Brandee Younger
Brandee Younger at SFJAZZ | Credit: Jack Brown

There’s a lively debate in jazz circles over the usefulness, propriety, and creative efficacy of tribute concerts for departed masters. With so much interesting new music available to play, one part of the argument goes, why feed audiences familiar fare?

The question answers itself, as a performance pegged to a beloved star is often much easier to publicize than a concert featuring music of recent vintage. Yet the charge that tribute events sell audiences short while taking up space better served by a focus on original works rings true all too frequently.

That said, harpist Brandee Younger’s celebration of Alice Coltrane (1937–2007) last weekend at the SFJAZZ Center met and overcame just about any possible objection. Saturday night’s Miner Auditorium performance — the third concert in Younger’s four-night run as an SFJAZZ resident artistic director, which opened with two nights of original hip-hop-inflected music — was a triumph on every level.

The band for SFJAZZ’s tribute to Alice Coltrane | Credit: Jack Brown

Backed by a superlative rhythm section, including bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Makaya McCraven, Younger brought an array of Coltrane’s music to vivid life, from rarely heard devotional pieces to her “greatest hits” from classic early 1970s albums like Journey in Satchidananda. With a six-piece string section (two violin, two violas, and two cellos) conducted by De’Sean Jones and Younger’s rhythmically assured harp work, the arrangements captured the ecstatic and sometimes playful nature of Coltrane’s music.

Younger opened the concert with “Rama Rama,” a devotional piece Coltrane wrote for worship at the ashram she founded in the Santa Monica Mountains. With special guests Nicole Mitchell on flute, Ravi Coltrane on tenor and soprano sax, and Marc Cary on piano and keyboards, the music attained full celestial orbit on “Affinity” (from the 1978 double live album Transfiguration).

Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane in 1972

Alice Coltrane tended to write simple melodies that gain momentum via incantatory repetition. Rather than weighing down the music, each additional instrumental voice on Saturday added buoyancy and power. Mitchell was particularly arresting on the title track from Journey in Satchidananda. Switching to alto flute, she distilled the arc of an internal sojourn within two gleaming minutes.

Mitchell actually shared a double bill with Younger at SFJAZZ back in 2022, when the flutist and her Black Earth Sway project stepped in as a replacement for British saxophonist Nubya Garcia. Mitchell should be playing her own music here on the regular.

The son of Alice and saxophone legend John Coltrane, Ravi’s presence gave physical manifestation to the Coltrane family’s support for Younger’s project, which is part of a much larger campaign celebrating Alice’s legacy. (Oakland harpist Destiny Muhammad has been championing Alice Coltrane’s music in the Bay Area for some two decades).

The John and Alice Coltrane Home and the Coltrane family is working with a number of festivals and organizations to turn 2024–2025 into a yearlong showcase, including reissues of Alice’s albums and newly released music never before distributed.

The Bay Area is a center of activity, with Ravi Coltrane returning to SFJAZZ at the end of the month for a residency that includes two nights of his parents’ music, March 30–31. And next season, Alonzo King LINES Ballet will present two world premieres, one set to the album Journey in Satchidananda and the other to a new work by Ravi, inspired by his mother.

Younger closed the concert with a funk-driven version of “Los Caballos,” a tune from Alice Coltrane’s 1976 album Eternity (it’s a piece that Ravi often uses as an encore for his “Cosmic Music” performances). With Carter on electric bass and Cary on keyboards, the piece galloped into eternity.

For an encore Younger played a lovely solo version of “If It’s Magic,” a performance that seemed to point backward to the music she’d just played, answering Stevie Wonder’s plea with a resounding affirmative. Alice Coltrane’s music is everlasting like the galaxies in time.