Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest
If the word “apocalyptic” sounds a bit bombastic for a musical experience, it is nevertheless a word I have heard other first-time Coltrane listeners use —Eric Nisenson
“John Coltrane’s life was based on a series of discoveries, most of them a result of both hard work and the deepest introspection.”
I could safely state based on this quote from Ascension, that the ethos felt is not a fact—ephemeral ethos. A reflection of one’s past timeline can be a pastiche of lonely and literary sentiment, but it is only a reflection.
The hum of humanity offers a ripple; the vibration of humanity offers a wave. Ascension—John Coltrane and His Quest by Eric Nisenson gives us the support when required, the vibration when mandated, and a rip current of cold hard facts to pull you under as a witness to a great tenor sax musician’s life.
Prior to reading Ascension, my connection to Coltrane came from his music: Giant Steps, African/Brass, A Love Supreme, and The Thelonious Monk Quartet Featuring John Coltrane – Live at The Five Spot Discovery!
In 2016 I saw the documentary Chasing Trane. It was at this time I had been working on my first paperback novel. A to P, my paperback novel, is based on two brothers, one aggressive the other passive. The stream of consciousness was based on Milton’s two poems L’Allegero and Il’Penseroso. The narrative’s social timeline, two seedlings from the family tree’s branch, carried a consummate latitude that lauded an unexpected spirituality. These seeds bloomed a tendril in tune from Coltrane’s resonation in my personal background.
Alas, the four parts of A Love Supreme beckoned my interest to place “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalms” in the pages of my story; to accompany the storyline’s critical four passages.
The sheer emotions Coltrane contributed to our systemic sounds resonated to my research and relevance and the likes of other writers/poets/artists. Ascension’s chronology marks the Fifties: “To the most of the beats, the jazz musician was the new shaman, a holy man that they nearly worshiped. To those grounded in Freud, (like Coltrane) improvisation seemed to be a way of hooking the creative hand directly to the id and avoiding the superego’s dictates on socialization. Jack Kerouac typed On the Road on a continuous roll of paper so he could write one uninterrupted improvisation… Painters such as Jackson Polack…improvising on the canvas.” Coltrane’s pronounced expression and impression is lauded with Gil Scott Heron in his song, “Lady Day and John Coltrane” from his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man.
The aforementioned examples cite the influence Coltrane’s personal push to practice, play, practice, play, and pull together on nights when his logoi, layered between sheets of music, personal complications, and drugs to fuel his engine, were submitted to society.
In Part Two Nisenson presents the limb of musical exploration Coltrane started in the Fifties would not stand alone. The Sixties shouldered a revolution of many latitudes. “The New Thing” a jazz movement consolidated for a “black classical music” or “African American music” partitioned from some of the jazz that was gaining popularity. For Coltrane, it was a phrase and not in his music. Yet, the cultural and social forums about liberation moved forward. “Coltrane’s study of religion, both Eastern and Western, must have given him insight in the self-defeating futility of hate and violence.” His education and expression of non-European cultures “contributed to black pride, as well as raising whites’ consciousness.”
Coltrane was a voracious reader whose insight about mindfulness and mind-altering drugs opened as Blake termed, ‘The doors of perception.’ A change for Coltrane was about to happen and Nisenson meticulously guides the reader, who, at this point in Ascension, has vicariously experienced the jazz musician’s social timeline. “Transition” in 1965 marked another significant moment as “brilliant.” Challenges and perhaps, charges to God become a “diamond-hard beauty unlike anything else in music.” A strong session of songs is comparable, Nisenson writes “Like modern master masterpieces: Guernica, The Rite of Spring.”
And when we learn John Coltrane’s balance, he records the album Ascension to become “a full-fledged member of the free jazz avant-garde.”
Eric Nisenson’s portrait of John Coltrane’s life and longevity in Ascension is an exemplary book. His conclusion is about Coltrane’s quest is a question for the reader to contemplate, but do so, while spinning any of his selected discography.