‘Spirits From Another Time’ (a 2CD of newly mixed studio outtakes and alt takes from the 1969-71 Island period) was Hux’s 150th release – and the cottage-label’s most expensive release to date, just as Quin’s ‘In Blissful Company’ was Island’s most expensive back in the day. I take my hat off to Huxmeister Brian O’Reilly for committing to the project and rolling the dice. We found one stray St Pancras live gem while researching the ‘Spirits…’ set, a multi-track of a six-minute ‘Body’, which was part of the first half of the concert that had eluded us when working on ‘Cosmi Energy: Live At St Pancras’ back in 2009. Phil Shiva reckons it’s the stand-out track, and I think he’s right.

    Incidentally, Hux CD151 (out this month) is an expanded remaster of Mike Westbrook’s ‘Live’ (1972). Mike’s not one to think of himself as a ’60s artist’ or a product of an era, but listeners often have different ways of viewing and appreciating artists from the way the artist may see themselves. I mean it as a compliment to say that, to me, Mike’s ‘Live’ album with Gary Boyle et al. sits perfectly well with the live and live-in-studio Quintessence recordings from the Island era as part of a magical, fluid time in British music before the world got obsessed with genres.

    May 13, 2017
  14. Only discovered Quintessence a few years back. Wish I’d had them by my side when Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies kept me in touch with whatever it was I in touch with.then.

    June 3, 2017

Leave a Reply to John Evans Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: