When John Coltrane put together five saxophonists, two trumpets, two basses, piano, and drums to record Ascension forty years ago, his decision would polarize the jazz world. To fans of the more traditional forms from which Coltrane emerged, the two versions of the compositionand, as free as it was, it was a compositionrepresented something akin to musical blasphemy. To listeners with a less rigid definition of what jazz wasand, more importantly, with a view of what it could bethe recording was nothing short of a monumental breakthrough.
Still, as saxophonist Larry Ochs of the ROVA saxophone quartet says in the liner notes to this new interpretation of Coltrane's groundbreaking piece, the fact that free jazz (or as Ochs prefers, "structured improvisation ) was in its infancy, meant that the players were charting new paths into unexplored territory. Forty years later, there is a large community of artists with extensive career-spanning experience in free improvisation. That doesn't make Electric Ascension better than the original, but the concept has a certain comfort level that allows this larger ensemble to more comfortably and intuitively interpret the piece, creating greater variations in instrumental combinations and a richer dynamic flow. That this form of music is now a known quantity has allowed ROVA::Orkestrova to extend the piece to over an hour in length, while still maintaining interest throughout.
While steadfast purists will still rankle at the apparent chaos, those with less fixed expectations will be captivated by Electric Ascension, which makes it clear, in the way that there is an unequivocal shape to the entire performance, that this is no random collection of sound. In addition to ROVA's four reeds, the twelve-piece ensemble includes two violins, electric guitar, electric bass, drums, and three musicians utilizing a variety of electronics, samplers, and turntables. The performancewhich begins and ends with an unmistakable themeebbs and flows, with single instruments occasionally taking the lead, while at other times various subsets of the ensemble create a diverse array of textures. There may be periods of apparent chaos, but there are also times of respite, including a beautiful duo between the two violinists, Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman.
The performance, recorded live by the adventurous KFJC-FM in Los Altos, California, clearly has an overall philosophy which informs and drives the improvisations. The liner notes provide an intended map of the piece which, while altering slightly during the actual performance, is close enough for the listener to follow along.
Forty years along, Ascension remains a seminal work in the emergence of free jazz. Electric Ascension demonstrates just how far the concept has evolved and been shaped both by years of experience and the advent of new technologies to expand its rich possibilities.
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Personnel: Rhythm and Noise: Chris Brown (electronics); Nels Cline (electric guitar); Fred Frith (electric bass); Ikue Mori (drum machine, sampler); Don Robinson (drums); Otomo Yoshihide (turntables, electronics)
Strings: Carla Kihlstedt (violin and effects); Jenny Scheinman (violin)
ROVA::Saxophones: Bruce Ackley (soprano saxophone); Steve Adams (alto saxophone); Larry Ochs (tenor saxophone); Jon Raskin (baritone saxophone)