John Coltrane – “Ascension” (1965)

Jazz is a genre that my forever mystify me. I don’t dislike it, and certainly there are some albums like Kind of Blue and Blue Train that are undeniable brilliant to my ears. But I just find it… difficult. Swing is pretty easy to get, but it’s basically dance music for a different era, and as such it has a certain familiarity. Hard bop and modal jazz also have recognizable elements, though I still find them challenging (but in a good way). But free jazz? Man… free jazz is downright hard.

I find it interesting that I am comfortable listening to rock and electronic based experimental music, which is sort of the “free jazz” of those genres, but when it comes to jazz it’s like the connections between the neurons in my brain just break down and I have no idea what’s going on. My hypothesis about this is that I already have a base familiarity with some of the more extreme forms of rock, and it’s not hard to get from the distorted guitars of a popular song to the extreme distortion of more experimental work; it’s just a matter of degrees. But when it comes to the instruments played by jazz ensembles, like the 11 musicians who recorded Ascension, I’m truly used to hearing the performers strive to make them as clear and organized as possible. Saxophones and trumpets and pianos aren’t instruments I associate with discord.

The first two sentences of the liner notes on Ascension warn the listener:

To begin at the beginning, a caveat for the casual listener. Be advised that this record cannot be loved or understood in one sitting, and there can be no appreciation at all in two minutes listening to an arbitrary excerpt in a record store.

And this is true, because two minutes into Side A I was ready to take it off the Rega. But the intro is arguably the “freest” section of this free jazz record… or maybe I just think that because my ears eventually got used to it. It’s actually the perfect way to start the album because it breaks down everything you thought you knew about jazz and everything you expected from the record when you see Coltrane’s name on the cover, wiping the slate clean like a palette cleanser and putting you in the right mind space to absorb Ascension.

There are two versions of Ascension, and my copy is the more common (and Coltrane-preferred) version 2. I believe both were recorded live and in one take as one nearly 40 minute performance. Unfortunately it has to be split in two for vinyl, and those moments when you’re flipping the record are the only sonic reprieve you get. And while certainly qualifying as free jazz, don’t think that the entire thing is one big sonic jumble. There are places in the session where things come together into something very familiar sounding, particularly during the solos.

I may never truly “get” jazz, but I find that exploring it broadens my perspective, so if for no other reason than that I’ll continue to occasionally dip my toe into the jazz pool and test the water.

John Coltrane – “Blue Train” (1957 / 2014)

Dave is probably one of my first “adult” friends, one of the first friends I made post-college and out and about in the real world. We first connected sometime in the mid-1990s due to a common interest in, of all things, Seattle hockey memorabilia, and over the last 20+ years we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well. So imagine my surprise when he asked me the other day what I’d been up to, and I told him I’d just gotten back from the record store, and he replied with “did I ever tell you I have a big collection of jazz records?” Um, no Dave, you hadn’t. And how am I just hearing about this now??

Long story short Dave was into jazz as far back as high school (he’s a few years older than me) and used to frequent all the used record shops in Seattle, scouring the jazz sections and used “new arrivals” on the never-ending hunt for first pressings. We chatted about this for a while and I confessed my general ignorance about jazz – the majority of what I have is Miles Davis, which is like saying your entire experience with reggae is Bob Marley. So to help me with my education Dave sent me a list of his 10 favorite jazz albums (excluding the Miles records I already have….) and over the last two weeks I managed to pick up a couple of them. The funny thing is in some ways he’s more excited about this than I am, telling me that he’s jealous that I’m going to get to hear these amazing records for the very first time.

I opted to start with saxophonist John Coltrane’s 1957 Blue Train. Coltrane was already a veteran then, having appeared on well over a dozen recordings, but earlier that year Davis fired the saxophonist from his touring ensemble (and not for the first time), finally growing tired of the impact alcohol and heroin had on his playing. It didn’t take long for him to catch on with someone else, though, and in short order he was playing with Thelonious Monk. By the fall he was ready to record with his own six-piece orchestra, banging out the entire Blue Train album in one day – September 15, 1957. When you think of how long it took to record some rock albums, the ability of jazz musicians to do something like this in a day or two in studio is awe-inspiring. I realize it’s a different style of music and all, arguably more organic, but that’s still impressive.

