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John Coltrane: Meditations

Robert Spencer By

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This is it, friends: the last recording (November 23, 1965) McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones made with John Coltrane. One need only turn from this to The Real McCoy or any other McCoy Tyner or Elvin Jones album of the period to get a clue as to why they left the "classic quartet." In the first place, Meditations isn't a quartet album at all: the leader has added an additional drummer, Rashied Ali, and another tenor saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders, to his own tenor, Tyner's piano, Jones' drums, and the mostly inaudible bass stylings of the nevertheless underappreciated Jimmy Garrison.

Garrison wasn't the only inaudible one. Tyner left the group lamenting that he couldn't be heard either; Jones' drums had to compete with Ali's for attention. The sound is crisp and clear on this new 20-bit reissue, but clearly Tyner and Jones had a point. The opening section, "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost," which steams uninterrupted into the second part, "Compassion," is a maelstrom of unrelieved intensity. Jones and Ali put up a tremendous din, challenged by Coltrane's freest-ever solo and Sanders' chicken-slaughtering act. "Compassion" signals a certain calming, in which Tyner returns to the prominence he normally enjoyed in the quartet. Here it's a prelude to one of his most passionate and inventive solos. Then Coltrane wraps it up cleanly, with a brief coda featuring Garrison, backed skillfully by his old mates. Rashied Ali's band Prima Materia recently released a version of Meditations in which "Compassion" devolves into a bass solo that begins the third section, "Love." Probably Coltrane would have opted for such an arrangement in this age of the CD, but when this original version was recorded it was time to get up and turn the record over. Garrison's angular solo thus begins "Love," preparing the way for a gorgeous entrance from the leader, after which the heat steadily rises, Sanders returns, and it's time for "Consequences," another maelstrom. Tyner's solo following this one is especially striking in its originality and emotional power; for my money, it's his best ever. "Serenity" is another brief coda, and the meditation is over.

So. What is this music for? What is the point? After thirty years, how does it hold up? Well, how one hears it depends on one's expectations. Its slower sections are quite beautiful, giving it an element Ascension and other late Coltrane fire storms don't possess. Still, it ain't Burt Bacharach. If one expects music to be "pretty," go buy some Kenny G. But surely Coltrane knew that Meditations and the other recordings he made during this period were anything but pretty. He was trying to do something else with music: to reach and touch and communicate human emotions, human conditions, of more importance, depth, and lasting significance than prettiness. Especially in his "late period," he thought that his music meant something: he thought it performed a function that mattered. Of course, this sort of thing was in the air. Archie Shepp was lecturing in Down Beat, everyone was recording music about freedom, and it was hard not to have contempt for music that didn't try to matter.

But does it matter? I vote yes, but you should really ask me again in 100 years. Bach was considered dissonant in his day. So was Beethoven, Wagner, you name it. They all made music of such originality that it struck many of their less imaginative contemporaries as noise. Will "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost" be someday similarly respected?

Title: Meditations | Year Released: 1997 | Record Label: Impulse!


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