John Coltrane - "Ascent (Take 1, Complete Version)" (Sun Ship: The Complete Session)
“You can go into that later … But I think it’d be better to keep it pressing so … keep a thing happening all through.” John Coltrane’s voice maintains its usual calm, the laconic drawl we know from interviews, as he instructs the band. It is August 26, 1965, and Coltrane and his classic quartet — Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner — are recording the album that would come to be known as Sun Ship when posthumously released in 1971. That fragment of studio chatter is the only one on the original release, and it goes some way toward defining Coltrane’s aesthetic of the succeeding two years — continuous and dynamically stable sound from the rhythm section over which he would emote with musical fragments, or atoms.
With Verve’s release of what survives of the session, we now know that Coltrane is actually speaking to Garrison about his bowing, and that it precedes immediately the second take of “Dearly Beloved,” not the fourth, which was chosen for the original album. Verve’s new double-disc set elucidates this and other important aspects of what may be one of the quartet’s most forward-looking sessions.
Nineteen sixty five was a pivotal year: for New York culture, for improvised music, and for the quartet. The climate of division, despair and rage following Malcolm X’s February assassination was reflected in the arts. Just listen to “Black Art,” the incendiary track from Sonny Murray’s Sonny’s Time Now, to hear the transformation of Amiri Baraka from beat poet to radical, as Albert Ayler screams ascent. Disagreements about whether or not to take jazz out of the marketplace into independent ownership, so similar to the questions of exploitation and separatism that had been central to Malcolm X’s pre-pilgrimage philosophy, caused the disillusion of the multiracial and intergender Jazz Composers’ Guild by April. The sea changes in sociopolitics were encapsulated in New York’s rapidly changing improvised music scene, spearheaded by the young talents Coltrane was embracing — Ayler, Archie Shepp, John Tchicai and Marion Brown, to name only a handful of the “new thing” musicians in his orbit. Yet, Coltrane joined neither guild nor Black nationalists. His response to the turmoil seems to be in his titles, as he began to use the positive appellations of his final period around this time.
In tandem with these myriad reconsiderations, Sun Ship constituted both a beginning and ending for Coltrane’s long-standing group. They were riding high on the success of A Love Supreme, released the previous February, but drastic changes were also in progress on the group front. Coltrane’s interest in larger ensembles, first documented for Impulse! on 1961’s Africa/Brass and the Village Vanguard sessions, was being revived; an augmented version of the group recorded the landmark Ascension in June of 1965, which was to set the creative music world ablaze after its 1966 release. Within the quartet, all was not well, as can be heard in a problematic performance of “My Favorite Things” from 1965’s Newport Jazz Festival, in which Coltrane is clearly embracing the timbral and motivic universes of Sun Ra and Albert Ayler, leaving the rest of his quartet floundering uncharacteristically — listen to Jones dragging at key moments — while he travels the spaceways.
Whether or not a conscious summation, the material comprising Sun Ship is a kind of compromise, some of it reminiscent of A Love Supreme’s more meditative or conventionally swinging moments and some pointing the way forward toward the more challenging structures of Meditations and Expression. The first composition to be recorded, “Dearly Beloved,” pits a blues-inflected minor-mode melody against a peaceful backdrop of cymbal washes, malletted toms and harpish piano arpeggios. By way of complete contrast, the title track roils with activity, emerging full force from one of those jagged motivic fragments that inform much of the music from Coltrane’s last two years. Midway between these two extremes lies “Attaining,” another oceanic meditation that begins in minor mode, and then is flavored with the chromatic key changes that would define pieces like “Expression” or “Offering.” “Ascent” and “Amen” swing with the intensity of A Love Supreme’s inner two movements, but “Amen” sports a repeated melodic fragment that is then subjected to wild rhythmic permutations.
Apart from the 1959 “Giant Steps” material in the Heavyweight Champion box set, this is the most complete Coltrane studio session to be released. There are breakdowns, alternate takes and fascinating studio chatter. We learn, for example, that Garrison’s first impulse was to use the bow under “Dearly Beloved”’s melody, but Coltrane dissuades him from it. We are also privy to the quartet figuring out how to transition from Garrison’s bass solo in “Ascent” with the proper feel. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that, despite this material not being released until 1971, the track names are mainly supplied by John, not by Alice Coltrane as with other posthumous releases.
Whatever problems dogged the quartet are out of earshot for this session. The atmosphere is relaxed, most evident in one exchange before “Ascent,” where we find out that Garrison is responsible for the tune. He hasn’t got a name for it, and Jones wryly suggests “F You.” Coltrane and producer Bob Thiele have some fun, with the latter adding “-sion” to Coltrane’s proposed title and getting a chuckled “No, not that one.” The playing is breathtaking; the quartet is firing on all cylinders, turning in performances of boundless energy and commitment. The official Sun Ship recordings from 1971 were spliced together from these various takes, but each track on The Complete Session could have stood on its own, so powerful is the group dynamic. It’s amazing that this session was not released immediately, but, as David Wild’s liner notes state, given the amount of excellent material taped in that watershed year of 1965, some of it had to wait, high quality not withstanding.
Though there would be only one more quartet session to follow — a version of the Meditations suite — there was no sign that by early 1966, the members would go their separate ways. Sun Ship is a monument to the classic quartet’s vitality and telepathy, one that this set allows us to see in panoramic view.