Re-Imagining "Ascension"

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By Bruce Ackley

Some of us still remember record stores where one could ask to hear something they'd never heard before. Imagine, the hunger to hear undiscovered sounds...

In 1966 I was living in Cincinnati and headed to my local record shop with some friends to get some Coltrane music. I'd been listening to him for a couple of years - My Favorite Things, Ballads, his work with Miles. That day we ran head on into Ascension. We asked the clerk to play the Trane record with the radiant, shiny white cover. When that incredible wall of sound (nice try, Phil) hit the speakers everyone's hair went up on the backs of their necks and the record was prematurely yanked off the turntable.

[Parenthetical Note #1: Props here to Edith Bundy, proprietor of the Land of Hi-Fi, a record shop situated for many years behind the old Hudson's department store in downtown Detroit. A mecca for serious jazz listeners and musicians alike, this is the place that I first heard so many mind bending things upon my return to Detroit - like Braxton's For Alto, Miles' albums In a Silent Way and Nefertitti and Coltrane's Transition. There Edith introduced me to the remarkable Detroit pianist Kenny Cox, who led the Contemporary Jazz Quintet. Chance encounters in her shop with musicians helped me to understand that artists require community and need to feed their creativity with the input of their peers' work. Edith also turned me on to Charlie Haden's first Liberation Music Orchestra LP saying, "Just take it home, you'll love it. It's got everything: mariachi (it didn't), flamenco, jazz, politics, Hans Eisler, Carla Bley. If you don't like it, bring it back, no problem. ]

It took me a couple of years to get there, but by the summer of 1969 I was close enough to the Ascension record to cipher the soloists' themes, particularly those of Marion Brown, Shepp and John Tchicai. I was hearing them turn the opening Ascension line into their own songs, projected through the prism of their unique voices; this was the point of it all for me: make it your own. I continued to seek out music by each of the innovators who participated in this large scale Coltrane project - Marion Brown's Three for Shepp, Pharoah Sanders' Karma, John Tchicai's New York Art Quartet LP and anything by Archie Shepp I could find, starting with his masterpiece, On This Night. Getting inside Ascension opened me up to a world of listening, eventually pointing my way toward a practice in music making.

In the fall of 1967 I was introduced to Coltrane's album Meditations and at the same time learned about action painting, especially as practiced by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. Although Pollock and Kline had been dead for 10 years, their devotion, passion and commitment to the act of making art was revered by several of my new painter friends, one of whom would later give me my first saxophone. That de Kooning was still at it, continuing to harvest fresh catches seasonally, I found inspirational. And, the Coltrane record was a gift to my neighbor by her high school students; she played it for me in her apartment, which vibrated with several of her large abstract expressionist canvases. Here the music/art connection was made. Late Coltrane's music is action jazz - gestural, chaotic, ecstatic, wild and woolly and simply authentic from the inside out.

Even the liner notes intrigued me. The writer, A.B. Spellman called the music "a plexus of voices, all of different kinds. Shepp said, "The idea is similar to what the action painters do in that it creates various surfaces of color which push into each other, creates tensions and counter tensions and various fields of energy. He also likened it to the early jazz of New Orleans, polyphonically speaking. Alto saxophonist Marion Brown said, "You could use this record to heat up the apartment on those cold winter days. I could relate, living in an apartment building in Detroit that went halfway through the winter of 1968 without central heating. We had the stove, oven and all four burners on and repeated listenings of Ascension to keep us warm.

[P.N. #2: In October of 1970, sculptor and painter Tom Braund gave me my first sax. It was a nickel-plated C Melody horn that he dubbed "the Silver Bullet . He handed it to me in his front yard and said to come back in a month and we'd play. I did and we did. For the next 9 months Tom and I and a couple other friends got together to play for several hours 3 times a week. Nothing was planned or written; all was strictly improvised. We did two gigs. I left Detroit in May of '71, heading for San Francisco. I met and began playing with Larry Ochs less than two years later. By the fall of 1977 Rova was rehearsing for its first gig.]

Fast forward. Rova first performed Ascension in December 1995 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the piece. Using the same band configuration as Coltrane of 5 saxophones, 2 trumpets, 2 basses, piano and drums, we paid homage by playing its original form: opening theme and a string of solos separated by free blowing tutti sections peppered with strains of the theme's core harmonic material. Then we began to think about doing it differently, to really make it our own, which is the ultimate tribute. How about an electric version of Ascension with a revised form? Why not put the piece through the prism of our unique voices, using our approach to organizing sound, while using the original theme and honoring the spirit of the piece?

[P.N. #3: After our first performance of Ascension at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall, our concertmaster, the late tenor man Glen Spearman, remarked to me that we should make it our own Handel's Messiah, coming back to the piece every holiday season to mark a spiritual rebirth. Although we have not done that, our perennial return to Ascension has its roots in Glen's sentiment. And, for me, Glen has always shown up for subsequent performances.]

In 2003 Rova, joined by Fred Frith (electric bass); Nels Cline (guitars), Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman (violins), Chris Brown and Ikue Mori (computer electronics), Don Robinson (drums) and Otomo Yoshihide (turntables), performed and recorded Electric Ascension. Raskin was the concertmaster and, along with Ochs, devised a "map for the ensemble to follow, as well as a menu of optional hand signals players could use to change the course of the improvising. The 2003 concert, and the one we just did this spring with the same lineup, were both exhilarating, making evident what an enduring vehicle for improvising this composition is, with the capacity to be re-imagined over time.

Revisiting Ascension has been a reminder that to create music is to organize sound and the wealth of possibilities inherent in this rediscovery is eclipsed only by the energy and beauty generated by narrowing those possibilities with focused ideas animated by inspired improvisers.

A professional jazz musician since the early '70s, the Detroit-born soprano and tenor saxophonist Bruce Ackley has been associated with John Zorn, Henry Kaiser, Eugene Chadbourne, Miya Masaoka and most significantly with the experimental Rova saxophone quartet of which he is a founding member. This San Francisco-based multi-reed group has released nearly two dozen albums in its existence, synthesizing composition and collective improvisation and successfully fusing post-bop free jazz, avant rock and 20th century new music with traditional and popular styles of Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States. In 1997 Ackley recorded and released his sole album as leader, The Hearing (Avant). This year Rova released a 40th anniversarial interpretation of John Coltrane's seminal Ascension (Impulse!, 1965) recording, entitled Electric Ascension (Atavistic).

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