John Coltrane – “Ascension” (1965)

Jazz is a genre that my forever mystify me.  I don’t dislike it, and certainly there are some albums like Kind of Blue and Blue Train that are undeniable brilliant to my ears.  But I just find it… difficult.  Swing is pretty easy to get, but it’s basically dance music for a different era, and as such it has a certain familiarity.  Hard bop and modal jazz also have recognizable elements, though I still find them challenging (but in a good way).  But free jazz?  Man… free jazz is downright hard.

I find it interesting that I am comfortable listening to rock and electronic based experimental music, which is sort of the “free jazz” of those genres, but when it comes to jazz it’s like the connections between the neurons in my brain just break down and I have no idea what’s going on.  My hypothesis about this is that I already have a base familiarity with some of the more extreme forms of rock, and it’s not hard to get from the distorted guitars of a popular song to the extreme distortion of more experimental work; it’s just a matter of degrees.  But when it comes to the instruments played by jazz ensembles, like the 11 musicians who recorded Ascension, I’m truly used to hearing the performers strive to make them as clear and organized as possible.  Saxophones and trumpets and pianos aren’t instruments I associate with discord.

The first two sentences of the liner notes on Ascension warn the listener:

To begin at the beginning, a caveat for the casual listener.  Be advised that this record cannot be loved or understood in one sitting, and there can be no appreciation at all in two minutes listening to an arbitrary excerpt in a record store.  


And this is true, because two minutes into Side A I was ready to take it off the Rega.  But the intro is arguably the “freest” section of this free jazz record… or maybe I just think that because my ears eventually got used to it.  It’s actually the perfect way to start the album because it breaks down everything you thought you knew about jazz and everything you expected from the record when you see Coltrane’s name on the cover, wiping the slate clean like a palette cleanser and putting you in the right mind space to absorb Ascension.

There are two versions of Ascension, and my copy is the more common (and Coltrane-preferred) version 2.  I believe both were recorded live and in one take as one nearly 40 minute performance.  Unfortunately it has to be split in two for vinyl, and those moments when you’re flipping the record are the only sonic reprieve you get.  And while certainly qualifying as free jazz, don’t think that the entire thing is one big sonic jumble.  There are places in the session where things come together into something very familiar sounding, particularly during the solos.

I may never truly “get” jazz, but I find that exploring it broadens my perspective, so if for no other reason than that I’ll continue to occasionally dip my toe into the jazz pool and test the water.