Reimagining John Coltrane's Ascension

  Electric Ascencion Channeling Coltrane band in Guelph, Canada at 2012 Guelph Jazz festival. Photo by Barry Thomson.

Famed for its monumental scale and raw emotional power, John Coltrane’s Ascension has been reimagined in electrifying style by Rova Saxophone Quartet, ideally to be performed by a “dream team” of master improvisers.

Click here for a few excerpts from the 2012 performance of Electric Ascension at the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival in Canada… This short excerpt includes 2 minutes of the ensemble,  a Nels Cline solo section, and a ballad section led by Carla Kihlstedt on violin. It ends with Coltrane’s Ascension theme. (Total time = 6 mins)

Rova Channeling Coltrane is a special DVD/Blu-ray/CD package produced by the Paris jazz label Rogue Art — released January 15, 2016 in the USA.Electric Ascension (DVD / BluRay / CD).  The package is available from Rova:Arts

A very special work that was once considered an uncompromising concentration of sounds is now welcomed as music to open and close major-city jazz festivals. While the electric arrangement is part of this transformation, it’s more that listeners in this time period have caught up to and now can hear the original intent of the work.

For any Electric Ascension performance, Rova’s Larry Ochs gathers together a group of daring improvisers whose own musics are created with the same spirit of exploration and innovation. It is not Rova’s intention to replicate the original Ascension recording, but rather to use it as a springboard to improvise in this special moment of the creative continuum. So Rova’s arrangement has gone electric, and electronic. And Rova have chosen to employ masters of free improvisation --- musicians who, in general, have spent years learning how to listen and how to respond, and who understand intuitively when to play lead roles and when to play support or orchestral roles in a group improvisation.

True to Coltrane’s intentions, the sonic landscape of Electric Ascension changes with every performance, depending on the cast of musicians, and the tenor of the moment. Expect this band to take the music to places it has never been before.

Nels Cline tears it up

“By the time the final head comes in, Electric Ascension has a deep structure that reshapes any notion of musical freedom... a new guttural language that defines its own canon of beauty as it goes along. Coltrane's Ascension is a magnificent torso, an unfinished carving. Forget all those mimsy, respectful‚ reworkings of A Love Supreme that clogged the market and the festival programmes a year or two back. Set aside ROVA's first version of this as confidently as Coltrane tried to set aside the "wrong" take. This is Ascension’s long-waited apotheosis and a masterpiece of the truest kind. “ - Brian Morton, The Wire

” Rova, with its inspired Orkestrova, engages Coltrane's uncompromising compositional attitude and boundaries, pushing with its own sense of informed and masterful improvisation. This marrying of great minds and souls is what makes Electric Ascension such a great triumph. This time Coltrane's music not only heats the nearby atmosphere but also chills out your mind. “ --

“I have never heard anything like it, and will remember it for the rest of my life.” -- JAMBASE.Com


To see the Kickstarter Video that includes seven minutes of the John Rogers’ documentary-in-progress called Cleaning the Mirror, dealing with the original Ascension, late period Coltrane, and Electric Ascension: Click Here
To see Carla Kihlstedt talking about Electric Ascension Click Here
To see Nels Cline talk about the influence of John Coltrane on his music Click Here
To see Andrew Cyrille talk about the release of the original Ascension in 1965 Click Here
To see bassist Art Davis talk about recording Ascension with Coltrane in 1965, Click Here

The Rova dudes lift the bandstand

Performances Past & Future:

  1. 2003: San Francisco: Rova’s 25 th anniversary. Recorded live and released in April 2005 with Nels Cline, Fred Frith, Don Robinson, Otomo Yoshihide, Ikue Mori, Chris Brown, Carla Kihlstedt, Jenny Scheinman and Rova (Raskin, Ochs, Adams, Ackley).
  2. 2005: San Francisco Jazz Festival
  3. 2005: Los Angeles: Redcat Theater at Disney Hall
  4. 2005: Wels, Austria: Music Unlimited
  5. 2006: Vancouver Jazz and Blues Festival
  6. 2006: Lisbon: Jazz em Agosto
  7. 2007: Paris Festival Sons D’Hiver
  8. 2007: Philadelphia: presented by Ars Nova
  9. 2009: Austria: Saalfelden Jazz Festival
  10. 2012: Canada: Guelph Jazz Festival
  11. 2016: New York: Winter JazzFest at (le) Poisson Rouge, January 17, 2016



