John Coltrane - Ascension (1966) 8/10

Ascension is a wonderful free jazz album and simultaneously a fantastic spiritual jazz album, a pure blending of two important styles of jazz that prove gracefully harmonious when handled by such a large group of all legendary musicians and household names like Coltrane, Hubbard, Tyner, Brown, Tchicai, Jones, Davis, Sanders, Johnson, Garrison and Shepp. Then why isn’t it the best of either genre? For me it is a simple answer, it may in fact be one of the greatest iterations of spiritual jazz, but Coltrane himself ascended further into the spiritual realm later that year with Sun Ship, and Ascension as a free jazz recording is too back and forth between its gloriously cacophonous sound and Coltrane’s signature style of controlled playing, therefore outperformed in purity by truly maniacal free jazz such as Machine Gun or sections of Spiritual Unity when discussing free improvisation. That does not mean that it is a lesser free jazz recording than either, only that it is not as bold and progressive a statement as albums like Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz or The Shape of Jazz to Come, which again beg comparison from their recording structure, because while this particular style was new, most of its individual statements had already been shouted from the rooftops. Still, the first part of this recording is nothing short of sublime. It is filled with passionate portraits of miracles, sensations of the supernatural and heavenly realm that feel almost physical when translated through the open structures and bold, unhinged passages like the twelfth and thirteenth minute of the first half. The performances flow freely, blend with ease, and come together to say something grandiose and damn near divine. The touch points feel organic and pure, a feature that breathes focused life into the chaos and brings small moments of solace that exhibit joyous collaboration. The back and forth here feels more natural, more sensational, and tactile than it does during its later half. 

On that note, the presence of its two halves begs comparison, and part two is an even lengthier portion of the record than the first so it must be critiqued. The second half is, in comparison, inconsistently brilliant, tripping over its own momentum and ultimately results in a less effective rendition of its themes. It is still wonderful and has independently fantastic passages with wonderful playing, but they create a less effective narrative than the first part in summation. While this is an absurdly high bar for comparison, it remains true and again is vital to the album’s evaluation as a piece of music. All this discussion aside, only John Coltrane could create this piece of music, as an open-minded and forward-thinking, sharp, even brilliant, and endlessly talented bandleader, he was unmatched in maturity in many of these arenas. He highlights and hones Tyner and Sanders' performances in only a way that he could, not to mention his direct and powerful influence on their maturity up until this point in their careers. For those who lean towards the spiritual, with an open mind this will undoubtedly be a heavenly experience. There is much to be gained from sitting with Ascension in patient absorption; it does reveal layers of wonderous joy hidden amongst the minutiae, and even its obvious and broad passages will reveal their even greater implications with time. Yes, it is a very personal recording that will mean something different to everyone who listens, and many will fail to see any value or purpose in its statements. They are just as correct as those of us who find it wonderful. But honestly that only gives Ascension a greater beauty in its duality. It is in fact one of the most important recordings from one of jazz’s most important artists, and one of the most superbly enjoyable instances of free and spiritual jazz.