ROVA's Electric Ascension in Philly
If there are a few genre-altering albums in the avant-garde jazz canon worthy of a postmodern update, John Coltrane’s Ascension must surely be one of them (alongside the saxophonist’s A Love Supreme and Interstellar Space, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and perhaps Pharoah Sanders’ Tauhid). The oft-lauded, occasionally despised and generally misunderstood piece incites such a polarizing reaction with its listeners—as intensely today as it did in 1965—that to undertake an adaptation of it automatically places its revisionists under close scrutiny.
ROVA Saxophone Quartet, the all-saxophone ensemble that’s been exploring jazz from its inception in the early 20th century to its commingling with avant-garde classical composition and ethnic influence, first attempted Ascension in 1996 with instrumentation similar to that of Coltrane’s original lineup. While admirable, the recording failed to expand Coltrane’s vision into new textural and combinatorial territory—the latter being arguably the most significant aspect of its improvisational possibilities. In 2003, ROVA returned to the concept with an entirely new “Electric” lineup, this time including Otomo Yoshihide on turntables and electronics, Chris Brown on electronics, Ikue Mori on drum machines and sampler, Nels Cline on electric guitar and Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat Trio, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum) and Jenny Scheinman (Bill Frisell, Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux) on violins. This ensemble and a couple variations of it have recorded an album and performed the piece live over the past few years in places such as Vancouver and Lisbon.
For their East Coast debut, at Philadelphia’s 400-capacity International House on campus at the University of Pennsylvania, ROVA (Jon Raskin on baritone, alto and sopranino; Larry Ochs [pictured] on tenor and sopranino; Bruce Ackley on soprano and tenor; and Steve Adams on alto and sopranino) were augmented by Cline, Kihlstedt and Scheinman, as well as legendary percussionist Andrew Cyrille, Trevor Dunn (from experimental metal bands Mr. Bungle and Fantomas) on electric bass, Andrea Parkins on accordion and electronics, and Marina Rosenfeld on turntables (taking Yoshihide’s difficult role). Initially, I was a bit skeptical about Dunn’s involvement in this ensemble, though this was due specifically to the electric bass’ possibilities rather than Dunn’s formidable abilities. Other than that, the combinatorial match-ups on paper screamed intrigue. Accordion vs. turntable? Electronics vs. percussion? Guitar vs. soprano sax? Coltrane undoubtedly would have embraced this inclusion of electronics and non-traditional instrumentation into the standard jazz-band format.
To understand how ROVA’s version of “Ascension” differed from the original, it is essential to first examine how much of it was improvised and how Coltrane approached conducting the direction of the piece. “Ascension” begins with a cacophonous swell of brass, as a loose theme is stated, full of staccato bursts and high-register wailing, unlike the clear motifs in most bop and hard bop compositions. The participants improvised the rest of the piece, occasionally returning to the theme every five to 10 minutes. Coltrane directed the ensemble via hand signals, and some of the instrumental and musician combinations were prearranged. Overall, “Ascension” is largely improvised, though with an important set of rules that allow a slight sense of familiarity.
ROVA—mostly conducted by Raskin and Ochs—didn’t stray too far from Coltrane’s gesticulatory methods; it was mainly in the various instrumental combinations where the piece differed from the original. The ensemble dove right in with the intense swell of horns, strings and electronics, stating the “Ascension” theme. After the introduction, the improvisation followed the pattern of Raskin or Ochs signaling to specific musicians to solo, conducting the length—and sometimes volume—of the section before rounding everyone together for the theme.
The most intriguing and provocative instrumental combinations were those that transcended the traditional brass-and-rhythm-section interaction of most jazz outfits. Kihlstedt’s violin sawed violently through the occasional auditory murk, and when Rosenfeld’s turntables joined her for a duet (with Cyrille and Dunn providing the groove), their call-and-response resulted in some truly alien sounds. The turntables proved the real wild card here, providing unidentifiable burbles and scratches as well as prerecorded sound. Cline’s breakneck flurry of notes danced around Parkins’ accordion, which struggled to keep up but succeeded in laying down a strange rhythmic foundation.
Somewhere in the middle of the set, all of the musicians dropped out and left Cyrille and Dunn to continue. Cyrille—arguably one of the finest living drummers and one of the few free-jazz pioneers still actively probing (along with Rashied Ali, Sunny Murray and Milford Graves)—was an impressive tornado of rhythm, constantly swinging and keeping things moving with irregular cymbal patterns, fills and accentuations. Dunn responded admirably with his electric bass, strumming a low-note drone while making agile runs without sounding flashy. And on it went, for about an hour, the various saxophones engaging in a sonic battle with the violins and guitar and electronics, never resting for too long before moving on to another aggregation. The effect was similar to watching a basketball game, except with the amount of players on a football field: The assortment of sounds made and the ways in which they were played were ecstatically dizzying—and a pure joy to witness.
After a brain-blasting climax of bleating density and an appreciative ovation, ROVA announced that they were going to play “After the Rain,” which at first seemed a baffling choice but afterwards made complete sense. The song began with a couple of minutes of unsure, meandering exploration, as Parkins’ electronics obnoxiously, though accidentally, blurted out loudly, overriding the other instrumentation. Rosenfeld struggled to locate a timbre or texture that complemented the pensive ballad. My skepticism was thwarted, however, as the ensemble finally discovered common ground, with the electronics and turntables actually fleshing out the song. Overall, it was a bold, aesthetic experiment that generally succeeded; ROVA must be commended for even attempting what most jazz purists would deem utter blasphemy. Fortunately, it is safe to say that the majority of those in attendance were anything but jazz purists.