John Coltrane: Ascension (1965) Impulse

 

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Selection: Side 1 (18:40)

Artists

Freddie Hubbard, Dewey Johnson (tp) Marion Brown, John Tchicai (as) John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp (ts) McCoy Tyner (p) Art Davis, Jimmy Garrison (b) Elvin Jones (d) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, June 28, 1965

Music

A lot of on-line reviewers have written serious stuff in praise of Ascension. Sample:

 “…..It is a masterpiece and one of the greatest albums ever written. It is intense, fiery, bombastic, puzzling, rich, epic, heavenly”…..”An awesome, inspiring, challenging, involving, beautiful and emotionally draining piece”…..”deserves 5 stars for its sheer daring and courage in challenging virtually every idiom associated with jazz”…..”The fainthearted and prudish should stay away”…. “probably not a wise choice for the novice listener and those with childlike attention spans”….

Some elements of elitism in those comments. I have tried to sort my own thoughts, taking into account Coltraneologists musings, and am going to give you a chance to have your say and finish with a poll.

The most obvious antecedent is Ornette Coleman’s “double quartet” Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, which – like Ascension – is a continuous forty-minute performance with ensemble passages and without breaks. On Ascension and unlike on Free Jazz, the group ensembles alternate with solos, which take up about equal time, so it has more overriding structure.  Ascension has a much more expanded “front line” with seven brass players.  Coltrane is leader/producer of the ensemble and soloists, providing a veritable stimulus package for the employment of younger members of the New York avant-garde.

Ascension is considered to be Coltrane’s watershed album, a move away from the hard bop quartet formula, and decisively in the direction of free jazz. In a radio interview Coltrane modestly described it as a “big band thing”, though it is not like any big band recording made before. Dave Liebman called the album the torch that lit the free jazz thing. Coltrane apparently gave the musicians no directions for their solos, besides that they were to end with a crescendo.The large group is pretty relentless: segments are often discordant and abrasive, though some of these segue into more blues-based solos.

Ascension is clearly a significant record, of serious musical intent.  At around 40 minutes it can be a difficult listen, not necessarily something you would pop on the turntable as background when the family drop round for Christmas drinks.  It is fairly intense. A skim of Amazon reviews quickly establishes that its enthusiasts claim the higher ground: “it will appeal to the adventurous and open-minded.” Like you wouldn’t want to be thought of as unadventurous and possessed of a closed-mind, would you? No pressure there from the Free Jazz Illuminati who make up the majority of review writers.

To Coltraneologists: some exam questions

Lets get this one out the way first. Is this recording an indigestible cacophony of anarchy in brass and bass, or the artistic culmination of a man’s desire to explore the outer reaches of tonality and the inner limits of freedom? (Do not attempt to write on both sides of the paper at the same time)

Second, does the difference between Edition I and II really make the difference between liking and not liking the work? How is one preferable? (I believe the CD evil silver disk holds both editions)

Third, what are the merits of stereo vs mono here? Which should one go for? I believe Ornette’s Free Jazz is definitely a stereo thing. Here I am not so sure.

Fourth, what if you said you disagreed with Coltrane’s supposed preference of the edition, or worse, don’t like either edition, incurring the wrath of the Free Jazz Illuminati. Is Coltrane, as some people believe, the musician who can do no wrong?

Last: is it necessary to answer all these questions, LJC? 

Yes Most definitely. OK,  time’s up, hand in your papers.

An LJC Poll

Simple question, straight answer, it is anonymous, no-one will tell the Free Jazz Illuminati how you voted. Lets see what the numbers say about Coltrane’s Ascension, the wisdom of crowds.You all have one vote, no repeats, so vote wisely.

Vinyl – Impulse A -95 Edition I, pressing with serrated edge!!! I’d love to know definitively which plant pressed these serrated edge records, it’s my third.

Two recordings of “Ascension” exist, called Edition I and Edition II. Edition I is contrarily the second take, released on Impulse in February 1966 (catalogue number A-95)  Edition II is the first take and allegedly Coltrane’s preferred version (also released as A-95 some months after the original release, with “EDITION II” etched on the vinyl run-out circle).

Edition I “Ascension” (John Coltrane) – 38:30
Edition II “Ascension” (Coltrane) – 40:49
 

Order of soloists and ensembles

The solo orders differ slightly between the takes and Edition II features no drum solo by Elvin Jones.

