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Highest Trane: John Coltrane’s World-Building Ascension

Climbing aloft with a controversial, "difficult" masterwork

Freddie Hubbard April 1965
Ascension’s skeleton key: Freddie Hubbard in April 1965 (photo © Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

The last time anyone had attempted anything like Ascension in jazz was five years prior: Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz session, which also featured Freddie Hubbard, whom it is time to celebrate. What I think happens with Hubbard is that people treat him as a virtuoso, but one in the hard-bop mode. He’s not fêted as a blazer of paths, and his chops are viewed as mainstream-ish. He’s a Jimmy Smith, a Hank Mobley, a Curtis Fuller, a Miles Davis lite, without the Davis-ian talent to shape bands in his image of the moment.

This is one of the biggest misconceptions in jazz. Listen to Ascension and behold Freddie Hubbard, I humbly ask of you. Coltrane isn’t stretched thin on the date, but he’s tasked himself with a lot; he’s the conductor via his playing. Look at him like a player/manager in early 19th-century baseball. Sure, you can turn the mid-innings double play at shortstop, but maybe later, in the bottom of the eighth, you’re less likely to try and steal third base. Freddie Hubbard does the real heavy lifting as a player at this session, and Coltrane rides him hard and counts on him a lot. Like Eric Dolphy, Hubbard had a penchant for showing up precisely at those times when the history of jazz changed. It’s not coincidence when you’re a huge part of the reason.

Hubbard’s solos are as daedal as spider webs, but they spit flames. I think of them as capable of melting mountainsides, and no one plays better than Hubbard on this day. Coltrane doesn’t quite hit his level. In all of jazz, this is one of the most impressive afternoons any musician has ever had. Ascension is intimidating, and a listener can fret that they need some kind of clavis, a skeleton key to help in processing it, as one does with James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, but Hubbard himself is that unlocker of mysteries. Trane is Dantean, yes, and Hubbard is trumpet-Virgil.

He helps humanize Ascension, which has the process of humanization built into those very charts that Coltrane handed out. A Love Supreme was a confession of faith, and one might assume at its close that ascendancy—that act of rising above what one had been—is a done deal, a simple ceremony. Less journey, more arrival. The clapping of hands and tipping of halos.

Coltrane was smarter than this, though. Nowhere is the fight for transformation and self-knowledge more dramatic or dogged than in its final phase, which is also a transitional phase to a new start. Ascension simply makes the gnomic feel writ large and universal. The face-melting volume is a boon. One listens and feels as if doing so from inside of an engine, but for this day in the early summer of 1965, that engine is the human soul. And what a roar of humanness this is.


The rotation of the soloists was determined by what you primarily were. That is, the sound-blasters and painters were balanced out by the guys who worked from organized chords and motivic structure. Think of it as representational artists following non-representational artists, or organizing a batting order to unfurl lefty-righty-lefty-righty, and so forth.

The juxtaposition accounts for a certain amount of musical realism. Life, after all, is a series of balancing acts, of stylized blending and making incongruity into something workable. Anyone who’s ever had a family can connect with that. The music is both demotic and democratic; every musician appears to have equal voice to the extent of his capabilities. That Ascension resounds as bigger than big-band speaks to the potency of those voices, and of the ensemble passages in particular.

We have a form of call and response, but the latter is freighted with extemporization. Again, this is how we talk. We respond to what’s presented to us and add what we add: a statement, a question, a tone, a certain inflection. On Ascension, Coltrane gives us community, but community whose abiding strength is the voice of the individual, which is another reason—that push-pull contrast and the attempt at harmony—for the record’s funicular resonance. The tension is tense, but the tension, one feels in one’s bones, is worth it. In short, Ascension is the record that, more than any other, says, “This is why we are here.”

Elvin Jones December 1964
The communal soloist: Elvin Jones in December 1964 (photo © Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

Coltrane didn’t sit around and wait for inspiration to hit. The superior artists never do.

Ah, but what take of Ascension would be there for listeners? The take that was called Edition I appeared on the initial release in February 1966, and was swapped out not long after for Edition II. You can headhunt differences for a lifetime the way people pick out the various treasures in the warehouse at the end of Citizen Kane. One key difference is that Edition II lacks an Elvin Jones solo, but don’t be fooled or disappointed by this, because his playing within the context of what everyone else was doing is a solo itself. A communal solo, in which the blending of contrasts is everything. A tense Elvin Jones was also an efficacious Elvin Jones; he brings what we call big energy. That he’s pissed isn’t exactly awful.


A month later, at the end of July, the Coltrane Quartet was in the midst of a one-week string of gigs in Europe, when they tried out, for the only time, small-band versions of Ascension (titled “Blue Valse”) in Antibes and Paris. Jones has calmed himself—I suspect because he’s ascended, after a fashion, to appreciating what had been realized a few weeks prior.

The scaled-back Ascension is a clear blues, a limpid piece of work that always sounds to me as if a few participants in a dynamic conversation have repaired to some café afterwards to have a chat about all they’d just witnessed and heard.

These are friends with differences, some of which won’t be silted over. The old gang has said what needed saying, and the challenge now is to find the best ways of imparting what needs to be heard. Cue another round of the perpetual search for the new mission statement that itself will in turn be built from and upon, a key contributor in a process of ascendancy.


You might call it forever building to Ascension. We go there, and then we go again, differently, for such is the Coltrane way.

John Coltrane’s Lost Album

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature, current events—for a wide range of publications, and talks regularly on radio and podcasts. His most recent books are an entry in the 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, a volume about the 1951 film Scrooge as the ultimate work of cinematic terror, and the story collection, If You [ ]: Fabula, Fantasy, F**kery, Hope. Find him on the web at (where he maintains the unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.