Hearings: ROVA's Electric Ascension
Of the musicians who dominated jazz in the 20th century, perhaps none left a greater wake than John Coltrane. Every phase of his career-post-bop, modal, and the roiled currents of free-continues to resonate. While it is possible to avoid sounding like Coltrane, it is difficult to skirt around the parameters his music imposed on the framework of modern jazz, or to hew a path in improvised music that does not in some way acknowledge one or more of his many innovations.
Coltrane's biggest influence may well be the brilliant harmonic advances he made on albums such as Giant Steps, released in 1960. On that record and others, he superimposed complex chord changes on standards and even bop tunes, many of which were already re-harmonizations of standards. With his superb technique-honed to a fine edge by the late '50s-Coltrane was able to play tunes such as Giant Steps and Countdown at extremely fast tempi. The melodies of these tunes are closely tied to the chord progressions. There is no room-and at this speed, no time-to stray while improvising, since the harmonies are rigidly mapped out. Coltrane uses a limited set of simple patterns to weave his way through the changes with incredible deftness. The result, much like a Chopin or Liszt étude, is music that can sound more studied than soulful, though Coltrane's blistering tone, always rooted in the blues, infuses the music with warmth.
Coltrane continued to use harmonic structures and permutations in his solos, though they became more oblique as his music became more based on modes upon which he could improvise for extended periods of time. Only at the very end of his life did this harmonic approach, stretched to its limits, shatter and succomb to the force of other ideas. One album from this time frame-Ascension-stands out as perhaps the most radical schism from earlier orthodoxies.
This beautiful and startling recording is an inauguration of a freer, breach-the-barriers sound (mostly on the tenor; his soprano playing always sounded much as it did on My Favorite Things, his first recording on the instrument, and though he is pictured holding a soprano on the cover of Ascension, he does not play it on the album), as well as a template for group improvisation that would be the seed for much of what followed-both in America and Europe-for years to come. Yet unlike many of his compositions, Ascension never became part of the jazz canon, and remained unplayed by other musicians.
That changed in 1995, when the Rova saxophone quartet-augmented by a rhythmn section and more horns in order to replicate Coltrane's original lineup-performed and recorded a live version of Ascension in San Francisco to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its release.
Rova's raucous and ebulent performance proved that Ascension, like A Love Supreme-not to mention dozens of Coltrane tunes-was a major work of art that could bear the burden of interpretation by other musicians. "The sonic universe that John Coltrane helped to reveal has become the terra firma of the present-day jazz renegade: a world of fantastic dimensions that still delights and challenges both practitioners and listeners alike," said Rova saxophonist Bruce Ackley in the liner notes to the recording. "The piece stands as a model of collective improvisation that has resonated through the past three decades, providing a blueprint for late 20th century aural architects. Because of its scale, form, and intensity, Ascension may be Coltrane's most profound work."
Ascension begins with an elegiac three-note statement, part of a B-flat minor pentatonic or blues scale. The horns play together, but come in at a different times, as if playing a round. The wild, almost cacophonous counterpoint that ensues is potent, and the fact that it is spontaneous only adds to its power.
The opening motif is simple, but serves as an incendiary device for the conflagration to come. The burning starts quickly; Coltrane, the first to solo, launches into a fiery improvisation right out of the gate, raising the energy level for the rest of the players. Coltrane's biographer Lewis Porter calls his solo "miraculous." It is the most well-conceived on the record, which is no surprise, even though Coltrane was just gaining a foothold on this radically different way of playing. If there is a hint of tentativeness, it is perhaps because he is shaking off the skein of his earlier work--something he would continue to do for the rest of his life. But the sense of exploration brought to the fore here-like his rewiring of the circuit board of bebop in the '50s-is powerful not the least because of the possibilities it foreshadows. The miracle is the parting of the waters.
During the statement of the theme and in many of the solos, the drumer Elvin Jones maintains a pulse but doesn't generally keep strict time. His playing is fluid, like water supporting wood-there is push and pull, give and take. Other times, such as during the pianist McCoy Tyner's solo, the groove hints at vintage Coltrane. Still, Tyner seems uncomfortable (he left Coltrane's group shortly after Ascension was recorded), as if he can't quite figure out what to do with himself. The horns, however-Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders on tenor; Marion Brown and John Tchicai on alto; and Freddy Hubbard and Dewey Brown on trumpet-show no such reticence. They seem to relish the opportunity to dive in. Sanders and Shepp play in the extreme ranges, using growls, multiphonics, screaming, and other effects (Sanders' solo is a case study on the sonic possibilities of the saxophone). The effect is not unlike the speaking in tongues one might hear at a fundamentalist revival.
No indication apparently survives in Coltrane's own writing regarding the harmonic changes, or the means by which they are cued during the group playing. Coltrane's biographer, Lewis Porter, puts forth one set of possibilities; another can be found in the guitarist John Schott's essay on Coltrane in "Arcanum: Musicians on Music."