Edition II
  1. (Opening Ensemble)
  2. Coltrane solo (3:10–5:48)
  3. (Ensemble)
  4. Johnson solo (7:45–9:30)
  5. (Ensemble)
  6. Sanders solo (11:55–14:25)
  7. (Ensemble)
  8. Hubbard solo (15:40–17:40)
  9. (Ensemble)
  10. Tchicai solo (18:50–20:00)
  11. (Ensemble)
  12. Shepp solo (21:10–24:10)
  13. (Ensemble)
  14. Brown solo (25:10–27:16)
  15. (Ensemble)
  16. Tyner solo (29:55–33:26)
  17. Davis and Garrison duet (33:26–35:50)
  18. (Concluding Ensemble)
Edition I
  1. (Opening Ensemble)
  2. Coltrane solo (4:05–6:05)
  3. (Ensemble)
  4. Johnson solo (7:58–10:07)
  5. (Ensemble)
  6. Sanders solo (11:15–13:30)
  7. (Ensemble)
  8. Hubbard solo (14:53–17:50)
  9. (Ensemble)
  10. Shepp solo (18:55–21:40)
  11. (Ensemble)
  12. Tchicai solo (23:11–24:56)
  13. (Ensemble)
  14. Brown solo (26:23–28:31)
  15. (Ensemble)
  16. Tyner solo (29:39–31:36)
  17. Davis and Garrison duet (31:36–33:30)
  18. Jones solo (33:30–33:55)
  19. (Concluding Ensemble

Coltrane-Ascension-labels-1800-LJC

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Coltrane-Ascension-Impulse-A-95-back-cover-1800-LJC

Collectors Corner

Source: Ebay

Sellers Description:

Impulse 1st pressing 100% genuine with Van gelder machine stamped matrix and A95 A and A95 B matrix numbers making this the rare edition 1 press. Catologue Number:A-95-A/B . Vinyl graded visually under a mega strong light that picks up any marks: Solid Near mint one side and Excellent+ the other side when examined under a strong light just a couple of fine hairlines a beautiful copy. Front cover:  little bit of discolouring. Spine:Near Mint, Back Cover: Same as front cover with just a small spine nick its very small see picture. Inside gatefold is Excellent as well . Top right corner edge has a small bump as well.

The seller notes its Edition 1 status, but doesn’t remark Coltrane supposedly preferred Edition II. Still, apparently Edition I is “rare”, so that’s alright then.

LJC Opinion:

LJC Thinks some more On first hearing I didn’t much take to Ascension. Who knows how I will feel about it after repeated listening, but it rather confirmed my earlier reactions, that later Coltrane is not for me. But I keep an open mind, and am comfortable to have it in my collection. I aim to include some records which I don’t yet like, or may never like. LJC is a forum for divergent opinions;  I can learn too.

Comments are open, the floor is yours.

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58 thoughts on “John Coltrane: Ascension (1965) Impulse

  1. Listened to it today for the very first time (Edition 2). I’d been afraid of it for years, but having listened to lots of late period Coltrane, I was somewhat primed. I found the solos pretty thrilling for the most part, especially Sanders’ and Johnson’s efforts. I imagine I’ll like this more upon future listenings. Definitely not for the faint of heart, as it requires so much from the listener. I only wish Dolphy had lived to add his bass clarinet to this. How great would THAT have been? 🙂

  2. Thank you for a great blog article; It has helped me be comfortable with my uncertainty over my feelings about the recording. I have been listened to edition 2 (US vinyl) – a christmas present to myself – over the last couple of days and been struggling, although on second play it is easier to listen to. Maybe on the third, forth or .. time I will relax into it. At times I thought it sounded a bit like boys shouting across one another in a class room, making noise without thinking about what they or others were really doing – freejazz or anarchy or genius or an experiment or…..

  3. Hello , i have a stereo copy of ascension . Side 1 its the edition 1( perfect timing with your timing) and side 2 i have edition 2 in the dead wax. Its a production probleme ? ( sorry for my english)

  4. Thanks for posting. Not only is it an interesting read, but a real treat to see images of the vinyl release – not to mention the breakdown of the solos. A great record!

  5. Thanks for a brilliant post. t’s the 50th anniversary of Ascension and in Sydney, Australia, bass player Clayton Thomas is organising a paean to Ascension. It’s a brilliant concept: the elite band will play Ascension before the interval. Then they’ll play it again after. So we can get both editions, though perhaps not in mono and stereo respectively.

    • Very interesting news, Dave.
      Is this going to be a historical first? Has “Ascension” ever been played by anyone else but Coltrane himself? How does one go about it? The on-line reviewer quoted by LJC above called it “one of the greatest albums ever written”. Written? Is there an original score? But I’m sure that even without being advertised, the new performance would be instantly recognizable to the Free Jazz Illuminati. “Ah, that’s Ascension Part Two, third movement…”

  6. I found that the best way to listen to this album is reading what people like you write about it. Quite an experience. Somehow what I was reading (as digging it if you’re depressed, looking for some structure in chaos or music not being only designed to be liked) made the music make sense. Go figure.

    And just so you know, I am from Argentina, recently divorced, just moved to a cold apartment and, yes, pretty much depressed. Maybe that’s what it takes. After all, music has no properties per se: it is the result of an encounter between music and listener. There is no good or bad music: there are just good or bad experiences with music. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Right now I am going from classic quartet-Coltrane to post-’65 stuff. Meaning, I am going uphill.

    And one more thing: I was amazed by the respect you show to each other. Not a usual thing over the internet and particularly on music forums. First comment: on topic, third comment: “You are an idiot”. So, congrats on the respect (disagreement as an opportunity not as a conflict) and the attitude towards music (that thing about learning and so on).

