Spiritual Jazz is a sub-genre of jazz that was popular in the 60s and 70s. As a sub-genre, spiritual jazz evolved as musicians looked to express their own spirituality and search for transcendence in musical expression. It started with musicians who were searching for new ways to explore spirituality through music.
In this article, we take a look at some of the most influential spiritual jazz artists and albums, focusing on 10 albums that every jazz fan should get familiar with.
John Coltrane – A Love Supreme
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is one of the most important recordings in jazz history, and the album that laid down the template for spiritual jazz.
The result of one meditative recording session in December 1964, A Love Supreme is infused with spirituality and a sense of grandeur. A virtuoso saxophonist in his own right, Coltrane was joined by some of his most trusted collaborators on this album, including drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner, and bassist Jimmy Garrison, who together comprised Coltrane’s “classic” quintet.
A Love Supreme is not just one of the greatest spiritual jazz recordings but also one of the finest records ever made in any genre. It’s a showcase for the full range of Coltrane’s playing, from the most delicate notes to aggressive, free blowing and everything in between, yet it ultimately succeeds because each piece has its own distinct character. While there are plenty of thematic elements across the record, they come together to form a fluid, singular work that refuses to deviate from its course.
Alice Coltrane – Journey In Satchidananda
Alice Coltrane’s music is among the most spiritual of a generation of jazz musicians who came to the table with a quest to create something greater than themselves. Coltrane’s 1971 album, Journey In Satchidananda, is a spiritual jazz masterpiece, a legendary musical journey through jazz, spirituals and Indian classical music with an eclectic group of performers. Alice Coltrane’s harp and piano flow easily over the pulsating bass of Cecil McBee, and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’s solos remain smooth and melodically rich throughout. The entire record is a slow burning hypnotic groove with beautiful melodies, and otherworldly extras like bells and tanpura add a level of beauty to Coltrane and Sanders’s signature phrases.
Pharoah Sanders – Thembi
One of the most distinctive voices in jazz, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders pushed the boundaries of the genre for over four decades until his passing in 2022. Throughout his trailblazing career, Sanders pioneered a gorgeous improvisatory style and melodic tone of his own that fused free jazz with spirituality.
A masterpiece of spiritual jazz, Thembi is one of Pharoah Sanders’ greatest works. As is the case with most of his music, the album varies greatly in instrumentation and flow, but still retains a certain level of continuity due to his diverse musical compositions and their consistent spiritual message.
Thembi is a meditative and trance-inducing exploration that takes you to a new level of consciousness. Some of Sanders’ finest playing is featured here, and the songs themselves reflect a strange, captivating fusion of soul jazz spiritual jazz. The compositions are uplifting and mind-bending, creating an atmosphere full of wonder and mystery.
Sun Ra – Sleeping Beauty
Sun Ra was a musical visionary who produced his own brand of futuristic jazz. His backing band, known as the Arkestra, would evolve throughout his life and career, eventually becoming one of several iterations for the group which allowed for a stable lineup which transcended individual pieces of music.
Sleeping Beauty is a perfect example of Sun Ra and the Arkestra’s unique brand of jazz, which has been described as “space jazz,” or “cosmic jazz.” Although it features a long list of sidemen and bandleaders (including trombonist Tony Bethel, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, bassist Richard Williams and drummer Luqman Ali), the beating heart of this session is Sun Ra himself. He alternates between his piano, electric piano and organ throughout the album, adding interesting coloration to the proceedings while maintaining an intimate connection with all of his players as if he was privy to their inner thoughts. The music is also surprisingly lyrical even though it retains all of the free and spiritual jazz roots Sun Ra’s music is known for.
McCoy Tyner – Enlightenment
It’s hard to imagine McCoy Tyner having loftier aspirations than Enlightenment, an epic for jazz quartet recorded in 1974 with Joony Booth on bass, Alphonse Mouzon on drums, Azar Lawrence on tenor saxophone and Tyner himself at the piano. The music is pure melodrama: the opening notes are a rumbling mass that overtakes the listener like a tidal wave, showcasing a keening climax of squeaks that rise up around Tyner’s fluttering keys like an ethereal cloud of pure bliss.
