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ROVA Channeling Coltrane: Electric Ascension

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Ascension served as John Coltrane’s line in the sand when it was released in 1966. Those who sought greater musical enlightenment embraced the album-length piece, performed by the saxophonist in a horn-heavy ensemble of 11. On the other side of the line, some shaking their heads in disgust, were the Trane fans who preferred “After the Rain” or his first “My Favorite Things.” But the bold move has withstood the test of time.

ROVA, the San Francisco-based saxophone quartet, has staged a new arrangement of “Electric Ascension” on several occasions with a larger ensemble, and released one of them in 2005. The new performance, from the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival, features some of those same players: guitarist Nels Cline, bassist Fred Frith, electronics manipulators Chris Brown and Ikue Mori and violinists Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman. New to the project are Rob Mazurek (cornet, electronics) and Hamid Drake (drums). After a few opening minutes of electronic bleeps and scrapes, ROVA tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs cops a raspy, Pharoah Sanders-type tone and cues the theme.

The framework, arranged by Ochs and baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin, uses the original riff and brief chord changes, but what happens beyond that is purely the work of the performers. This version-a good half-hour longer than the preferred master-begins with a good deal of ensemble wailing before the music breaks off into a series of duets, trios and solo passages. While one of the complaints leveled at Coltrane’s piece involved the continuous “assault” of horn players, this version features equal amounts of tranquility and free blowing. The most telling moment arrives around 30 minutes in, when Cline withholds his skronking tendencies and joins Kihlstedt for a gentle interlude that straddles optimism and melancholy. Throughout, Drake switches between sticks, brushes and hands, to accentuate the mood. Bassist Frith also serves as a solid anchor while others cut loose.

RogueArt has released the live CD in tandem with both a DVD and Blu-ray of the same performance. The DVD also includes the John Rogers documentary Cleaning the Mirror, which features interviews with past and present musical participants in Electric Ascension. This is really the best place to start with the package, to gain an appreciation of the composition and the ensemble. Comments from bassist Art Davis (who played on the Coltrane session) and drummer Andrew Cyrille connect the current version to the original. Viewing the performance, captured with five cameras, provides a better understanding of what everyone contributes to the music. By the time the closing theme comes around, it seems as if no one wants the performance to end, so enraptured are they by the music. Half a century later, Ascension still requires a major investment from listeners, but it pays serious dividends.

Originally Published