June 6, 2016

John Coltrane - Ascension (1966)


In order for me to really get deep in the Ascension discussion, I first need to talk about where John Coltrane was when the album was recorded, and that starts with its eternal partner, A Love Supreme. A Love Supreme is John Coltrane's most unique and personal album and even though he recorded many great sessions after the legendary 1964 date and continued to develop as an artist, he never returned to that same level of intimate focus. The original takes of A Love Supreme feature Archie Shepp and Art Davis as additions to the usual quartet, but Coltrane wasn't satisfied with where those cuts wound up. He must have sensed something special in the compositions and decided it was the time to take on his most personal statement with only the band he had very carefully selected to best suit his ambitions. He dedicated the album to the supreme spirit which had helped him overcome his heroin addiction and make others happy through his passions. Looking through his discography 50 years later, it seems like the completion of A Love Supreme was a major weight off Trane's shoulders; he had arrived at his ultimate destination, but this doesn't mean his spiritual journey was finished. After the John Coltrane Quartet Plays album, Coltrane went pedal to the metal with insanely maximalist, soul exploring jams and did not glance back once.

Ascension is the first massive free jazz experiment Coltrane recorded, and it is an epic session to say the least. Coltrane and his usual quartet is joined by bassist Art Davis, two tenors (Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, two altos (John Tchicai and Marion Brown), and two trumpets (Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson, an otherwise unheard of musician). Jazz fans often draw similarities between Ascension and Ornette Coleman's groundbreaking Free Jazz from 1960. Yes, they are both large band ensembles instructed to play whatever comes to mind without any restrictions, but Free Jazz (while incredible and possibly a more musically complete album than Ascension), is very comfy, friendly, humorous, and playful music; stuff that toyed with the traditional rules of composition. Ascension has  a serious tone and a direct voice; it feels out how spirituality fits into music. With this session, Coltrane encouraged these young musicians to challenge themselves in making deep connections between their personal joys, troubles, wonders, relationships, and environments to their music--their spirits and reflections.

The late 60s and early 70s was an incredibly transformative time period for all kinds of culture. Imagine living in an era where every week the course of history was significantly changed by the release of a single album. Think about being alive when Blonde On Blonde came out, the same day as Pet Sounds, a few weeks separated from the release of Revolver and the 13th Floor Elevators debut, and the next year holds Jimi Hendrix and The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, The Velvet Underground, followed by Isaac Hayes with 20 minute soul epics, and King Crimson.... crazy right? But jazz had already been there. Walls were broken down as far as they could go with the appearance of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman in the late 50s. That's not to say new and interesting things weren't happening in the late 70s, nor does it necessarily mean that jazz had seen its peak, but the meat of the jazz revolution had come and gone once Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's were ever recorded.

I highly doubt that Ascension's title was chosen on a whim; on the fact that it is a spirituality buzzword. Late 50s and early 60s jazz albums often fell victim of this, think of all those with titles like "New Thing!", "Impressions", "Right Now!", "It's Time!", "The Time is Now!" (though I highly respect all that as an interesting piece of mid-century design culture). Coltrane had ascended, and it was time to dig deeper; maybe he wasn't entirely sure of what he was searching for, and maybe he had achieved a nirvana-like state, but whatever it was, it's probably something impossible for anyone to understand. Coltrane didn't shape the future of the jazz scene with this album, and he probably didn't want to predict what jazz would sound like in the 70s, but on some deep level, he did become the voice of jazz for a brief moment and gave that initial push that helped young avant garde players move forward. He was ahead of the curve--just like all of jazz music--and that's what ascension is. It's tapping into a supreme love and knowledge. I disagree with people who think that Ascension is on the same musical level of A Love Supreme--this can't hold a torch to that. It's through his interaction with this younger generation in his ascension which makes the whole Love Supreme make sense. Damn, I don't even know what I just said, it's probably a load of bullshit, but finding the Love Supreme is my personal existential requirement that I might not ever achieve. Shit, the next time Pokemon releases a new pair of games, A Love Supreme and Ascension should be the two game mascots.

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Ascension