    • Hi Repalabrador:

      If you are recently divorced, shouldn’t you be listening something like Beethoven’s Ode to Joy instead 🙂 ?

      Yes, Ascension is a great cathartic emotional and spiritual experience, and it never fails to do the job. But beware: it is a very dangerous, dark and menacing work of art that can suck you into its void, and push you over the emotional cliff, particularly if you are prone to mood swings. Be prepared to experience it with a certain mental reservation and as a metaphor of human existence rather than to physically walk through its fiery inferno. Don’t play it on an auto-pilot, because there’s no GPS where John Coltrane will take you..

      If you like this sort of intense and brutal listening experience, you will have a fabulous time with side 2 of Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, Nico’s Marble Index or Joy Division’s Closer. While very divorced (pun intended) from Jazz, these recordings are spiritual and emotional next-of-kin to Ascension.

      Just remember, when you are done with Ascension, turn to some more trivial and cheesy, like Chic’s Good Times, just to keep emotional and intellectual sense of balance. Too much Ascension and too little Funk makes Johnny a dull boy. Divorce is not the end of the world. It may, in fact, be a wonderful beginning.

  7. never too late: when this post was published, one year ago, I had some personal problems and missed it. now that everything is ok again here’re my thoughts on this masterpiece.
    Trane is #1 for me, I think I own almost anything published on record.
    my exam:
    1-2) always loved Ascension, and have listened many times in the last 5 decades to both versions with non preference.
    speaking of cacophony, if you call it that way, OM strikes ’em all.
    3) I ‘ve got mono and stereo versions: never considered one better/worse than the other one. Ascension is an experience transcending mono/stereo debate.
    if I’m not wrong, the digital version is damned divided into two separate parts (as LP): was it impossible to let us have the entire track as a continuos play? digital version of Coleman’s Free Jazz IS continuos!
    4) Trane is one of the few musicians who never stopped exploring.
    he died (1967) when his ideas were still fresh and his directions different (flute track on Expression).
    many Jazz lovers stop their interest at 1963-64.
    now maybe someone will shoot me but, in terms of originality, I think that any record after 1964 is more interesting than his whole 50’s production, with a couple of exceptions,Giant and Blue.
    three collaborations I’ve never liked in the avant-garde field: Trane with Don Cherry, Trane with Cecil Taylor, Rollins with Cherry. they did not fit at all.

    • Though, in my opinion, his collaborations with Eric Dolphy are superb.

      Agreed about Coltrane’s drive to constantly explore the boundaries of jazz. Actually, a good contrast is Armstrong, who you mentioned below.
      Armstrong not only invented jazz singing and scat as we know it. He pretty well invented jazz as we know it. His innovations are legendary. Not unlike Parker and Gillespie, he was a touchstone that gave new meaning and direction to the art form.
      I love Armstrong, and greatly admire his genius, but he only went so far in his explorations before he said, “well, good enough, I’ll just collect my paychecks now.”
      Coltrane never stopped.

      Joseph Campbell has a quote, and I’m paraphrasing here, but it goes something like: ‘The role that the shaman used to play in primitive cultures is now filled by the artist. They go into the dark places we fear to and show us what they’ve found.’
      That’s Coltrane to a ‘T’.

      • and Trane-Dolphy team is not mentioned in what I do not like.
        if Trane is #1 for me, Eric is #2.
        the only thing I could never appreciate is his flute work on My Favorite Things.
        I’m not aware he used alto or bass clarinet on this track, what a pity.

      • Thank you for the Campbell quote. I rarely find anyone these days who has even heard of Joseph Campbell. My first exposure to Campbell was in a graduate English class. We read a compilation of his lectures called “Myths To Live By.” The class also included Emily Dickinson’s complete poetry and Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” It was the most difficult and valuable reading I’ve ever experienced.

  8. Looking at Coltrane’s career and discography, Ascension seems like a natural and obvious point on his journey. Of course he had to go there. Whether one likes the piece or not, you have to wonder if he would still be ‘COLTRANE’ if he hadn’t.

    For my part, I love the album. That being said, should I live to be 90, I will most likely have only listened to it maybe 9 or 10 times (Giant Steps: 2,000 times!). It IS difficult. It demands a lot of the listener.

    In a certain sense, I would say that Ascension is not music. At least not music as my ears and mind have understood it over a lifetime of listening. Because it contains only a few wispy shadows of the understood rules and expectations of the art form.

    I find that when I connect with this album (and I’ve just listened to Edition II again as I write this), it’s when I have no expectations of hearing ‘music’, but of an experience of art. It becomes a bit like my experience with Godfrey Reggio’s film, Powaqqatsi, or a piece of abstract art that defies my understanding of what ‘painting’ is supposed to be. It transcends musical form, therefor I can’t listen to it with an expectation of, well . . . musical form!

    Anyways, I hope this doesn’t all come off as sounding overly intellectualized and snobby. That’s not my intent. I do think this album is very much worth a listen. If anything, to experience some of the furthest explored regions on the map of jazz.
    Here be monsters!

