I just finished an excellent book — Eric Nisenson’s Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest. Most impressive about this book is the fact that while Nisenson is clearly a huge Coltrane fan, he doesn’t let his adoration of the man and his music blunt his critical edge. I am also a big fan of the general thrust of this book; rather than trying to be a comprehensive biography, it focuses on what Coltrane was trying to accomplish with his music, describing the constant progression that embodied Coltrane’s oeuvre and trying to explain where that impetus for progress came from. If anything, I wish Nisenson had delved deeper into Coltrane’s spirituality, because obviously that spirituality is at the center of Coltrane’s “quest.” Perhaps that would be an impossible task, but maybe not — after all, Alice Coltrane is still alive and well, and as Nisenson says himself, shared her husband’s spiritual journey. Why the author apparently conducted no interview with Alice Coltrane is mystifying to me; it seems that, given that she holds a celebration of her husband’s life and work each year, she would be more than willing to talk about him.
Nisenson’s discourse on Coltrane’s body of work itself is excellent. He doesn’t go into in-depth analysis of any given album or performance, but manages to touch on all the major works in the context of Coltrane’s broader stylistic phases. His writing is compelling readable, moreso than most overviews of this sort that I’ve read. My only real gripes are with the final chapter, “After the Trane,” in which Nisenson gives his thoughts on the state of jazz post-Coltrane. Nisenson’s insistence that no truly pathbreaking jazz flagbearer has emerged after Coltrane’s death is probably spot-on, but also probably misses the point. After the 60s, after all, jazz fragmented into all sorts of new directions (Nisenson touches on fusion but little else), making it almost impossible for a real “flagbearer” to come into existence. The time of the standard-bearing jazz icon is past, but that doesn’t necessarily say anything about the state of jazz today other than that “jazz” itself has become a more diffuse concept. (Hello Wynton Marsalis.)
Also, Nisenson has a weird attitude towards rock. He acknowledges that some of the musicians that have best carried on Coltrane’s spirit have been in rock (namely, Jimi Hendrix). He acknowledges that some rock bands use improvisational techniques that follow on the jazz tradition in general and Coltrane’s legacy in particular. He says that he is a fan of much pop/rock. But then, in his discussion of fusion, he turns his nose up at rock and exhibits a kind of snobbish genre superiority so unfortunately common among fans of musical forms that have pretentions of “seriousness” (i.e., jazz, Western art music, and, yes, progressive rock). Finally, he says nary a word about much in the way of avant-rock (which is understandable) or the modern wave of avant-jazz (which is less so, although in this book’s defense, it was written in the mid-1990s, when it was probably much less clear that there were very exciting contemporary things going on in underground avant-garde “jazz”).
Regardless of these faults, this is still a book I highly recommend to anyone even remotely interested in Coltrane. He’s a fascinating figure and this book does his legacy justice.