Rova's live 1995 version, while similar to Coltrane's, is nonetheless compelling enough to stand alone as an original interpretation. I was at the performance, and the sheer force and heft of it all was amazing. But an even more remarkable version was yet to come-one that brought Ascension into the 21st century.
The Rova saxophone quartet (the name is an acronym of the last names of the founding members: the baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin; the tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs; the alto saxophonist Jon Voight, later replaced by Steve Adams; and the soprano saxophonist Bruce Ackley) was formed in 1979 at a time when jazz was supposedly dead. The group took its inspiration from the work of musicians such as Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, and Steve Lacy, all of whom had worked with new compositional techniques and approaches to improvisation. From the outset, Rova flouted dogma, putting a premium on group interaction and eschewing the stultifying head-solo-head approach of most jazz. The group embraced the complexities of contempory music-both composed and improvised-and found a way to seamlessly weave them together into a music that had the density and thorniness of Monk, the lushness of Ellington, and the angularity-and occasionally the austerity-of Webern. In Rova's hands, the twelve-bar blues came face to face with twelve-tone music.
For its 2003 version of Ascension, performed as part of its 25th-anniversary concert series (recently released as "Electric Ascension" on the Atavistic label), Rova augmented itself as it had in 1995. But instead of horns, it added strings and electronics, opening up a new range of possibilities. The "Orchestrova" is broken into three sub-groups: Rova; strings (the violinsts Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman); and rhythm & noise (the electronics player Chris Brown; the electric guitarist Nels Cline; the electric bassist Fred Frith; the drummer Donald Robinson; the drum machine and sampler player Ikue More; and the turntable and electronics player Otomo Yoshihide). Unlike its earlier version and Coltrane's, the musicians don't solo individually, but improvise in clusters of three to four.
Ackley, for example, solos with Scheinman, Frith and Robinson. On the 1995 version he played tenor, but here he plays soprano, his main horn, and one on which he has few equals. Scheinman's double stops and aggressive bowing on pedal points give him the space he needs to fling tonal arabesques into the air. With wry precision and beautiful tone-more akin to Steve Lacy's crisp chisel than Coltrane's snake-charmer-he proves that intensity can go hand in hand with deft and subtle improvising. When Scheinman senses an opening, she winds around Ackley's tone clusters, forming a musical Mobius strip. A decrescendo is the calm before the storm; the other players, on cue, return at full throttle, leading into the next cluster.
Various changes are cued by hand signals, something Coltrane may also have done. "Coltrane probably didn't use more than a few hand gestures to indicate when things should move on and who would solo next, or when the next ensemble passage should happen," Ackley told me. "After all, his original version was simply a head, followed by a string of solos alternating with ensemble blowing passages and wouldn't require more than the simplest hand gestures to hold things together."
These cues would have served Coltrane's purpose because he probably never intended for a definitive map of the piece to exist. After all, Ascension is about freedom and fluxion. For the Orchestrova, this allowed the various stylistic tendencies of its members to be used to full advantage while remaining true to the piece, not unlike the way countless variations of the blues in jazz remain true to something fundamental and indescribable that is deeper than the chord changes or the form.
For the Orchestrova performance, Ackley told me, fellow Rova member Jon Raskin sketched out melodic ideas along with related scales and harmonies based on his own listening to and interpretation of Coltrane's Ascension. "Then he and Larry Ochs put together a map for moving through the piece, showing where ensemble sections would happen, solos, duos, trios and various other groupings. Some of the ensemble sections have cued material-mostly sketches from the head, or harmonic information. Some of the ensemble sections are open. As the piece developed, we began to introduce optional hand signals for rudimentary control of the flow of events. It's all pretty basic at this point; the piece doesn't need to be micromanaged, and a deeper level of 'radar'-the system of hand-cued events Rova uses in much of its music-would require longer rehearsal times and more premeditation than is probably appropriate for Ascension."
Indeed, Ascension's complexities arise not from structure or cues, but from the knotty whorl of counterpoint that comes from group improvisation. The result is exhilarating, all the more so in the Orchestrova version because of the color and texture added by the strings and electronics.
This is not music that can be listened to casually. Coltrane's version clocks in at 40 minutes, and Rova's stretches over an hour. Taking it all in can be taxing, and the quieter moments do little to temper the intensity. The Orchestrova recording is broken into tracks, permitting the listener to tackle the piece in sections. I don't recommend this. The beauty of Ascension lies in its length. Like a Mahler symphony, layers and textures create a cumulative effect that can only be felt after listening to the entire piece.
I asked Ackley if the key to Ascension is that the players can go wherever the impulse takes them as long as they find their way home. "I think that's right," he said, "but I generally feel that way about improvised music anyhow. As for Ascension, it is one of the most significant pieces for me; it's completely unique in Coltrane's canon, and it introduced so many new players who would shape the jazz to come. Coltrane brought whole histories-his own, his supporting players', and the entire jazz tradition-to bear in Ascension by leaving so much to chance."
In doing so, Coltrane gave those who followed him the chance to create new histories-an opportunity that Rova and many others have embraced with gusto.