    • “Overly intellectualized and snobby”? No way, Chadney.

      “Ultimately though, music is made to be listened to, not put up as a work of genius, and left on the shelf.” (Andy Cronshaw on “Ascension”, about a year ago.)

      I know I am making myself completely ridiculous now in this surrounding – but if I was asked to do some soul-searching as to which of my records I have played most frequently over the last decades, I’m jolly sure some of Louis Amstrong’s 1954-1957 recordings (preferably with Edmond Hall and Barrett Deems) would be among them. Hold on guys – listen first, then whack me if you still want to.

      (I’m in good company by the way – Stanley Crouch, in “The All-American Skin Game”, wrote this:
      “…And compare Davis’ much-lauded improvisation on “Sid’s Ahead” from Milestones of 1958 with Louis Armstrong’s “Wild Man Blues” of 1957: you will hear a vast difference in subtlety, nuance, melodic order, and swing. As fine a player as he had become, Davis could not even approximate Armstrong’s authority.”
      – But this is not a case of Satch against Miles… not with me anyway!!)

      I am a great lover of Coltrane’s music, up to “Crescent” to be precise. Armstrong’s mid-50’s masterpieces, I daresay, are no less tight or energetic than “Ascension”, only he manages to make his point in 3:55.

      • An invitation to whack a Linshalm? Form an orderly queue fellas, please!
        Seriously, so many people have lauded Armstrong there must be something in it. I’m prepared to listen.

        Opinion seems that there was the “good” Louis (jazz trumpet artist) and the later popular public figure of television and film (not so good) What stops me is whether there is stuff on vinyl recent enough by recording standards still falls into the good Louis, and the likelihood of recognising it by chance in a record store. I’ve been keeping an eye out, but don’t really know what I’m looking for,.

        • Help is at hand, LJC. It is so in the shape of “The Complete Decca Studio Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars” (Mosaic – either vinyl or CD). Except for a few late period stereo tracks with drummer Danny Barcelona, they are all in delicious (!) high fidelity mono. Apart from “Wild Man Blues”, they include “Weary Blues” (one of the swingin’est jazz pieces ever recorded) and a great number of others.
          I would not limit the “good Louis” to his trumpet playing (after all, he invented jazz singing) – but, yes, it’s not always easy to put up with Armstrong the popular artist.

          • I have a number of the Decca 10″s that make up this compilation, and they are fantastic. If you don’t like “That’s For Me,” from Decca DL 5280, then, I’m sorry, but you not only don’t like jazz, you don’t like music.

            • Absolutely, Joe. “That’s For Me” is one of the early tracks (1950) in the compilation, still featuring Barney Bigard, Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines. Great stuff. For some reason, I still prefer the mid-50’s line-up with Ed Hall and Barrett Deems, as long as they are playing in quintet or sextet (with George Barnes playing guitar) formation. They’re so incredibly tight. I don’t care for the saxophone section added for a couple of tracks from 1957.

  9. Did not study for the exam, so can only answer one question…
    I believe Edition II is better than Edition I – the solos on II are tighter and more fun…
    Good hearing every quarter, or when you need to heat up your apartment…

  10. I used to like later Coltrane more back in college when I felt like I “should” like Coltrane. These days I am not particularly into Free Jazz of any kind. Much more prefer the Hard Bob of NY or the easy vibe of the West Coast. I have yet to hear Ascension, but certainly will one day, especially after Bob’s enthusiastic comments. He’s absolutely right in that this style of music one must prepare themselves for and not just be in a sort of anything goes type mood. One day I’ll be there again, but I’m in no rush.

    • Hard Bop and Free Jazz are not either/or propositions. You can enjoy both, pretty much concurrently I love Stan Getz (Coltrane’s biggest idol, by the way) as well as Antonio Carlos Jobim or Duke Ellinfgon or Lee Morgan and yet, nothing stands in the way of my occasional switching to the far out side. To appreciate the sweet consonance of Stan Getz, one intermittently pepper it with a pinch of wild dissonance of Coltrane, Coleman or Ayler. And, of course, vice versa. It is all one and the same organic soup that is Jazz.

  11. Haven’t listened to this in a long time- and after checking out this rip, I remembered why.
    I agree it is an ill-conceived ‘cacophony’. On this edition which is the same as my 1970 MCA reissue, I think, Coltrane’s solo is tortured and confused and there are simply too many players elbowing for room.
    Interestingly, Hubbard’s solo begins to coalesce with the rhythm section back into hard bop.
    Trouble is what many of these players knew was hard bop and Coltrane’s attempt to push them into a world of freedom doesn’t work. Jones seems to thrash about helplessly, Tyner is lost.
    In 1965 lots of artists and musicians were taking LSD. In Brian Wilson’s and the Beatles’ case it made for classic albums but not for Coltrane. Although Interstellar Space is a better attempt at reaching a new world of freedom.
    In fact it was European players such as Evan Parker and Derek Bailey who truly disassociated their playing from the tradition.
    For American ‘free jazz’ I think it’s better to go to the likes of Chicago’s Air and The Art Ensemble.
    Given you are not going to listen to this record again anyway does it really matter what Edition you have or whether it’s in stereo or mono.

