November 7, 2002

From the Horse's Mouth

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Dribbling on Coltrane’s Ascension

“I’d stay up all night, writing and writing, like 25 pages of absolute dribble about, you know the faces of Coltrane.” — Lester Bangs in Almost Famous

“Put some little kids in a room with musical instruments and ask them to play as loud as they can and it probably sounds pretty close to this.”

— Review of Ascension on

I’m in a room of smoke. A room of smoke differs from a smoky room; in a room of smoke one moves by touch and ear. The sleek oval beneath my fingers is a table. A chair startles the kneecap. The patrons await; there is silence. Waitresses don’t see the raised hands requesting drinks. Somewhere hides a jazz band. A free band with a lost leader. A saxophone line finds him and there’s a gasp of harmony, but the walls reverberate and the harmony becomes simply a past brushstroke adding to the madness. The musicians discover that they can’t be seen. They play as if backstage, as if alone with others. Strained notes flood the air. The brass tools stretch like athletes pulling their limbs far beyond what competition will require. Inspiration whips the reeds; a trumpet takes a lead dressed as an atonal arthritic gypsy singing in a strange tongue with a voice so hoarse that only its aftertaste is beautiful. The circle of players is enthralled by the gypsy and resign to doing what their ancestors were content to do — accompany. The more selfless the performance — the more selfish the performer. But egos will be egos and the harmony splinters as spontaneously as it was born. The beloved gypsy losing her voice can only gasp for breath and venom. One to survive, the other to defend the pedestal. The saxophone is a strong brute, its strokes are slow and forceful, it overtakes the scene. When it fills space it ignores the voice of the displaced. It is an old insensitive giant that deftly defeats the voice of the gypsy. The trumpet of her voice is trumped to silence and melody. Suddenly the arrhythmic drum grows to a solid stampede silencing the room, painting another fleeting picture