January 17, 2016
Winter Jazzfest concluded with the New York City premiere of Rova Saxophone Quartet’s Electric Ascension, a 21st-century reincarnation of John Coltrane’s Ascension—Trane’s 1965 paean to freedom and expression. Electric Ascension brought together an all-star cast of improvisers to channel the spirit of Coltrane’s seminal album, which Coltrane himself never performed live.
Ascension is a difficult album. It is where Coltrane threw all the rules out the window, freeing himself from his rhythm section and inviting his band to improvise to depths not yet explored in the burgeoning landscape of mid-’60s avant-jazz. It is in this spirit that Electric Ascension succeeds. Instead of a note-for-note recreation, Rova’s interpretation adds a new chapter to an ongoing spiritual journey.
Coltrane originally wrote Ascension for eleven musicians—a collection of saxophonists, trumpeters, a pianist, and a rhythm section. Rova has been experimenting with interpretations of Ascension since the mid-‘90s, and each performance varies greatly. Rova continually brings in different players to add new sounds and textures, making each show truly a one-off and also true to the life of the original composition. Alongside the quartet, nine additional musicians graced the stage of (Le) Poisson Rouge, most notably the guitarist Nels Cline, who added the most electric element to the set. The other significant additions that evening were two violinists; the excellent Zeena Parkins was on electric harp; and there were two musicians on soundboard electronics. The major subtraction from the original was the lack of a pianist.
Although it was a crowded stage, the performance began with a sense of clarity: the recognizable first section from the original album, itself a nod to Coltrane’s modal roots. As free and loose as the performance trended at times, Rova certainly has a distinct sense of measure in its approach. Acting as the de facto conductors of the band, the members of Rova use a system called “Radar”—a series of hand signals used to conduct improvisation—to lead the band, piece by piece, through the performance. For instance, a chopping motion means “move on to the next section,” and a hand made into a circle is an invitation for open improvisation. Throughout the performance, the leaders continually used different symbols to string everything together.
Electric Ascension roared on for over an hour in total. Though the temptation was to completely give in to the sheer ferocity of the brilliant cacophony of sounds, the subtleties were the most interesting aspects of the experience. In such a setting, it is of the utmost importance that the musicians hear one another, while they either wait patiently for their turn to solo or join in on the group interplay. To watch these skilled improvisers make decisions on the fly, whether by cue or by feeling, was a treat. The tension between the group improvisations and the individual solos makes Ascension such an exhilarating listen, and this band exquisitely captured those sublime moments with aplomb. Of particular focus was the guitar playing of Cline, who I initially worried would overpower the rest of the group with his aggressive approach. But Cline’s textured playing was the ideal centerpiece, adding the requisite sheets of sound that gave the performance so much of its color and vivacity. The tireless efforts of Gerald Cleaver on drums also added a necessary sense of gravity by which the piece, ever threatening to lift into the cosmos, could be tethered to the field of sound and rhythm.
Ascension is an album that breaks down the hierarchy of the traditional jazz ensemble. That is to say, each musician in Coltrane’s original band and in Rova’s electrified version takes on a level of responsibility not often seen in jazz ensembles. The responsibility here is not to notes, but to a collective state of consciousness—each player taking the free will to play in response to what they are hearing, and most importantly to play to what they are feeling. This set up allows for so much freedom. On the night of Rova’s performance, feverish violin solos were followed by spacey electronics, which were followed by fiery trumpet interplay. It was an aural feast, which always felt like it was entering some totally new terrain. One is hard-pressed to find a better platform for improvising than John Coltrane’s Ascension, and the hope is that Rova’s Electric Ascension continues to add new spiritual paths to Coltrane’s meditation.
Those who missed the performance will be pleased to know that, in January, Rova released a DVD package called Channeling Coltrane which contains both a live performance of Electric Ascension and a short documentary called Cleaning the Mirror, which provides vital context for Rova’s work with Ascension (Rogueart 2016).