Going out for an errand this morning, I realized that this was the first day of the year that San Francisco felt like spring and that this deserved some sort of ritual celebration. So it was that I decided to play the first disc in the two-disc impulse! set, The Major Works of John Coltrane. This is the disc that couples the first "edition" of "Ascension" with "Om." I suspect that this was as much a need to clear my head of all of that bad science being done in Coltrane's name as it was to get beyond a winter of discontent with a rogue strain of flu and an even more rogue strain of the American political process. This is not to recant on the healing power of Mozart, particularly where that flu was involved; but Coltrane is an entirely different manner of beast.
Indeed, Coltrane's approach to free jazz is very much a "rough beast," as Yeats put it; but it is hardly one that "Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born." As I had previously written, free jazz did not originate with Coltrane; but Coltrane moved to free jazz from a position of mass appeal (much of which derived from his take on "My Favorite Things") that the earliest pioneers (Lenny Tristano, Lee Konitz, and Warne Marsh) did not enjoy. What Coltrane did share with Tristano and his disciples was an intense, if not obsessive, drive towards a continual improvement of technique, in both the mechanics of execution and the conception of the material to be executed. Thus, neither Tristano nor Coltrane "slouched" their way into free jazz; they strode boldly into this unknown region, knowing full well that they would be sustained by the technique they had cultivated.
In terms of my own listening skills, I think it is important that I encountered "Ascension" at a time of intense interest in Anton Webern. Indeed, one of my music teachers had even set the task of composing a piece (which, in the Webern spirit, did not have to be particularly long) based on a bare minimum of intervals. As a result the first thing that struck me about "Ascension" was the minimality of the motif (five notes) that triggered off almost forty minutes of uninterrupted (expect for having to flip the vinyl disk) free blowing. Lord only knows what Coltrane would have thought of this Webern connection. From Lewis Porter's John Coltrane: His Life and Music, I learned that Coltrane disliked being associated with Arnold Schoenberg, because he felt that Schoenberg was more occupied with systems than with music. If he listened to Webern at all, Porter gave no account of that experience.
On the other hand Coltrane always seemed to take a positive view of experimentation, as much by others as with his own efforts. Thus he was a great supporter of Albert Ayler and even did a recording session with Cecil Taylor (which did not include any of Taylor's own compositions). I suspect that Coltrane's approach to free jazz involved what I recently called "a propagation of faith that takes place whenever musicians perform before an audience, the faith that music can achieve bonds of understanding that are beyond the reach of words," which is particularly consistent with the spirituality of "Om."
Another way to approach "Ascension" is as a return swing of a pendulum. Six months before the "Ascension" recording session, Coltrane had recorded A Love Supreme, a four-movement suite of, as Porter demonstrated, highly intricate compositional skill. Having worked with improvisational passages that kept getting longer and longer, it was not surprising that Coltrane would eventually arrive at such a large-scale work. Having done so, however, he then seemed to cut the ties to the constraints of the composed score, thus the need to fall back to a single five-note motif; the challenge was then to sustain that same large-scale duration without explicit charts to guide the way.
The San Francisco Jazz Festival has made it a point to program ten-year anniversary performances of "Ascension." The only one I heard was in 2005; and it was extremely (I might even say painfully) disappointing. It was a reminder of just how strong a foundation of technique was demanded of the eleven musicians who convened in the Van Gelder Studio on June 28, 1965. It is probably true that none of the other performers were quite as obsessive about technique as Coltrane was, but they all possessed imposing levels of skill that was sorely lacking among all the 2005 San Francisco performers. This fortieth anniversary therefore reminded us that free jazz is, and never has been, an easy matter. It is the ultimately testimony to John Dewey's conviction that art is, and can only be perceived as, a product of experience. If the experience is weak, what passes for art will be even weaker. On the other hand, when the experience is strong and sure, as was the case with the "Ascension" sessions, the result can create an impression that will endure for a lifetime and well deserves the celebration of a "rite of spring."