All but one of Blue Train‘s five compositions are Coltrane originals, while “I’m Old Fashioned” was originally written in 1942 by Johnny Mercer and Jerome Kern. When Coltrane was asked about his favorites of his own albums during a 1960 interview with Carl-Eric Lindgren, he pointed first to Blue Train, specifically complimenting the quality of the musicians who played on the session. These included guys he played with while with Miles Davis, drummer Philly Joe Jones and bassist Paul Chambers, as well as veteran pianist Kenny Drew. The other horn players were a pair of young up-and-comers, 22-year-old trombonist Curtis Fuller and 19-year-old trumpeter Lee Morgan. There’s a hint of sadness about this brilliant ensemble in that three of the six men didn’t live past the age of 40, with Chambers and Morgan both dying at the age of 33 (♠) and Coltrane passing at 40 due to liver cancer. So many jazz greats left us way too early.

I recognized the title track instantly, probably from film scores, though there are only segments of “Blue Train” that sounded familiar – the solos (<- probably the wrong word to use, I know, since the rhythm section keeps playing… but I mean those parts of the song where a specific instrument comes to the forefront to express itself) were completely new to me and impressive. To my ears it breaks down into three sections – the first and third are generally ensemble, while the second middle part is reserved for each instrument to step to the forefront for a bit. Those first and third parts are intriguingly structured. The bass and drums provide a linear path for the song to follow; the piano, trumpet, and trombone give the whole thing shape and keep it more or less contained like a huge malleable soap bubble; and Coltrane’s sax is allowed to run free within, and sometimes pushing the outside edge of, that overall framework. It was fascinating to truly pay attention to the interplay of the musicians.

The thing I came away most impressed with was Kenny Drew’s plano work, which is nothing short of brilliant. Drew understands when he only needs to contribute a quick burst and does so, not feeling compelled to take up space needlessly. And when the emphasis switches to the piano… man, he just kills it, especially when it’s just him and the rest of the rhythm section. I will definitely need to seek out some of his albums.

This was a great way to dip my toe into the pool of classic jazz, and I’m looking forward to working my way through he rest of Dave’s list.

(♠) Chambers died due to an untreated case of tuberculosis, with alcohol and heroin use as possible contributing factors impacting his general health. Morgan struggled with drug abuse for years before getting cleaned up with the help of his common-law wife Helen Morgan. Unfortunately when he was back on his feet he still couldn’t resist his old habits, both with drugs and women. Lee and Helen were talking during a break between sets at a club called slugs when another woman came up to them and said that she thought Lee wasn’t with Helen any more. This led to a verbal altercation between the Morgans that ended with Helen shooting Lee in the chest, killing him.

Miles and Coltrane Quintet – “Live” (1990 / 2007)

I came across this little oddball live Miles Davis record at Mississippi Records on a recent visit to Portland, Oregon. Should you ever find yourself in Portland, Mississippi is a must-visit. Not only is the vinyl selection staggeringly deep across multiple genres for such a small shop, but the prices are insanely reasonable, bordering on cheap. Just keep in mind, kids, they don’t take plastic. It’s just green-backs, so make sure to hit the cash machine first.

I found this 2007 release of a 1958 live performance by Miles Davis and the John Coltrane quintet nestled in the New Arrivals section, and for ten bucks there really wasn’t a decision to make. Live is just that, a live performance, and it kind of sounds it came out close to 50 years after the event… which indeed it did. The low parts are flat – the bass is discernible, but doesn’t carry any weight to it, while Miles’ trumpet gets more adequate mic coverage – though when he’s hitting it hard, the sound gets fried at the high end. The piano and slow parts are the best from a purely sound quality perspective.

Being the jazz neophyte that I am, I was surprised to find a song I recognized on Live – the Miles Davis composition “So What,” which appeared a year later (1959) on the incredible studio album Kind of Blue. So this represents an earlier, live version of a very well-known song off of a seminal album, which is pretty cool. To be fair, it’s only the intro and outro that were recognizable to me, but those stuck out in such an obvious way they couldn’t be missed.

Live is a decent record, though the sound quality was a bit flat. It’s intriguing for the early rendition of a Miles Davis classic, and certainly for the collaboration between two jazz geniuses – but the appeal is primarily for the “next level” jazz fan, the one who has moved beyond the seminal albums to that next tier of recordings, the ones that truly start to give you the feel of the pressure of live performing.