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on 30 January 2009
This review refers to Edition Two of Ascension.

Listening to Ascension is like listening to Trout Mask Replica. Well, I suppose as Ascension came first I should actually say that listening to Trout Mask Replica (TMR) is like listening to Ascension. Never mind though. The reason I'm drawing a comparison between the two is because for the first few songs of TMR and the first five or ten minutes of Ascension I didn't really know what to make of them. Just as TMR completely changed what I thought pop music could be, Ascension changed (albeit to a lesser degree) my assumptions about jazz. Ascension starts off by blasting you in the face with alto saxophones, tenor saxophones, trumpets, bass, piano and drums all playing together in a hellish and cacophonous manner that took me completely by surprise. It's very jarring the first time you hear it, and looking up at the time left on iTunes and seeing that there's forty minutes it's quite intimidating as well. This boil of racket and noise went on for about three and a half minutes before the first solo of the piece, by Coltrane himself, came in and everyone but Elvin Jones on drums backed off (I think, I can't remember exactly) to let the great man play his beautiful music. Coltrane's solo is filled with high pitched notes, twisting runs and gratuitous amounts of genius. It manages to pull it all right back down to earth. I should mention now, before I forget, that Elvin Jones' drumming on Ascension is just incredible. He plays almost non-stop for the entire forty minutes with only one break during McCoy Tyner's brilliant piano solo. Jones' drumming is so good it puts heavy metal drummers to shame. It really is just awesome.

The entire album follows a strict structure of ensemble playing followed by solo, followed by another ensemble piece followed by another solo, etc, for the full forty minutes, though the music is anything but strict in any sense of the word. Each musician, with the exception of Jones, gets to play a solo and they had complete control of them, except that each one had to finish with a crescendo. This loud quiet loud quiet dynamic of ensemble solo ensemble solo gives the album a sense of journey, literally an ascension to some higher musical plane of existence. During the third ensemble piece it all clicked together for me, the many noises and many lines of music fitting like pieces in a puzzle, sounding like an ocean now, and whereas it was hellish before it was now whatever the opposite of that is. Of course, it still sounds completely cacophonous, like it should. Every solo sounds like a monolith on a beach, playing to the sea as the waves rush forward to drown the beach during the next ensemble piece. It is strikingly beautiful, even when it doesn't seem to make sense, when there are too many voices all playing at once to be able to hear each one individually. It is always beautiful.

I haven't read any of the other reviews here so I don't know what other people are saying, but if you are unsure whether to buy this album, defiantly like jazz, and have heard at least some other Coltrane albums, then I absolutely recommend you purchase this album. It is a masterpiece and one of the greatest albums ever written. It is intense, fiery, bombastic, puzzling, rich, epic, heavenly.
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on 2 June 2001
Is this extraordinary document 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? Is Ascension a transcendental event in jazz history or an anomalous experiment that perseveres in its periphery?
Certainly no one has attempted anything like this again. The only comparable experiment prior to Ascension had been Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz of 1960. But Free Jazz had deliberately placed two quartets side-by-side and ordered the solos into a formal, structured framework that seemed to belie the project's self-conscious aim to challenge rigidity altogether. Coltrane's Ascension subverted even the precedent that Free Jazz had established.
Coltrane had, in less than a decade, transformed the jazz world's expectations of the possibilities of the tenor, even of the role of the solo per se. Now this troubled, intense man turned his attention to the possibilities of a larger group than he normally played in or led. Rather than creating a recognisable background for the musicians to express themselves, he de-contextualised and fragmented the orthodox syntactical elements of jazz, viz. tempo, rhythm and pulse, harmonic progressions and set "changes", keys and tonal centres, thus leaving the musicians to articulate their responses only to each other and not to the support that the syntax would have otherwise provided. There were certain rules, so to speak: built in to the work was a succession of solos, as well as a "juxtaposition of tonally centred ideas and atonal elements" (Archie Shepp's words in the liner notes). The solo opportunities were created to allow the musicians an unfettered dialogue with the ensemble.
The musicians were a mix of contemporary and established stars, such as Coltrane himself, Freddie Hubbard, Archie Shepp, McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, and emerging voices such as Marion Brown and Pharoah Sanders. Coltrane's leadership on such an unusual, unprecedented project was crucial. He alone possessed the vision and charisma necessary to push these artists to break the dichotomy between backing and solo. Individual and collective voice became one.
What's the music like? Sound, sound, sound, a vast enveloping texture of brass. Look out for Sanders' solo - it's unlike anything you've ever heard (unless you've been deep in the jungle). It might be useful to follow the order of the soloists: Coltrane (tenor sax), Dewey Johnson (trumpet), Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Archie Shepp (tenor sax), John Tchicai (alto sax), Marion Brown (alto sax).
And what's the experience like? Played loud, it'll do something for you that might approximate what it was like for the musicians. In the words of Marion Brown, "wildly exciting."
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on 31 March 2001
Coltrane's ascension is considered one of the most complex and ambitious free-jazz records ever attempted. The concept of recording a 40 minute piece with not very clear separate parts (at least the first times one hears it), based on improvisation by some of the most well established new thing jazz musicians aided by some of the most promising free jazz players of that time is to say the least a bold attempt.
Yet as the reviewer pointed out correctly this work is both brilliant and flawed. Adding more info about the sessions is probably not necessary so I will comment on the effect it had on me after listening to it once, twice and finally many times. The first time I listened to it I was impressed but could not remember almost a single musical phrase, the second time I was disappointed by the musical chaos and gave up on the CD at least for a month... Until one day I gave it a few more listens and guess what, it was working. After having listened to it for quite some time I was at a point that I really appreciated what was being played here and begun to both admire and enjoy the music that ascension offered. Having both takes is great but I would suggest you first listened to only one take for quite a while and I would suggest take two for a starting point. So if you are looking for a record to really get into and already have some experience from listening to other free-jazz records, by all means, invest your money here. If you are looking for an easy listening in jazz try " A Love Supreme" (still needs some work to get into) or "Ballads" by the same artist and come back to this record later.
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on 1 June 2006
John Coltrane's Ascension deserves 5 stars for its sheer daring and courage in challenging virtually every idiom associated with jazz. It is the sort of the record that Wynton et. al would put in the "non-jazz" bucket, but then, who cares about that? Coltrane was on an unceasing, unrelenting path of musical exploration. Because of this, the music is not meant to be perfect, but as a musical statement it is certainly close to what Coltrane was searching for. As Richard Davis put it to Roy Eldridge: "Well you know, Roy, Trane ain't waiting!" This record I believe influenced the later directions of Miles and the fusion movement itself.