      • Andy, it is an existentialist work. It is not necessarily meant to be liked. My gut feeling is that the closer one gets to own mortality, the more he gets to appreciate it. Luckily, you are not (yet) in that situation.

        I agree that Interstellar Space is a great recording, although I do not agree that it’s greatness in any way diminishes the colossal impact and titanic oomph of Ascension.

        • Yes, I think I may have been a little dismissive of what is, as many have pointed out a ‘watershed’ recording.
          I just think the type of energy music pioneered here ends up better employed in the more specific structures that came out of records such as Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound.
          For instance, I can listen to Air’s records again and again (not least because Nessa recording and pressings are superb).
          But Ascension is too weighty and chaotic to bear on more than a few times in a lifetime. Okay that doesn’t make it a bad work of art – perhaps it makes it greater.
          Ultimately though, music is made to be listened to, not put up as a work of genius, and left on the shelf.

  12. Love isn’t a straight road, anyone knows.
    Ascension is a hard twist in Trane’s life, but it’s not difficult to see his love for music, people and life

  13. First: the complementary: Andy, this was a fabulous choice (insert here the soundbite of me laying prostrate and kissing the LJC’s Pope’s slipper), The number of comments speaks for itself and I am thankful that I can modestly contribute to the discussion. I was praying to the Goddess of Vinyl (Waxilla) that one day you would get to review this Luminous Black Obelisk of Jazz and finally, at long last, the Goddess heard me cry (or kvetch, as some erroneously claim)..

    Second, the obvious: Yes, damn it, it is THE single most important entry in the Free Jazz and Avant-Garde cannon of the Free Jazz. Always was, always will be (eat your heart out, Anthony Braxton!), Free Jazz is split in two periods: before and after Ascension. The “before” is formative, amorphous and overly cautious (Dolphy notwithstanding), and “after” is (ahem!) all but irrelevant. Ascension is an absolute primordial form, an archetype and a culmination of the genre, all rolled into one; a statement truly unlike any other..

    Second and a half: the psychobabble. Speaking of archetypes, this is an archetypal MALE Jazz form. Ladies, stay away from this piece for dear life, as unintended pregnancy may occur. Stick with your Paul Desmond and David Sanborn, the male member of the family will explain later, OK?

    Third: the irrelevant: Like you, I was initially, to put it mildly, underwhelmed by Ascension. My first reaction to Ascension (about 20 years ago) was: what is this ungodly piece of uber-unlistenable $hit that I am never, under any circumstances whatsoever going to place on my turntable again, how the holy crap did I end up buying it, where can I get a refund and can I sue the manufacturer and/or the distributor and/or the retailer for inflicted pain and mental anguish, ear pain and migraine that just would not end?

    Fourth: the confessional: Then, slowly and gingerly, I went back to it a few times (my inner masochist took over), only to detect delicate hints of structure and harmony lurking in it. It did not take long before those delicate hints and concealed clues congealed into a transcendent, luminous, almost otherworldly beauty, an expression beyond words or feelings. The interaction between the players, notably John Coltrane and Elvin Jones is to die for. This is a music played entirely on a (pardon the pun) mental impulse, extra-sensory union of the minds and no earthly or physical connection whatsoever. The players occupy a space without a space and a time outside of time. And, oh. Lest I forget. Unlike Albert Ayler, the players here do actually (know how to) play and their musical competence is unquestionable. We are talking about a group of virtuosi feeding off of each other’s fire and completely self-immolating in the process.

    Fifth: the historical. Obviously, this is not your swing-and-dance Jazz. This is a music of serious dissent, opposition to the ruling class, violent outburst of revolt, scream of the oppressed, holler of the spiritual seeker, the bloody assassination of the cheap and vulgar popular taste in broad daylight, you name it. It needs to be placed in the proper socio-historical context to be understood and appreciated, and the context was the murder of Malcolm X and first signs of the weakening (read: co-opting, buying, bullying and police-wiring) of the Civil Rights Movement. No wonder the album was released just as the first large contingent of US troops was disembarking in Vietnam following the Gulf of Tonkin incident. There was a war looming, and Ascension is all about war: the inner war, the social war, the class war, the war of the generations and the styles, the war of the instruments, the war with the listener, the undeclared war on black people (mind you, the year was 1965, the annus horribilis of the Watts Riots) and the war on petit (mostly White Anglo-Saxon middle-class) bourgoisie. Yes, folks, you are entering a war zone here. May I suggest a full combat gear?

    And while we are still on the point # 5: · AN HONORARY MENTION GOES TO A BRIEF QUOTE ON THE BACK COVER BY LeROI JONES a/k/a AMIRI BARAKA, THE POET LAUREATE OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY AND A FREE JAZZ BLACK POWER ANARCHIST-RADICAL IN HIS OWN RIGHT.