Two full reviews of the 2003 arrangement of Electric Ascension follow:

Jenny and Carla
Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman feel the spirit


Atavistic ALP 159 CD

"Coltrane’s Ascension has, like his A Love Supreme, long been something of an unassailable summit in jazz history, but as any seasoned mountaineer will tell you, there’s no such thing as an unassailable summit. A Love Supreme has after all already been scaled by Branford Marsalis, and Nels Cline and Gregg Bendian released an extraordinary version of Interstellar Space a while back, so it was only a matter of time before somebody got round to tackling Ascension. And what a spectacularly good job the Orkestrova has made of it. Joining ROVA’s core members – Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, Larry Ochs and Jon Raskin, on, respectively, soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxes – are Chris Brown on electronics, Otomo Yoshihide on turntables and electronics, Ikue Mori on drum machines and sampler, Nels Cline – the same – on electric guitar, Fred Frith on bass, Don Robinson on drums and violinists Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman. Wait, Ascension with violins? Yes – and it’s a master stroke too: where the Coltrane original was a heaving, turbulent horn-heavy affair, this version, recorded live for KFJC FM in Los Altos CA on February 8 th 2003, opens the windows on to a landscape of bright colours and variegated textures that keeps the music fresh and buoyant right through its heroic 64-minute span. The individual and ensemble performances are simply inspired, from Ochs’s opening tenor broadside onwards, and the whole glorious edifice is underpinned by Frith’s marvellously spacious and melodic bass work, which keeps the flame of the original tiny modal cell burning brightly even in the wilder

Chris Brown
Chris Brown transmitting the word from Planet Out

moments. These, when they come, are indeed noisy and ebullient, but genuinely ecstatic rather than par-for-the-course free jazz big band blowouts. Instead of jumping in and blasting the place to pieces, it’s as if the musicians are floating above, able at all times to grasp the overall structure. The duo battle between Raskin’s baritone and Otomo’s turntables builds with ferocious intensity but remains a jeu de notes (Stravinsky), not a pitched battle, and there’s plenty of room for the koto-like pizzicatos and Robinson’s airy percussion work (what would Elvin have made of it, I wonder?) and the inevitable ensemble tutti is all the more powerful for it.

I like to think that if Coltrane had lived long enough to incorporate live electronics into his music, especially if performed by players as talented as Ikue Mori and Otomo, he would have done so without a moment’s hesitation. The otherworldly textures of the electronics and the Radulescu-like spectra of the violins are perfectly in line with his all-encompassing vision of a planetary music. If the technology had been around at the time and this had been recorded in 1970 instead of 2004, I’ll hazard a bet it would now be mentioned in the same reverential breath as The Celestrial Communication Orchestra’s The Seasons, Schlippenbach’s The Living Music, and the spate of recordings made by Sun Ra on tour in Europe at the end of the 1960s. It’s that good. A mighty disc – don’t miss it.—Dan Warburton


From The Wire, United Kingdom

Brian Morton is stunned by an eloquent musical argument for John Coltrane's free improvisation landmark Ascension as a composition.



the amazing Otomo on fire

What possible rationale for another remake of a Coltrane classic? The results answer that question triumphantly. This is a record we were never intended to hear, for the simple reason that ROVA have already released an interpretation of John Coltrane's Ascension. On that occasion, marking the 30th anniversary of the classic recording, Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, Larry Ochs and Jon Raskin called in trumpeters Dave Douglas and Raphe Malik, the late Glenn Spearman as a fifth saxophonist, and bassists George Cremaschi and Lisle Ellis, a rhythm section completed by Chris Brown on piano and drummer Don Robinson. The last pair reappear here, but retasked as part of a rhythm and noise ensemble that also includes electric guitarist Nels Cline, Ikue Mori on drum machines and samples, turntablist Otomo Yoshihide and Fred Frith on electric bass. Brown has shaken off any remaining comparisons with McCoy Tyner by switching to electronics.

"There's a difference perceived between scored composition susceptible to nuanced change and shifts of emotional temper, and a minimally shaped free improvisation. But Larry Ochs' liner note is devoted to the notion that Ascension is a great modern composition, an aural score that can be "absorbed, analysed, worked on, thought about, discussed, and improved".

