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Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest Hardcover – October, 1993

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

Saxophonist Coltrane was one of the most influential and widely imitated jazz musicians. Nisenson ( 'Round About Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis , Dial Pr., 1983) places his subject's often difficult music in the artistic and social context of the 1960s, arguing that Coltrane wanted to reach and inspire, not alienate. While praising Coltrane for not staying with any style for long, Nisenson admits that he grew so involved in his music that he left many listeners bewildered. He points to the recording Ascension as an "audacious failure." Nisenson reviews the literature of Coltrane criticisms and helps newcomers by describing representative recordings from Coltrane's early, middle, and late periods. This responsible contribution to the Coltrane literature is recommended for large and small collections.
- Paul Baker, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

This is not a formal biography of the great saxophonist John Coltrane but rather an articulation of the passions, ideas, and experiences that inspired his revolutionary music. Having said that, however, we must also say that Nisenson does, in fact, present us with a sensitive and vivid portrait of Coltrane as he progressed from a "journeyman bopper" addicted to alcohol and heroin to a profoundly spiritual "warrior" seeking knowledge of God through the making of music. Nisenson tracks not only Coltrane's career as an accomplished but not terribly original tenor saxophonist during the mid-1950s to his intensely fertile apprenticeships with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis but also his success in kicking the drug habit, his mastery of the soprano saxophone, his fascination with chords and harmony that lead to his incomparable "sheets of sound," and his immersion in the trance-inducing musical traditions of Africa and India. Nisenson's striking descriptions of the music of Coltrane and insights into his obsessions and sense of mission add up to indisputable evidence of Coltrane's pivotal role in transforming America's artistic and social consciousness. Coltrane traveled an immense spiritual and aesthetic distance in the last decade of his short life, often leaving his listeners behind in his quest for music that "reflected the universe." Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 278 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; First Edition edition (October 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312098383
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312098384
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,928,877 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Tyler Smith on March 17, 2003
Format: Paperback
Too often the words written about the career of John Coltrane lapse into idolatry or overanalysis. Biographies by J.C. Thomas and Cuthbert Simpkins lack a sense of critical judgment, while Bill Cole's work is fine for the musician but difficult for the lay listener. Frank Kofsky's "Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music," meanwhile, attempted to put Coltrane's music in a political framework he never intended.
Eric Nisenson's "Ascension," refreshingly, focuses on Coltrane's music, attempting to understand not only where it came from but also the extent of its influence on jazz since the saxophonist's death in 1967. Nisenson is clearly a fan of the music, but to his credit, his admiration does not cloud his critical judgment.
One important accomplishment of Nisenson's book is to establish a context for Coltrane's creativity and his late-life forays into free jazz. He revisits Coltrane's early life in North Carolina, where he grew up in relatively comfortable surroundings, exposed to the music of the church and of his father, a tailor and amateur musician. Nisenson also emphasizes Coltrane's early apprenticeships with Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, Cleanhead Vinson and his time in Philadelphia, a hothouse of jazz playing that produced many an important contemporary, including Lee Morgan, Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath.
In addition, Nisenson thoroughly explores Coltrane's important time with Miles Davis, during which he mastered not only his chordal approach but also the modal approach to music and improvisation that Miles took on with "Kind of Blue." And he thoroughly documents Trane's later interest in the Eastern, African and other world music, which strongly influenced many of his albums as a leader.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Sam Adams on June 22, 2009
Format: Paperback
John Coltrane lived from 1926 to 1967.

The author warns that "although the most important facts of Coltrane's life are contained within, this is not a formal biography of John Coltrane. This book is an attempt to understand the ideas and passions behind Coltrane's music, music that even his detractors concede was unique in its intensity and its effect, both on listeners and fellow musicians." (p. ix) On the same page are listed three biographies available at the time (1993): J. C. Thomas' 1975 Chasin' The Trane, C. O. Simpkins' 1975 Coltrane: A Biography, and Bill Cole's 1976 John Coltrane: John Coltrane. "While none of these books is completely satisfactory, the Thomas book is the most thorough." (p. ix)

If I were limited to listening to only one musician for the rest of my life, I'd choose the complete works of John Coltrane. Having only that, the music I'd miss most would be string quartets, but I'd choose Coltrane first. This is the first book on him I've read. When I bought it, used, there was next to it a copy of Cole's book. Comparing the two, I chose this. The next day, at another used bookstore, I found a copy of Thomas' book and bought that. I have not seen the other books. I'm actually more than halfway through Thomas' book as I write this review, and I prefer this book to that one.
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17 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 11, 1997
Format: Paperback
It is difficult, I believe, to write a biography about a man such as John Coltrane without annoying the reader. When listening to John Coltrane, one person responds to a slight turn of notes, a particular sound heard. Two people probably respond to different turns and different sounds from one another, yet the music is nonetheless moving. In regards to this book, I find the author's discussions on what John Coltrane must have been thinking to be particularly irritating. Who truly knows what somebody is thinking? How can you take music, a nonrepresentative form of art, and conclude that a concrete thought is represented or a specific notion is held in mind? I would argue that you can't. This occurs throughout this book and is unsettling.
Most interesting about this biography is the subject matter, if one knows the music. John Coltrane must be listened to again and again to be felt, especially for one who is unfamiliar with jazz. Then, one unexpected day, you might hear a phrase lasting 1 second in the middle of a ten minute solo which will change the way you listen to music. For the tribute and information, I rate this book above average. For the psychoanalysis and often harsh criticism of other artists, I would hold back praise.
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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 27, 1997
Format: Paperback
Not a replacement for the classics focused on Coltrane's personal life, nor a complete exploration of the relationship between Muslim militancy and 'Trane's music, but easily the best, most holistic treatment of the musical and sociological/spiritual factors working through Coltrane's music. In addition to being the best-written book on Coltrane's *music* (rather than focusing on his personal life), brief excursions exploring other significant figures (not just the likes of Miles and Ornette but people like Sun Ra and Albert Ayler) place Coltrane's ground-breaking and timeless work into perspective
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