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Rova Channeling Coltrane: Electric Ascension

John Sharpe By

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John Coltrane's Ascension (Impulse, 1965) stands as a seminal moment in the development of modern jazz, presenting structured large group improvisation which renounced both the form and content of almost all previous models. It was never performed live, and this was one of the facts which initially captured the attention of the now venerable Rova Saxophone Quartet, who have explored the work on multiple occasions. First was John Coltrane's Ascension (Black Saint, 1997) a fairly faithful homage which mirrored the original instrumentation and format. That was followed in 2003 by the first Electric Ascension (Atavistic), which dispensed with the classic line up and added electric bass and guitar, violins and electronics for a much more contemporary interpretation which for much of the time sounded little like its progenitor.

Now the French Rogue Art imprint has issued a three disc CD/DVD/Blu-Ray package, centered upon the tenth rendition of the piece, at the 2012 Guelph Festival. The presentation showcases a 12-strong all star cast which supplements the core ROVA foursome with Hamid Drake's drums, Fred Frith's electric bass, Nels Cline's electric guitar, the electronics of Chris Brown and Ikue Mori, Rob Mazurek's trumpet, and the violins of Jenny Scheinman and Carla Kihlstedt. After a scene-setting prelude of drifting effects from drums, guitar and electronics, Larry Ochs leads the ensemble through Coltrane's spine-tingling theme, and cuts loose as first among equals in the subsequent group discourse.

Thereafter the 66-minute performance replaces the rotating sequence of solos and group chorales of the original with something more fluid as it opens out for a series of solo, duo and trio interactions with varying degrees of orchestral interjection. Exciting dense group textures alternate with more intimate subgroupings which allow the talents of the collaborators to shine in seemingly freeform situations. The seamless handovers appear organic, but prove to be scripted in the arrangement by Ochs and Jon Raskin, to ensure that everyone gets to play their part.

What ROVA does is take Trane's conception as a loose blueprint from which to investigate group interplay without the constraints of thematic material and blur the boundary between lead and support through guided improv. Among the many highlights are Cline's frenetic guitar feature, and the compelling timbral exchange between Raskin's baritone, Mazurek's muted cornet and Drake's drum set. Another comes with Steve Adams' coruscating alto saxophone, ably abetted by Frith and Drake, before becoming subsumed into a glorious cacophony.

The DVD brings the whole enterprise into sharp focus. It clarifies who plays what and also entertains and engages through showing how particular sounds and combinations are made. That's helpful with someone like Cline who uses an array of implements and effects. Three different cameras operate unobtrusively and offer varying perspectives from whole stage to close up, usually concentrating on the right people at the right time (sometimes a challenge for those filming in such circumstances).

Also included on the DVD is "Cleaning The Mirror"—a 45-minute documentary by John Rogers about Electric Ascension, based around shows at the Sons d'Hiver Festival in Paris in 2007 and at the Saalfelden Jazz Festival in Austria in 2009. It mixes vignettes of individual musicians, interviews, rehearsals, and snippets of the actual performances, as well as a potted history which sets the context for Coltrane's masterwork. Among those questioned is Art Davis, who offers insights into the actual 1965 session. The film serves as the perfect complement to the concert footage, as it exposes both the mechanics and the magic of the ROVA's reimagining for the 21st century.

Track Listing: Disc 1 (DVD): Electric Ascension; Cleaning The Mirror; Disc 2 (Blu-Ray): Electric Ascension; Disc 3 (CD): Electric Ascension.

Personnel: Bruce Ackley: soprano saxophone; Steve Adams: alto saxophone; Larry Ochs: tenor saxophone; Jon Raskin: baritone saxophone; Chris Brown: electronics; Nels Cline: electric guitar; Hamid Drake: drums; Fred Frith: electric bass; Carla Kihlstedt: violin, electronics; Rob Mazurek: cornet, electronics; Ikue Mori: electronics; Jenny Scheinman: violin.

Title: Electric Ascension | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Rogue Art


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