Auuughhh! Caphonous saxaphones! What jazz hell have I wandered into when I picked up this CD from John Coltrane? This is a highly acclaimed album by a highly acclaimed jazz saxaphonist, however, like the paintings of Jackson Pollack, I just don't see what the fuss is about. Some see art, I see a bunch of paint thrown onto the canvas in a haphazard fashion.
All of you jazz aficionados that 'get' this album, feel free to jump on me, and comment that I don't 'get' it, you are absolutely right. Maybe some heard an ephiphany when they threw this on their turntables when it first came out in 1965 or even their CD players when they first heard it, I was just in shock. I have a small collection of Coltrane albums Giant Steps, Coltrane for Lovers, A Love Supreme and Blue Train and none of those albums prepared me for the saxaphone assault that awaited me on this album.
This is on the Impulse Record label, a subsidiary of VERVE. This release was issued in 2000 and was remastered at 96Khz 24 bit, and the album contains both versions of Ascension. Edition II is first (being Coltranes preferred take) and it clocks in at 40:23. The first edition clocking in at only 38:31 appears second. The original tapes were recorded in June 1965 at Van Gelder Recording Studio.
John Coltrane needs no introduction, he plays tenor saxaphone. Also on Tenor sax are Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. On Alto Sax are Marion Brown and John Tchicai. On Trumpet are Freddie Hubert and Dewey Johnson. McCoy Tyner plays piano, Jimmy Garrisson and Art Davis plays bass and Elvin Jones plays drums. (McCoy, Garrison, and Jones, formed the band for many Coltrane albums)
The sound quality is very good on this album. Every competing sax and trumpet can be clearly heard together with the background din provided by the bass, drums and occasional clanking and banging on the piano. For a really fun experience, I put this on in 5 channel stereo. For me, it recreated what it would be like to be in the middle of a Hieronymous Bosch painting.
Ascension (into Jazz Hell)
A fitting description of the album is at the start of the liner notes Thirty five years after it was recorded, John Coltrane's Ascension remains a good way to start an argument. To some, it was Coltrane's breakthrough album, a bracing declaration of independance from the prevailing musical restrictions. To others, it marked the beginning of a talented musician's disturbing slide into chaos Below are my observations of Ascension Edition II that Coltrane himself preferred.
1.1 opening ensemble All instruments holler at once, in caphonic dissaray.
1.2 Coltrane Alto Sax solo Imagine if you will that you are at a duck pond. Start chasing the ducks, hear them honk. Now grab one, squeeze it HONK HONK The duck is in pain, listen to it honk. Tyners piano clanks and clunks as you torture the poor duck. Jones drums bang and the cymbals crash urging you on.
1.3 Johnson's Trumpet solo Now from the right comes furious trumpeting, up and down the range of notes. The basses join in franticaly. More furiuos notes, it sounds like another duck moaning in pain agonizing pain. The other horns join in and all chaos breaks loose. One particular injured duck squanks horribly from the left over and over again.
1.4 Sander's Tenor Sax solo Now from the left another tenor sax blares out in agonizing pain. Notes that should never be heard pour out of his saxaphone. He plays like the saxaphonist in that episode of Seinfeld when Elaine dates the saxaphone player and ruins his audition. The sax blares over and over. Agony, Agony Agony.
1.5 Hubbard's Trumpet solo A beautiful sound interrupts the din from the right. A lone trumpet sounding against the caphonous storm, like a beacon. But no, he is not safe, the storm has affected him too. Soon his trumpet solo starts to decend into caphonous noise too. He has forgotten how to play and repeats the same note over and over. Mute nostril agony. Soon the other horns join in, and begin to beat him down. The drum is slow and steady slamming bam bam bam as the trumpet is beaten into chaos.
1.6 Tchicai's alto sax solo From the right side of the room, Tchicia's alto sax comes in to save the trumpet after its brutal beating. He plays so sweetly until the other horns of death mercilessly assault him. Oh the sounds of agony, pain and despair screach through the ruined alto saxaphone in a bleating cry of death.
1.7 Schepp's Tenor Sax Solo sounds out from the left. But a cruel joke has been played, the sax has been beaten out of tune. Schepp tries in vain to play it, to make beautiful sounds come forth, but to no avail. The notes stick, and snag. The harder he blows into the instrument, the more horrible the noises eminate from inside. Then from the right the other instruments all sound out as if to mock the horrible sounds of the tenor sax.
1.8 Brown's Alto Sax Solo comes in strong very strong with a bass line to back him. But suddenly he is clocked on the back of the head by Coltrane's sax. Brown is in pain. The others move in, hitting him and beating him with their horns. The sounds from the alto sax are not so pretty now, they scream out in agony. The drums slam slam slam with each blow I can visualize in my head. Then the other horn players pick up their instruments and play a caphonous tune in celebration of the beaten down alto sax.
1.9 McCoy Tyner's Piano Solo Finally a break, Tyner plays his piano and no horns are heard. Fairly rhythmic music eminates from deep within the piano. It is a pleasant respite from the horrible happenings described above.
1.10 Bass Duet Art Davis / Jimmy Garrison Two basses pull strange delirous sounds from deep within their instruments. Not particularly horrible, but not pleasant sounding either. Soon the horns flutter around the basses, each doing their own thing.
1.11 Concluding ensemble Slow drum beats bam bam bam, then faster furious fast, then slow again, Jones drums bash and crash. Soon all the instruments play around the drums each in its entirely own direction, not caring or listening to what the other is doing, each competes for its own space. Finally a piano trill signifies the end of this expirement gone awry.
For those who weren't happy or wanted more, they could listen to Ascension I, which also features a drum solo before the concluding ensemble.
Test Equipment I played this CD on a Meridian 506 24 bit CD player with analog connects to the receiver. I use a Yamaha 5280 Surround Sound Receiver (my very first epinions review) with the front right and left channels separately amplified with a Rotel RB 991 Power Amplifier. Front speakers are Polk Audio Monitor 70s, Center channel is a Polk Audio CSi40 (irrelevant in this review) and surrounds are Polk Audio R20s. LFE channel was routed to a Velodyne SPL 1000 series II subwoofer. I listened in stereo and in five channel stereo (simply a DSP field on the Yamaha that duplicates the front channels in the rear).
Summary I hated this album, it sounds like noise to me. Will I stop buying CDs by John Coltrane? Absolutely not. Would I have bought another Coltrane album again, if this was the first one I heard by him? Probably not. My understanding of history is that this album was quite the ground breaking album in 65. My further understanding is that a lot of people did a lot of drugs in the mid 1960s as well. I know Coltrane was a jazz genius. I know he was one of the most talented saxaphone players there was. However, I am not going to lie, and tell you how awesome this album was. I am not afraid to admit that I just don't get this piece. I would rather tell you the truth. I don't get it, and moreover I hated it. The way I described it to you above is the visions that listening brought into my head. If you like experimental things, by all means, listen. But I suggest borrowing it from your local public library before purchasing it. I have done my best to describe my experience with it. It was not a happy one. Some say it needs repeated listening to appreciate it. Maybe one day I will try again. As for now, I am listening to Coltrane's eponymous CD from 1962. I like it, its relaxing.
If anyone would like a slightly used Avante Garde Jazz CD please e-mail me.