    Sixth: the medical: Coltrane was exactly two years away from his death when this was recorded. I have an eerie hunch that he sensed what was coming, and that this foreboding sense of chaos, entropy and utter nothingness that permeates the album is by no means a coincidence. We are talking about a major-league premonition here. This, more than anything else that is to follow, is truly John Coltrane’s Last Will and Testament. And what a Testament it is!

    Seventh: aesthetic: Yes, the session is self-indulgent and overly theatrical, bordering on painful (dissonance completely takes over, consonance is smashed – literally – into pieces). So what? So is Toledo Before the Storm, Girls of Avignon, Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Guernica or Titian’s Asunta. What is your point, oh, the illuminated, all-knowing and all-wise Jazz critics? Can’t you just sit down and imbibe the cosmic wisdom and the ethereal beauty of Coltrane?

    Seventh: the psychological: this is not your ordinary Jazz album and it absolutely MUST NOT be played at any time of day or in any mood. You have to PREPARE for the experience, to prime yourself, so to speak, or to otherwise slip into an appropriate mood and mindset. Myself, I like to listen to this music when angry and/or depressed (which is more often than not these days). It truly has a cathartic impact. Do not even DARE think of this as a love-making music unless you are into some rather bizarre Kama Sutra techniques.

    Eighth: technical: I must confess that I never had much patience (or willingness to explore) the differences between Edition I and Edition II, and the information that Coltrane preferred Edition II is news to me (I tend to dismiss this as apocrypha) . Personally, the two are so alike that it would require a significant effort to tell them apart, which would seriously and needlessly distract from the listening experience. I like Edition I a little better, not so much for its marginally different distribution of solos, but because I detect a somewhat different mixing approach on Edition II, which – I think – makes the sound a wee bit more harsh, sharp and abrasive than it needs to be. But again, the difference is entirely marginal and ephemeral and, in my not-so-humble opinion, unworthy of dwelling on. Whichever version you end up having, you have a classic, and a winner.

    Ninth: productional: the serrated-edge vinyl was a 1962-1966 trademark of Bell Sound Labs pressing plant which was ABC-Impulse main pressing vendor; however, not all Bell Sound Labs facilities produced these serrated-edge discs. I believe (I may be entirely wrong) that the serrated edge copies are East Coast pressings (NOTE: unlike some other Coltrane Impulse titles – such as Africa/Brass – none of the Impulse copies of Ascension actually have a Bell Sound machine stamp, but they were almost certainly pressed there. My experience is that RVG stamp essentially disqualifies the Bell Sound stamp; this is an either/or proposition, and since virtually all copies of Ascension bear RVG’s imprimatur, none have Bell Sound stamps)

    Tenth: preferred sound format. I completely agree with Ethan (“Both editions bring out the thing which gives me shivers.; the stereo mix is highly engaging, while mono mostly sits in front of you, still enjoyable”) . I actually like the stereo separation, and I find it absolutely organic and, for the lack of a better word, humane. So yes, given a choice, I would consistently pick stereo (monos are slightly harder to find, though)

    Eleventh and (I promise), the final. This is a difficult, abrasive and demanding album, and those who have serious issues with it can certainly be excused. Those who have lost patience with it can be excused, too. Those who can only play bits and pieces of it at a time can most definitely be pardoned. But, for all its darkness, cacophony and sonic agony, Ascension still holds up surreally well today, almost half century after it was recorded, and for those willing to give it a chance – the first or the umpteenth – it still carries a world of spiritual joy and catharsis. I would say, give it a(nother) chance, even if, at times, you feel entirely violated and near-offended by it. For, beyond the burning and noxious Gates of Hell awaits the Garden of Paradise.

    Over and Out. Roger?

  14. Well, early this morning here in Florida when I read this post, I said at some point I should hear this lp again. So I did and took a while to digest again and now I am ready to write my comments.
    I have Edition 1, bought when it came out, for, as a teen, my Jazz pantheon consisted of Bird and Trane and I bought everything I could by those two, among others, like Dolphy and Armstrong and Sun Ra and Roy Eldridge and you get the drift. I still have all the Coltrane lps but most are in mono for as a teen, money was not always in abundance and the mono version was always cheaper than the stereo. That made the decision pretty clear.
    Ascension and OM are two Coltrane lps I get yet are not heavy on the play list. I understand that for Coltrane as with Miles Davis in his electric period, this music was an extension, was the next step in his process of searching. I may not get it, but for an artist , the need exists to strike anew.
    Agree that Ascension can be party ending music. Once had an Ascension juke box ep, with timing strips. I always wanted to find a bar that would place it on their jukebox. Can you imagine being in some bar and the corner of Despair and Dissolution at 2 a.m. and have Ascension come on?
    The mind boggles.
    Once again, nice post LJC. I suggest you try to find Coltrane Plays the Blues on Atlantic. One of my faves.

    • Hi Lenni:

      I actually had one of those Ascension jukebox EPs at one time, and my initial reaction was exactly the same as yours: half an hour of intense head-scratching (helps explain the bald spot :-). Who in the heaven’s name would dare play THIS in an R&B or Jazz dance hall or juke joint circa 1965?. Heads have rolled and revolutions started for much less.