As with the music itself, the two stars of the show are the ones who made up the classic quartet; Elvin and Coltrane. Coltrane is the first to solo, and his particular statement unlike the others, seems to burst with a more sincere urgency and expression than the others. Hubbard and Tyner are too set in their bebop ways, and sound restrained. Sanders' solo matches the overall chaos and mood of the piece, but it is still Elvin's explosions around the kit at intervals that really excite the listener and he drives the ensemble on with a flowing pulse and intensity that betters half of the soloists there; just the sort of transcendence Trane was aiming for. As an example, listen closely after Shepp's strangely lyrical solo at the 25 minute mark. The piece seems to be flagging, almost tiring, but Jones, with a few simple, yet thunderous rolls around the kit increases the intensity of the performance five-fold. The bass duet is disturbingly haunting, and perhaps out of step with the overall mood of the piece, but beautiful nonetheless. The piece is to be approached with open ears, and I daresay, open minds.
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on 1 July 2001
Despite his problems ol John Coltrane was as beautiful man as ever there was and on this record he expresses so much, and brings so much out of the other players that you can only really sigh and smile. Jazz has a difficult reputation anyway and free jazz/fire music even more so x10, but all you really have to do is dig in, open up to it and enjoy what these people's souls sounded like one day in June 1965.
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on 1 October 2004
Of all the albums by John Coltrane, his 1965 "Ascension" is the one that probably divides listeners the most. Others appreciate it for its bald ambition, while others scoff at it as pretentious garbage. But as with all records that aim to challenge, "Ascension" needs to be heard at the right time and in the right mental space for it to be fully appreciated. This is probably not a wise choice of a purchase for the novice listener. And those with childlike attention spans are also discouraged. But listeners who are fond of free jazz or just want to have their senses rattled, then "Ascension" will be a nice addition to your collection. Here we have two versions of Coltrane's 40 minute journey with 10 other musicians who improvise with raw fury and aggression. The tempo shifts violently and unexpectedly, and horns shriek into extended solos without warning; at times, many solos come out all at once. By the 30 minute mark, I wanted to press my "Stop" button, but at the risk of recycling an old cliche, "Ascension" is the musical equivalent of a car wreck. Yes, the images may be harsh, but it's also fascinating and you can't take your eyes off it. The fainthearted and prudish should stay away.
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Although I give this album five stars it doesn't mean that I play it often. I have had it more than ten years yet have played only perhaps a dozen times. It's that sort of music. With both of the two "takes" on one album (both were released independently because Coltrane couldn't decide which version he preferred) and each lasting continuously about forty minutes it is an endurance test. This certainly isn't "dinner jazz", nor even to do the housework to. It needs attention.
The concept of forty minutes of essentially free form music is in itself unusual and daunting. Ornette Coleman had produced a similar concept album several years earlier, incidentally with some of the same musicians. (I prefer Coleman's album).
The structure is different from Coleman's (who had two quartets playing along side each other) but otherwise there is a great deal of similarlty. This seems to oscillate between group improvisations (the group having eleven musicians) and solo passages.
Listeners will have to decide whether this is a cacophony (I have read reports that some of the musicians really didn't have a clue what they were to do) or whether this is music making at the highest level for themselves.
It is not music to be dismissed; it is challenging and certainly has sections that work, but I think that it doesn't work fully for forty minutes.
Historically interesting.
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on 19 December 2009
This maybe a brilliant album - I don't know. After a few initial listens and switching it off after maybe only ten of the forty minutes or so, thinking what a racket, it becomes perhaps clearer on further airings what coltrane was aiming at - some kind of ecstatic cosmic statement in music. This album is by no means an easy listen but could reap rewards with some effort by the listener.
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on 13 December 2002
This is not a record for those with a weak constitution, nor is it in any way dinner party or background music! While not being totally 'free', i.e. there is usually a recognisable pulse ( as opposed to a toe-tappin' beat) it is, erm, harmonically and sonically challenging. To me, it is one of the great uplifting expressions of a group of players listening to each other and pushing ever onwards to greater heights of feeling. While credited to John Coltrane, it is very much a group piece - 'Tranes solo is no more or less important than any other, and the collective blowing between solos is just staggering. Finally, a special mention for drummer Elvin Jones, who keeps going for the entire 40 minutes - at least everyone else gets a rest once in a while! An awesome, inspiring, challenging, involving, beautiful and emotionally draining piece.
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on 10 December 2010
This album changed everything...Miles went another way, and so did most casual jazz listeners. But it should be heard at least for historical reasons. And there's a reason it inspires such purple prose; every word written about it is true.
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