Almost all of those processes had been at work in ROVA‚s initial interpretation, recorded live and released by Black Saint in 1995. Spearman was so fired up with the project that he barrelled up to Ochs during the applause and shouted "Every year, man! This should be played annually around Christmas like Beethoven's Fifth." Who wouldn't be for that?

However, as with A Love Supreme, Coltrane showed no strong urge to make Ascension a repertory piece, even if resources had stretched to it, and by the last couple of years of his life they surely would. The work's release history is inanely muddled. Coltrane had originally approved the first, 40 minute take, issued as Ascension in late 1965. Then the saxophonist decided that the "wrong" master had been put out and the second take was substituted, leaving the first as a fragment of discographical apocrypha until GRP put them together on The Major Works of John Coltrane, a title evidently aimed at repositioning these pieces as canonical compositions rather than "free jazz" eruptions. But Ascension's nature as composition is still questionable, even given those two versions. There are oceans of possibility in its familiar five-note phrase ˆ reminiscent of the fanfare/call to prayer on A Love Supreme's "Acknowledgement". But played in loose counterpoint by Coltrane‚s sprawling ensemble, it doesn't present quite the kind of structural imperative as Beethoven's V-for-victory motto.

Still, the old improvisation v. composition simply defeats objective listening. The extraordinary reality is that this version, broadcast live in February 2003 by KFJC and bluntly recorded with no thought of CD release, is indeed absorbed and absorbing, the product of much thought and analysis and, dare I say it, "improved", not just compared to their own previous effort, but even to the iconic original.

For every Coltrane disciple who knows every note and inflection of A Love Supreme, or Expression, or even Interstellar Space, how many spend more than a token hour on high days with Ascension? It is a dour, sometimes ugly listen. Its greatness commands effort and a shift of aesthetic expectation.

Compare Ascension with the other great ensemble work of the New Thing, Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, and certain differences emerge. Where Ornette's soloists emerge out of the melee and try to impose some kind of normative order, like Bolsheviks trying to bring a meeting to order, Coltrane's seem to be making internal commentaries on the progress of a music that is desperately (and in those original versions I'd say unsuccessfully) striving for transcendence.

Frith lays down the groove

The passage of 40 years has allowed that transcendence almost to be taken for granted. Unlike the conservatives (Archie

Shepp, Freddie Hubbard) in the original version, there is no one in the Orkestrova version who hasn't a long history in free improvisation and a long absorption in the structural logic of Coltrane‚s piece. Their contributions underscore Ochs's hope that "we'd be able to take Coltrane's beautiful piece and intuit implications for it that the original sound-explorers could not have realised at that time".


The remaining members of the cast are the most obvious aural "improvement". Unlike Albert Ayler, Coltrane seems not to have heard the potential for string players in free jazz. The key to Electric Ascension‚s success is the inclusion of violinists Jenny Scheinman and Carla Kihlstedt. They provide the complex harmonies, long glisses and sudden punctuations that Coltrane couldn't get from his horn(s). One misleading complaint about ROVA's original version is that Ochs doesn't sound like Coltrane; Spearman did, which simply complicated things. Here, after the head, Larry floats in over the ensemble and this time it clearly doesn't matter that he doesn't have the broad tone to go with Trane's iron lip. This is something new. That's confirmed when Cline and then Kihlstedt, Ikue Mori, Brown, Frith and Otomo Yoshihide join in. It's stunning, almost literally so. The bones of the musical argument are clearer when Ackley, Scheinmann, Frith and Robinson play a group Improv. Each member of ROVA takes the logic on a step, listening hard, thinking fast, playing with egoless abandon.

By the time the final head comes in, Electric Ascension has a deep structure that reshapes any notion of musical freedom‚. The only thing like it I've heard in recent times is the magnificent Above Our Heads The Sky Splits Open by Steve Harris's ZAUM, a new guttural language that defines its own canon of beauty as it goes along. Coltrane's Ascension is a magnificent torso, an unfinished carving. Forget all those mimsy, respectful‚ reworkings of A Love Supreme that clogged the market and the festival programmes a year or two back. Set aside ROVA's first version of this as confidently as Coltrane tried to set aside the "wrong" take. This is Ascension's long-waited apotheosis and a masterpiece of the truest kind.

The fire within
The fire within, revealed through Matthew Campbell’s “X-rayography” (patent pending)

All photos by Matthew Campbell