Sea Change: John Coltrane – Ascension (1966)

“Sea Change” is a series that discusses album or albums in a band’s discography that signify a brief or career-long change in the group’s sound or style. 

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Anyone who wants to begin an exploration of jazz music starts with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Released in 1959, this genre defining piece was a combination of the past, present, and future of jazz. Other “must hear” recordings may be Dave Brubeck’s Time Out or Ella and Louis by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

There is one album that is missing from this list, in my opinion. That album is John Coltrane’s 1966 release Ascension.

In 1966, one year before his sudden death, Coltrane had been pushing boundaries in jazz for several years and was looking to expand even more.

He had released A Love Supreme in 1964, an album that showed that Coltrane was a genius of his craft, bending the rules of jazz music and creating sounds that revolutionized the genre. The Coltrane quartet was thinking ahead of everyone else and were popularizing freer, less structured jazz. Despite the revolutionary and new ideas found on A Love Supreme, Coltrane still wanted to move forward.

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A Love Supreme (1964)

With Ascension, he created his own “big band,” which consisted of Marion Brown and John Tchicai on alto saxophone, John Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and Archie Shepp on tenor saxophone, Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson on trumpet, McCoy Tyner on piano, Art Davis and Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. Most of these musicians, such as Shepp, were fairly young, energetic, and talented. Together, they had the potential to create something brand new that would change the shape of jazz to come.

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John Coltrane in the Navy during the 1940s

John Coltrane had always been a very spiritual person. During his childhood in North Carolina, Coltrane was influenced by the spiritual ideas and values of his family since his grandfather was a preacher and the rest of his family was heavily religious. Throughout his early life, Coltrane was surrounded by the multitude of styles and genres that were harbored both in and outside of the walls of his local church. Such spirituality became even more important to Coltrane after recovering from his heavy substance abuse in the 1950s, which had caused him to lose his job with Miles Davis for several years and inhibited his musical potential.

With A Love Supreme, Coltrane and found a way to put this spirituality into his music and through his saxophone, which is evident when listening to the album. Every note that he plays doesn’t sound like it’s going through a few feet of brass tubing; it feels as if it’s coming from inside Coltrane himself. The saxophone, then, is an interpreter between Coltrane’s mind and the listener’s ears. It was a revolutionary idea for the time period that left people amazed, shocked, and awed.

Hardly anyone, however, expected Coltrane to follow up the album with an exploration of a realm few had ventured into: “free jazz.”

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Prior to the recording sessions for Ascension on June 28th, 1965, Coltrane had put together a chord sheet for his pianist, McCoy Tyner, to provide him with some kind of outline for the song that Coltrane wanted to create. Most of the other musicians, however, were not given any musical direction or structure for the day’s sessions. The only instruction given was this: each musician in the band would be given their own solo and each solo had to end in a crescendo. That was it. Everyone could play whatever they wanted and however they wanted.

Then, the tape started to roll. One saxophonist, who I assume is Coltrane, played a musical phrase and the entire band fired up to begin their forty minute completely improvised composition.

From my description, it sounds like the album is a complete and utter disaster but trust me, it’s not. The album is certainly experimental but it’s actually listenable. Unlike the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” Ascension doesn’t need to be labeled as art for people to pay attention to it and call it music.

Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, and Bob Thiele in the studio. Photo by Chuck Stewart
(L-R) Archie Shepp, John Coltrane, and Bob Thiele

There is a recognizable structure to the piece: every three or four minutes, one of the musicians steps forward to play a two to four minute solo and then blends back into the ensemble, who all play at once.

As a result of this slight structure and a small musical motif that appears throughout, the recording sounds less like an experimentation with jazz and more like an academic study or exploration of both the music and the musicians.

Without any structure, each musician is able to go where their soul and mind guides them; they call upon their influences and own feelings without inhibition or restriction. The group is also brought together as one. Without a clear leader of the band, it seems that every musician is listening to one another to try and find some direction. Each of the solos, then, are an obvious source of this direction, providing musical ideas and motifs that the ensemble picks up on and riffs on after the solo ends in a tremendous crescendo. Other than these solos, however, it’s just as important to follow each musician during the ensemble sections.

Some of the most mystical and enlightening moments on the record are during these ensemble moments. For example, let’s say Coltrane plays something and Hubbard,

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Freddie Hubbard

picking up on it, creates his own version of that idea. Shortly after, two or three other musicians have picked up on it and start to play their own version while the rest of the group might be pursuing a completely different idea.

Everyone is listening to each other while simultaneously looking within themselves to bring forth a sound that is unlike anything I have heard before.

The solos are just as complex and insightful as the ensemble sections. Each musician digs into their own minds and souls for guidance because of a lack of direction and instruction. Additionally, they call upon all that has influenced them or inspired them as well as what they were listening to at the time. As a result, each musician has their own personality and style that rings out and individualizes them, making each solo an entirely new experience and sound.

One also hears different interpretations of free jazz. On one side of the spectrum you have Pharaoh Sanders, whose mind bending, screeching saxophone solo illustrates his experimental, astrological style of playing and ideas. On the other side you have Freddie Hubbard, who still ventures out into unstructured territory but still sticks to a cleaner, more traditional sound.

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Pharoah Sanders (Left) and John Coltrane (Right)

Ascension is more than just a free jazz album; it’s a spiritual exploration and study. Coltrane tries to take away all sense of structure so that the musicians are connected not by notes on a page but by their own minds and the music that they bring forth into the world. Throughout the album, though it may seem that everyone is disjointed and unsure what to do, when listening closely enough, one finds that they are listening to each other and riffing off of each other to create one unified sound.

Ascension is an album that you’ve got to hear. Maybe you’ll only listen to it once and call it garbage or maybe you’ll call it a mind-expanding experience. Don’t, however, assume that you’ll hate it and never listen to it.

Sit down in a comfortable chair, get a nice cup of tea, put on your best pair of headphones, and listen without any distractions.

What awaits you is an experience unlike any other.

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***

Thank you for reading this edition of “Sea Change.” If you have any album recommendations, feel free to email me at georgelabour17@email.usn.org.

Written by: George LaBour ’17

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