      For some odd reason, I place Ascension and Om into two entirely different categories of Coltrane. Om, in my view (mind you. Om was NOT issued in Coltrane’s lifetime, and it is highly questionable whether he would have wanted it released at all), is an irredeemable mess and chaos for no rhyme or reason except for the purpose of inner relief of it’s creator. It is the Jazz equivalent of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (1970): Artur Janov’s primal scream therapy set to music.

      Ascension, on the other hand, DOES have a form and structure – however frail – and even a concept behind it, no matter how difficult it may be to follow it.

      Ascension is the anticipation of agony and death. Om, on the other hand, is the death itself: a brief vignette of artist approaching the event horizon, and then passing through it.

      Ascension is the hostile, combative work. It yields not to the listener. It has to be taken on on it’s own terms, or not taken at all. It is the work of someone who still has not come to terms with own mortality and who was still struggling with the inevitable. Om, on the other hand, is a resignation, a surrender to nothingness.

      I believe very strongly – paint me totally partial – that Ascension belongs in the upper echelon of Coltrane Masterpieces — every bit a Giant Step as the Giant Steps itself, or Blue Train, or Love Supreme, or Africa/Brass, or At the Birdland. It is only a differently flavored Coltrane, but the spirit and the execution is every bit the vintage Coltrane. And in terms of sheer vigor and violence, perhaps even more so.

  15. Having recently made some kind of ‘breakthrough’ with Cecil Taylor, I can now listen to Ascension with – whisper it softly – an emotion not unassociated with pleasure. Not both editions back-to-back, I’m not that far gone, but the forty minutes pass with only a few winces. True, I won’t be putting it on the turntable very often, but the fact that it’s there at all it something I couldn’t have imagined even six months ago.

    • I am not sure we (should) always associate Art with pleasure (although, yes, pleasure makes it more palatable). Does anyone actually watch Polanski or read Kafka with the idea of being entertained or pleased? Ascension is a journey – one part of the journey – of it’s creator. It was a morbid leg of the journey, for sure, and yet it was and still is a highly spiritual ordeal that needs to be experienced. I tend to compare it to Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’ — it is almost a metaphysical horror you can’t take your eyes off. But then, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to add that I always had a weak spot for the musical revolutionaries – people who could no longer cope with the constraints of order and form.

    • For me, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy, and Andrew Hill have been the three ‘out’ players who have really opened my ears to the avant-garde. They utilize (or at least reference) enough diatonic harmony that I can begin to hear some structure in what previously sounded like pure chaos.

      I began listening to the Bartók string quartets around the same time I first got “Out to Lunch”. I distinctly remembering both of them sounding like nothing more than a mass of disorganized notes to me, which is hard to imagine today. These days, I might even catch myself whistling the melody to something like “Something Sweet, Something Tender”.

      Certainly, repeated listening brought out more and more form and a greater appreciation of harmonic possibilities on my part. I definitely feel like I appreciate all music in a deeper way than I did before as a result.

      That being said, I still find something like Ascension to be very slow going. Furthermore, I don’t believe that complex or experimental music holds a greater artistic potential by its own virtue. In the end, creating a form that is simple yet compelling can be the most difficult artistic trick to pull off while and endless stream of ‘postmodernists’ have demonstrated their ability to conceal their lack of talent and vision inside of flurries of undecipherable gibberish.

  16. LJC,
    I thoroughly enjoy your posts, and I want to answer the exam questions. But, (1) I am finding difficulty writing about this album as to its artistic or anarchic message. (2) Both editions bring out the thing which gives me shivers. (3) The stereo mix is highly engaging, while Mono mostly sits in front of you, still enjoyable. (4) And yes, Coltrane was human.
    Ascension is an album that gives back as much as you give to it. Thank you John Coltrane. And Thank you LJC, I haven’t heard this in awhile.
    What a privilege it is to listen to.

  17. First – it’s “an indigestible cacophony of anarchy in brass and bass.”

    Second – no.

    Third – doesn’t matter, based on my answers to the first and second questions.

    Fourth – Coltrane is not the musician who could do no wrong. Ascension and later albums may have been spiritually cleansing for him, but not for all listeners, and certainly not for me. Happily, he made so many other wonderful albums that are a joy to listen to.

  18. I voted for ‘like it very much.’ I agree that this album does seem to have a little more structure than some of the later Free Jazz albums (many of which don’t speak to me). I believe I have the mono, but I’m not sure which edition it is. I’ll have to pull it out later. Keep the great post rollin’!

  19. This is definitely a “clear the unwanted guests out of the house” record. To say it’s a challenging record is an understatement although the commitment to listen to at least one side if not both in one sitting is commendable.

    I personally can not listen to this as much as early Trane but I am growing to appreciate his vast catalogue.

  20. I don’t have Ascension and have never heard it all the way through. However:

    (i) I certainly don’t believe that Coltrane could do no wrong. In some respects, the harder he tried for some kind of transcendence, the further away he got…. He succeeded most beautifully when he played his sax rather than wrestled it to the ground, in my view.

