I went through one phase around high school when I was a fan of the catharsis of John Coltrane, and another phase more recently where I grew tired of this and sought out improvisers with more logic rather than emotionalism. In the past few months, as I mentioned in the "Post-Road Downs" column, I have gone back to Coltrane’s records in search of the spiritual energies which he pursued in both life and music. Recently, I pulled First Meditations (For Quartet) off the shelf, a posthumous Coltrane release (recorded in 1965) that was one of those records I’d enjoyed but filed away after one or two listens. In search of a topic for this column, I decided to try giving this several listens over the span of a week. Here is what I’ve found so far.
This was the last studio recording by the "classic" Coltrane quartet, before the saxophonist’s move into avant-garde playing drove away pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones. However, the group’s chemistry remains in full effect here. Listening to this and many other quartet recordings, I hear Tyner and Jones representing the inner forces with which Coltrane struggled musically and perhaps personally, the lightness of the piano pulling against the brutality of the drums. Perhaps this is too much to expect from music. Nonetheless, I keep hearing it.
Until this recent listening phase, I never noticed bassist Jimmy Garrison much. However, going back to A Love Supreme, a close listen made his playing seem like the most haunting aspect of all, and the same effect appears on First Meditations. If Tyner and Jones are rocks on either side of the spectrum, Garrison’s wandering does much to represent the instability that may have been Coltrane’s theme. "Joy," which begins the second side, opens up sounding almost sprightly with a B-flat tonality and 6/8 rhythm, but it is Garrison who quickly moves into darker tonalities (primarily D-flat minor) and never quite allows the introductory feeling to return. In "Love," the opening of First Meditations, Coltrane offers an incantory introduction before stepping aside for a Tyner solo, as usual, but on this morning’s listen, Garrison’s playing under Tyner practically amounts to a continuation of Coltrane’s efforts, making the piano seem like more accompaniment.
Instability does seem to be the theme in First Meditations. It may or may not be intentional, and it may or may not sound this way to me a year or ten years down the road. However, even though four out of the five movements of First Meditations deal with positive topics ("Love," "Compassion," "Joy," "Serenity"), the obsessive repetition and intensity of Coltrane’s playing put across an agitated feeling more often than not. The fourth movement, "Consequences," is the most aggressive section with the most dissonant playing (the other four sections establish tonal centers and largely remain true to them), but since there is no emotional duality at work here, it comes off the most settled.
In a few months I plan on reporting on this album again, probably this time in contrast with Meditations, a modified version of the same suite recorded a few months later and one of the final releases of Coltrane’s lifetime. On that outing, Coltrane omitted "Joy" and added a harsher introductory movement ("The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost") and also added a second saxophonist and drummer to the group, a move that was reportedly the last straw for Tyner and Jones. For now, First Meditations puts across the difficulty of both the spiritual and musical search. It’s an unsettling message, but true.