It's not often to be expected that John Coltrane might headline a jazz festival, at least not for some time nowor perhaps in spirit he headlines most of them. Either way, his presence was strongly felt during the Jazz em Agosto festival, held on the beautiful grounds of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Portugal. Besides a screening of The Sound of Miles Davis, a television broadcast from 1959 featuring Coltrane in the Miles Davis Quintet and the Gil Evans Orchestra, and a talk by Larry Appelbaum, the Library of Congress archivist who discovered the Monk/Coltrane recording released by Blue Note last year, the 12th installment of the Lisbon festival included a talk by British saxophonist Evan Parker about Coltrane's technique and legacy and an updating of Trane by the ROVA quartet. ROVA opened the festival with their remarkable Electric Ascension, a reworking of the Coltrane's 1965 free jazz landmark. The saxophone quartet was augmented by Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Fred Frith on electric bass, Nels Cline on electric guitar, Otomo Yoshihide on turntables, Andrea Parkins on accordion and keyboards, Thomas Lehn on electronics, Tom Rainey on drums and violinists Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman. The suite varies in personnel and tone from one performance to the next, but this time they opened electric, with distant thunder from Nels Cline's guitar as the wind picked up in the outdoor theater, then the low drone of Fred Frith's bass, static from Otomo Yoshihide and Thomas Lehn, and then Andrea Parkins's accordion. The backline filled out, horns overlaying the five-note theme, huge and unhurried, not just stating the phrase but stating the purpose. The visual of the wind metaphor is not to be understatedLarry Ochs's white locks blew as if from the band's own electrical storm as he took the first solo. They rode the full band theme for a good while before breaking into what made ROVA's second Ascension pertinent, the radical reinterpretations by smaller subsections. Initially it was the backline again, with Cline (who has also thrown down on Trane's Interstellar Space a few years back) pushed it over. The improv world has opened up to a much wider variety of sound and subterfuge since 1965, and so it only makes sense 30 years later to open Coltrane's magnum opus up to turntables, electronics, electric guitar andwhy not?accordion. Coltrane's piece was about the limits of possibility to begin with, and while those limits have been stretched in the ensuing years, they can, and should, still be challenged. Doing less would be a slap to his vision. It was hard not to think of Coltrane during Evan Parker's solo set, especially in light of the talk he was to give the next day, but it was also hard to think of Trane, his lines in contrast with Parker's circles, Trane's overblowing at risk of drowning out Parker's tidier multiphonics in the mind's ear, even if the improvisations were laced with Trane's themes. He even began his talk by playing "One Up, One Down" on soprano, stating the theme and then rolling it into speedy circles, drawing the line he'd dotted the day before.
During his talk, he recalled his early listening to Coltrane, and seeing Trane with Eric Dolphy in his band in 1961, calling it "a revelation, it was Coltrane in the moment."
Parker also speculated about how Britons might reacted to the fire of Trane's latter years had a 1966 European tourwhich would have been his second opportunity to see the legendnot been canceled. "It's hard to imagine what the response would have been in England," he said. "I'm fairly sure it would have been hostileit was maybe a step too far for many people."
ROVA's Larry Ochs appeared again with Frith (this time on electric guitar) and percussionist Le Quan Ninh. Frith quickly put to rest any idea that it would be the quiet sort of gig Le Quan's presence might have suggested, and within minutes the trio built into a hellish parade, Ochs with his sopranino as grand marshall, Le Quan's bass drum laid on its side emitting thunderous rhythm, Frith as the rest of the band going past in a slow but frenzied blur. They didn't stay there long, of course, Frith is fond of either pulling the rug out from under or putting up drapes to match whatever was happening a minute before. He and Le Quan played some heavy rock, some glacial noise, even moments of upbeat country and pensive blues, with Ochs often content to sit out.