As a whole Enlightenment is outstanding but “Walk Spirit, Talk Spirit” is one of the most moving pieces of jazz music ever recorded, a 24-minute epic test of endurance for both the band and its audience. The players’ ability to exchange ideas and complement each others’ statements is as fresh today as when it was first recorded.
Don Cherry – Don Cherry
Don Cherry began his career in the late 1950s with Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking jazz quartet, and he played a pivotal role in the birth of free jazz. One of the most free-thinking figures in jazz music history, he made albums that combined avant-garde improvisation and world music before either were fashionable, using every technique at his disposal to expand the envelope of jazz.
Don Cherry’s 1975 self-titled album is a brilliant fusion of Eastern mysticism and psychedelic jazz. The music is eclectic, idiosyncratic and individualistic. It’s impossible to categorize or classify—one of the most unique jazz albums you will likely ever hear. Cherry’s wide range of influences has spawned some of the most innovative sounds in modern music and this album is truly one of the most interesting records ever made, resonating with timeless power with every listen.
Joe Henderson – The Elements
Originally released in 1973 on Milestone Records, The Elements features a four-part improvisation called “Fire.” “Air,” “Water” and “Earth”. Beginning with “Fire”, and continuing through “Air,” “Water” and “Earth,” Joe Henderson creates a sonic journey that is truly breathtaking.
The whole thing has an otherworldly vibe, with Alice Coltrane’s harp providing many of the key building blocks of each track. Some have called this “spiritual jazz-fusion.” That’s not a bad description, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s more to this than just spiritualism—there’s a feeling of infinity here that goes well beyond anything associated with jazz.
But make no mistake—this is jazz too. It just so happens that Henderson didn’t sound like anyone else out there at the time; instead he follows his own muse into unknown territory where he emerges triumphant as one of the pioneers of free jazz.
JuJu – A Messenge From Mozambique
Recorded in 1973, Message From Mozambique is a politically charged spiritual-jazz album by Bay Area tenor saxophonist Plunky Nkabinde and his band JuJu. An album that has become legendary in the underground jazz world, this album is pretty damn incredible. It has that same spiritual jazz vibe of the Coltranes and Pharoah Sanders, but with a much more fiery feeling to it. The whole album maintains a sense of urgency and immediacy from beginning to end and is a classic both in terms of its message content—focusing on wars being waged in South Africa, Angola and Mozambique over issues of white supremacy and control of natural resources—and the power of the music itself.
Steve Reid feat. The Legendary Master Brotherhood – Nova
Steve Reid began his career as a teenager in the 1960s as a drummer at Motown before going on to play with a veritable who’s who of music royalty, including Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Fela Kuti, James Brown, Ornette Coleman and many others. In the latter part of his career he also collaborated extensively with Kieran Hebden (Four Tet), who Reid referred to as his “musical soul mate.”
Nova, Reid’s 1974 debut with his band the Legendary Master Brotherhood, is a free spirited collection of music that conjures up images of the 60’s with a modern twist. Reid’s drumming style, on point and unorthodox, blends seamlessly with his compositions to create an album which will have you floating through space listening to the sounds around them.
Nova is an exceptional spiritual jazz record, steeped in the avant garde style of free form, full of great solos and drumming. It’s also a rich and dynamic work that pays homage to peers like Don Cherry and Pharaoh Sanders.
The Awakening – Hear, Sense and Feel
The Awakening is one of the more underrated and under-appreciated jazz bands to emerge from Chicago and one of the most forward thinking, yet unassuming, spiritual jazz groups of the 1970s. The group features some first-class players, including pianist Ken Chaney and saxophonist-flautist Ari Brown, and the group as a whole brought a unique blend of jazz, soul, and African sounds to the forefront of their music.
Taking their cue from the spiritual jazz greats, like Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra, The Awakening’s debut album Hear, Sense and Feel is a powerful meeting of deeply soulful energy. Known for their combination of spiritual and social themes, this classic album captures them on a remarkable creative peak, playing with a daring sense of freedom that is both open-minded and soulful.