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Re-Imagining "Ascension"

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By Bruce Ackley

Some of us still remember record stores where one could ask to hear something they'd never heard before. Imagine, the hunger to hear undiscovered sounds...

In 1966 I was living in Cincinnati and headed to my local record shop with some friends to get some Coltrane music. I'd been listening to him for a couple of years - My Favorite Things, Ballads, his work with Miles. That day we ran head on into Ascension. We asked the clerk to play the Trane record with the radiant, shiny white cover. When that incredible wall of sound (nice try, Phil) hit the speakers everyone's hair went up on the backs of their necks and the record was prematurely yanked off the turntable.

[Parenthetical Note #1: Props here to Edith Bundy, proprietor of the Land of Hi-Fi, a record shop situated for many years behind the old Hudson's department store in downtown Detroit. A mecca for serious jazz listeners and musicians alike, this is the place that I first heard so many mind bending things upon my return to Detroit - like Braxton's For Alto, Miles' albums In a Silent Way and Nefertitti and Coltrane's Transition. There Edith introduced me to the remarkable Detroit pianist Kenny Cox, who led the Contemporary Jazz Quintet. Chance encounters in her shop with musicians helped me to understand that artists require community and need to feed their creativity with the input of their peers' work. Edith also turned me on to Charlie Haden's first Liberation Music Orchestra LP saying, "Just take it home, you'll love it. It's got everything: mariachi (it didn't), flamenco, jazz, politics, Hans Eisler, Carla Bley. If you don't like it, bring it back, no problem. ]

It took me a couple of years to get there, but by the summer of 1969 I was close enough to the Ascension record to cipher the soloists' themes, particularly those of Marion Brown, Shepp and John Tchicai. I was hearing them turn the opening Ascension line into their own songs, projected through the prism of their unique voices; this was the point of it all for me: make it your own. I continued to seek out music by each of the innovators who participated in this large scale Coltrane project - Marion Brown's Three for Shepp, Pharoah Sanders' Karma, John Tchicai's New York Art Quartet LP and anything by Archie Shepp I could find, starting with his masterpiece, On This Night. Getting inside Ascension opened me up to a world of listening, eventually pointing my way toward a practice in music making.

In the fall of 1967 I was introduced to Coltrane's album Meditations and at the same time learned about action painting, especially as practiced by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. Although Pollock and Kline had been dead for 10 years, their devotion, passion and commitment to the act of making art was revered by several of my new painter friends, one of whom would later give me my first saxophone. That de Kooning was still at it, continuing to harvest fresh catches seasonally, I found inspirational. And, the Coltrane record was a gift to my neighbor by her high school students; she played it for me in her apartment, which vibrated with several of her large abstract expressionist canvases. Here the music/art connection was made. Late Coltrane's music is action jazz - gestural, chaotic, ecstatic, wild and woolly and simply authentic from the inside out.

Even the liner notes intrigued me. The writer, A.B. Spellman called the music "a plexus of voices, all of different kinds. Shepp said, "The idea is similar to what the action painters do in that it creates various surfaces of color which push into each other, creates tensions and counter tensions and various fields of energy. He also likened it to the early jazz of New Orleans, polyphonically speaking. Alto saxophonist Marion Brown said, "You could use this record to heat up the apartment on those cold winter days. I could relate, living in an apartment building in Detroit that went halfway through the winter of 1968 without central heating. We had the stove, oven and all four burners on and repeated listenings of Ascension to keep us warm.

[P.N. #2: In October of 1970, sculptor and painter Tom Braund gave me my first sax. It was a nickel-plated C Melody horn that he dubbed "the Silver Bullet . He handed it to me in his front yard and said to come back in a month and we'd play. I did and we did. For the next 9 months Tom and I and a couple other friends got together to play for several hours 3 times a week. Nothing was planned or written; all was strictly improvised. We did two gigs. I left Detroit in May of '71, heading for San Francisco. I met and began playing with Larry Ochs less than two years later. By the fall of 1977 Rova was rehearsing for its first gig.]

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