Friday, January 7, 2011

In defense of Impulse #AS-95, Edition I

"Be careful, this might make you believe in God." – Me, after giving a CDR (!) of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme and Ascension to a friend for his birthday

Coltrane released Ascension in 1966. I first heard it in the late nineties and finally bought it in 2003 or 2004. It continues to challenge me, as do most things you learn to love for the rest of your life. I discovered the man and his music by accident, having backed into a Pablo CD misleadingly dubbed The Best of John Coltrane. Where I might have ended up with safe studio recordings of ballads I instead was introduced to some groundbreaking (to me, at least) early-sixties European concert performances. It's a wonderful document and I can't imagine jumping into his catalog in better fashion: much earlier and his (relatively) straightforward late-fifties treatment of standards and blues might sound dull; much later and his avant-garde excursions of '65, '66 and '67 could be a little too intense.

(I don't really know what I'm talking about when it comes to jazz. I don't know what modes are and I'll leave it to the nerdophiles to argue whether or not Ascension is free jazz. As with wine, I'm unable to sort out the flavors but I like the way they taste and how they make my brain all swimmy.)

So with each ensuing Coltrane purchase I went forward and backward: Giant Steps (1960) to A Love Supreme (1965) to Blue Train (1957; the one owned by people who own only one, similar to Miles Davis and Kind of Blue) to John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963) to OlĂ© Coltrane (1961), etc. As a result I now celebrate his entire catalog, so I couldn't have gone about it better if I'd tried—particularly because it eased me into what is likely his most divisive album. (From Lewis Porter's essay accompanying Ascension's 2000 reissue: "To some, it was Coltrane's breakthrough album, a bracing declaration of independence from the prevailing musical restrictions. To others, it marked the beginning of a talented musician's disturbing slide into chaos." Reminds me of what Dylan was going through around the same time, except I think Dylan was purposely pissing people off. Coltrane was looking for something new.) Over that time I heard one version or another (I'll get to that in a minute; and in case you don't know, the original LP consisted only of a title track, split into two parts) of "Ascension" and eventually appreciated its transcendent achievement.

It wasn't easy. The preceding A Love Supreme remains my favorite Coltrane album but the nod to its theme at the beginning of "Ascension" wasn't enough to make me a believer. It wasn't so much the squonky nature of the playing—I'd become accustomed to Coltrane and part-time sideman Pharoah Sanders (who plays on Ascension) doing plenty of that for years—but rather the layered, indistinct quality of the non-solo portions.

I won't go into why I like it now when I once did not. I've since been exposed to more "out there" music and I suppose my tastes have opened up or shifted over the years (no more buying stuff based solely on green-light reviews in fucking alterna-rags like some nineteen-year-old asshole, that's for sure; though, in fairness, Spin first pointed me toward the Jesus Lizard's Liar and a year ago I appointed it my favorite album of 1992) so I'm sure that has something to do with it. I also fell harder and harder in love with the drumming of my man Elvin Jones, whose polyrhythmic style (I looked it up) does a lot more for me than succeeding Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali's self-consciously atmospheric playing. I am not a drummer but I'm a sucker for good drumming, and by concentrating on Jones's wild, organic flourishes—still keeping time—I was capable of seeing the big picture.

The eleven-man group recorded two takes of "Ascension" in June 1965. (Another artist would be booed at Newport a month later.) They differ in that the second sounds like it was performed at a slightly quicker pace and therefore is almost two minutes shorter. In addition, Archie Shepp's and John Tchicai's saxophone solos were flip-flopped in the middle (explanation below) and Jones gets a little star time before the concluding ensemble.

When the album was released the following year it contained the second take, with "Part 1" on the A-side and "Part 2" on the B-side. Opinions differ regarding what happened next. The Discogs database (an extremely useful website to have around when considering the tagging/artwork issues mentioned during my fourteen hundred-word introduction to last year's three-hour "best of" playlist), which pulls much of its information from sleeve notes, press releases and magazine articles, explains it one way: "By accident, [producer] Bob Thiele put out the wrong take. After he went through the initial press run, he switched the masters to the other take and inscribed 'Edition II' on the inside of the runout circle." So it was Thiele's error that led to the substitution, right?

Porter's reissue essay tells another story: "Two complete versions of 'Ascension' were recorded, and Coltrane selected one to be released in 1966. Shortly afterward, Coltrane decided he liked the unissued take better, primarily because he didn't like the lack of variety created by the two alto saxophonists [Tchicai and Marion Brown] soloing back to back on the version that was released. Producer Bob Thiele substituted the other take for subsequent pressings, without explanation, even though the solo order didn't match that given in the liner notes. The only hint that this was a different 'Ascension' was the phrase 'Edition II' inscribed in the vinyl near the label." So Coltrane (all along or in retrospect) meant for the first take to be released because he (all along or in retrospect) insisted the Tchicai-then-Shepp-then-Brown order (Shepp's tenor sax separating the two altos) was superior… right?

In the end, different recordings were made available because someone screwed up or someone else changed his mind. Whatever. Imagine if two unique versions of one of your favorite albums existed? (Take a bow, Raw Power!) And imagine if those Hollywood fat cats finally acted in consumers' best interests and bundled each of them together for the price of one? Impulse/Verve/Universal has kindly done so—they generally do a good job with reissues anyway, adding bonus tracks and such, and kudos to them. Now we listeners can indulge in one or the other or both—personally, I prefer the second-take "Edition I." It's a little tighter and the added treat of a Jones solo evolving out of his interplay with bassists Jimmy Garrison (his battery mate since '62) and Art Davis is beautiful. It's short at twenty-five seconds but it propels him into the finale, where to me it sounds like he plays with a little more vigor than in the earlier take. Others will disagree on which is better so it's nice to have both—particularly with a little ambient studio chatter included between tracks.

If not for clumsiness and/or fickleness we might be unable to choose at all without spending $300 on eBay. Thanks again, human nature. You're the best.

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