    (ii) I’ve no idea whether edition I or II is preferable for this record, and certainly not whether one version or the other would convince you of its merits. But as you raise the comparison of Ornette’s FREE JAZZ I would say of that that by comparison it is sparse and elegant — there’s room to hear what is happening and why and the stereo helps too. With Ascension I just hear too much of everything.

    (iii) Whatever Ascension is trying to do, it doesn’t — at least to me — add to my understanding of Coltrane by translating his endeavour to a larger canvas (again, unlike Ornette’s FREE JAZZ which I think does do that).

    (iv) Damn, I haven’t answered all the questions. Does that mean Jazz Class Detention yet again?

    • The LJC Academy is an ultra-progressive learning support enterprise. You attempted some of the questions, and correctly spelt your name, which earns you a pass, with distinction. No one here is stigmatised by failure – we believe in prizes for all. Now make yourself scarce, we are expecting an unexpected visit from OFFJAZZ this afternoon.

  21. Painful. I am strongly in the don’t-like-free-jazz camp. In addition to being a huge Coltrane fan (up to about Crescent, I suppose), on a personal level, I greatly admire Coltrane as a man and a musician. I also specifically admire his constant yearning for a spiritual release/understanding/catharsis which lead to him making Ascension, and more albums beyond. Even if I don’t personally enjoy the product, the quest is extremely valuable, worthy and admirable. But I can’t stand this album – it’s aimless, pointless, and brutal on my ears.

  22. Interesting post. I’ve been involved in composing/arranging since my first shaky steps in 1958 (the year after I took up trombone) and I’m also a classically trained artist but I still ponder about these things in my search for the ‘truth’ whatever that is. If (IF) we accept that we can’t function in a vacuum then I suppose longevity is a critical factor. Interestingly, I find that young players today are more interested in the main stream of what used to be called ‘modern jazz’ than they are with the fringes. Of course, in his (her) search for progress (evolution is a better word), an artist can only go along their chosen route but I sometimes wonder if people do what they do because they become bored and seek fresh stimulation. Of course, commercial pressures play a part. Critics are quick to call a style ‘dated’ and, to survive, perhaps we must ‘play with more soul’ than the man across the street.

    My favourite Coltrane involves the straight-ahead quintet blowing of his earlier years with the likes of Wilbur Harden. Coltrane was the man.

    • P.S. I don’t like stereo. When we listen to anything our ears, spaced apart on our head, are designed to focus on a point of interest and partially filter out the rest. Stereo attempts to give all aspects equal importance and even tries to create the illusion of a live performance. The orchestral layering of sound is best achieved musically. OK. You can all jump on my head now.

      • No jumping on anyone’s head – but to my ears, the orchestral layering of sound is completely lost in the mono mix we are hearing. And, yes, if stereo creates “the illusion of a live performance“, I’m perfectly happy with that in certain cases, including “Ascension“. Old mono records sound great simply because they were intended to be mono records.

        • I think we’re all so used to stereo now that an objective judgement of a ‘good’ mono might take some adjustment. At first, it sounds flat (not in pitch).The orchestral layering of sound has to work better in mono. The creation of a sense of dimension in music involves pitch in the y axis, time in the x and the layering of sound in the other. I remember when I wrote for one of the BBC orchestras I always left the stereo markings off the score intentionally but I never got away with it. I genuinely dislike stereo and, interestingly, I can’t watch 3D TV. It gives me a sense of nausea. There is probably no connection here. Perhaps I’m just nuts. The effort to reproduce the effect of live performances reached it’s silliest with quad sound, where the inferior acoustics of some halls were seized upon as being desirable.

          You’re dead right in your comment that mono was intended to be mono. As a recording engineer once told me, you can’t remix stereo to mono successfully. He said it just isn’t the same.

          • Well the way you are juxtaposing stereo to 3D TV – it doesn’t seem as far-fetched as one might expect. Probably has something to do with a “faulty“ illusion of time and space resulting in what you call a sense of nausea. I’ve never given much thought to quad sound because I didn’t have the necessary technical equipment, but what you are saying sounds quite convincing to me now.

            • Thanks for that Eduard. I must admit that when I first formed my opinion on stereo I thought ‘all these people can’t be wrong’ but in the end I had to go with what I felt (thought). After all, look at the way poor Galileo suffered when he claimed the Earth went round the sun. There’s an old saying that the many act as grossly as the few. Having said that, I could still be wrong. But then, these exchanges are not about winning and losing. I still like to learn from others.

  23. If I ever chose to listen to “Ascension” from beginning to end, it would have to be the stereo version. Mono is ridiculous for this kind of music.

  24. This is pretty difficult album to listen to. I’ve the CD and an HMV mono edition. I’ve never checked which edition is on the HMV. Despite my love of vinyl I think the CD is easier to follow because it’s in stereo. The dense ensemble work seems just a little less tangled in stereo. It’s one of these recordings which I admire more than I like. It’d been on my listening schedule as I work my way through my JC HMV monos. I’ll give it a further listened later this morning and see if I can work out which version HMV used for their issue.

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