Electric Ascension

Rova and the Coltrane Classic
Bill Shoemaker

Orkestrova, Vancouver                                 Laurence Svirchev©2006

You grow or you die. Steve Lacy’s axiom about the improviser is also applicable to compositions. It is an issue that composers of various stripes have grappled with since the mid-20th Century by devising sundry means for a composition to grow from performance to performance. Jazz has been at the forefront of these endeavors, cultivating Tin Pan Alley ditties into Great American Songs, and head arrangements into major works. During the 1980s and ‘90s, neo-classical litmus tests, comparable to doctrines of original intent applied by the right in Constitutional disputes, threatened to kill this organic process. Jazz progressives and musicians identifying as having only a tangential relationship to jazz, however, have uncoupled canonization from ossification, using material denounced or ignored by the neo-cons like the electric music of Miles Davis or the ecstatic anthems of Albert Ayler.

Rova has made a significant contribution to this revitalization process through its interpretations of Lacy’s compositions and particularly John Coltrane’s “Ascension” (the saxophone quartet’s participation in Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith’s Yo Miles! projects is also notable). “Ascension” is an intriguing choice, a sketch of a composition with a lifespan of mere hours that nevertheless signaled a tipping point in jazz history. In retrospect, Rova’s first performance of the piece in 1995, which mirrored the structure and instrumentation of Coltrane’s recording, confirmed the iconic weight of the piece. It is not surprising, then, that it took eight years for Electric Ascension, first performed by Orkestrova in 2003, to germinate, or that a few years were required for the piece to flower with repeated performances (2005 was the first year in which multiple performances occurred).

Electric Ascension was performed twice within six weeks this summer. The first performance took place at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival with an ensemble that varied substantially from the one that debuted the piece, which was issued on an Atavistic CD. Most of the original ensemble was brought together for the second, presented at Jazz Em Agosto in Lisbon. This email exchange began shortly after the Vancouver performance and ended shortly after the Lisbon concert.

Bill Shoemaker: My hunch is that you were teenagers when you first encountered Ascension, probably soon after it was released, perhaps having already heard some of Coltrane's earlier albums, which did not fully prepare you for the piece's intensity. What was your initial reaction to the piece, and why do you think it has retained a prominence in your approach to music after 40 years?

Larry Ochs: Personally, I have no recollection of my first listening to this piece. But I can say that in 1969 at the age of 20 I was in Woodstock, so my jazz background came later than you think. At 19 I was in Philadelphia beginning to comb the WXPN LP collection where I worked two shows a week. I discovered Cecil there for sure. And I discovered Sun Ra live two blocks away at Gino’s Empty Foxhole. But that’s for another story. I first saw Coltrane’s classic quartet live when I was either 17 or 18 in the East Village. I had come out of a Fugs show around the corner, still being into rock, but the fact I was at the Fugs indicates that I was “looking,” but I didn’t know what I was looking for yet. I went into the Village Gate, and there were at most 9 people there. Coltrane’s quartet came on and took off; to be honest it was too intense for me. Within a half hour I was asleep or in a serious dream world. But that was the first time, and the mark was there; I just didn’t know it yet. (And it still would be a couple of years until I actually began playing saxophone.)

I do remember hearing the piece after that, not before, and I know now that it also went over my head. I was into it though, but not in any way resembling the way I am into it and understand it now. But how could I have been? Then it was the collective energy of the piece that thrilled me, not the details.

I’d also say that what’s most interesting to me is that, even in 1995, when we performed “acoustic” Ascension for the first time, I didn’t have a lot of respect for “the composition.” I was looking forward to playing “all at once” with 5 saxes, 2 trumpets and the rhythm section. I thought that the musicians involved would create a beautiful “ball of sound;” that our collective sound and energy would be thrilling to be a part of. But I did not respect the piece of music ‘as composition” until I had been standing on stage for about the first 25 minutes of the performance. By then I was ready to give it up. As Glenn Spearman, the concert master in 1995, said right after the concert, “This is the Beethoven’s Fifth of Jazz. We should play the damn thing every December right after they finish the Nutcracker!”

As to “the prominence it has in our approach to music after 40 years…” well, this is perhaps the most interesting part of this first question. In 1965, this piece – the question in my mind is: “Did Coltrane know what he had here before he played it?” It may not matter, but I ask that because we came to this piece as performers in 1995. Obviously we had performed a lot of collective improvisation by then. Our experience both listening to others improvise since the seventies, and then doing it ourselves in many ways, allowed us to take the form offered by Coltrane and really bring some experience to the music. Certainly in Electric Ascension we have added our experience to his form to create something “more” than what he left us to begin the process. On the other hand, his piece allowed us to take our experience and “go,” It spurred us on; it did nothing to hold us back. But there is the question: What came first? Obviously his performance of the piece and the piece itself existed before Rova’s members began playing professionally (or at all in some cases). And we do enjoy performing many pieces that deal with “grand sound” and texture, just as Ascension does. But our influences in performing that kind of music are many, and the prominence of this piece is somewhat in doubt in my mind in that regard. More direct influences would be the free jazz of Lacy’s in the seventies, Xenakis and Stockhausen’s “stochastic” music, Sun Ra, Cecil, Ayler etc. But the “jazz” influencers had all been aware of Ascension. Of course, we continue to love to perform it, if for no other reason than we are given another opportunity to share the stage with so many fine improvisers knowing that the music we are about to create is gong to astound, thanks completely to the composition by Coltrane that will be framing the performance.

Bruce Ackley: I first heard Ascension in a record store in Cincinnati during the fall of 1967. I was 18 and just beginning college there. Although I had heard other Coltrane recordings (primarily My Favorite Things), nothing prepared me for the thick belt of sound that exploded from the speakers that day. What a throwback to even imagine that one could listen to something so challenging publicly back then. I don’t think they left the record on for long, and the short sampling I got scared me away for a couple of year. I continued to buy Coltrane records and to listen to him on Miles’ albums too, but I had privately labeled Ascension as the most dangerous of his releases.
By the time I revisited Ascension in the summer of 1969 I had encountered the musics of Ornette, Cecil, Albert, Dolphy, Sun Ra, Mingus as well as Coltrane’s Meditations and other Impulse, Prestige and Atlantic recordings by him. But what got me actively listening to Ascension and what helped in decoding the complexity of it was a “guided tour” provided by a fellow listener – Warren Williamson. Warren had just begun to play the alto saxophone and was attempting to figure out what was going on with Ascension. He started to imitate the opening statements of each of the soloists, and saw the connection between solo motifs and the Ascension theme. I could hear in Warren’s paraphrasing of solos echoes of the opening melody. While at first its melodic and developmental properties seemed hard to grasp, through repeated listenings it became apparent (focusing particularly on the solos of Marion Brown, Tchicai and Shepp) that Ascension could be heard as a theme with variations - very much akin to its jazz composition precursors. While these soloists shouted out waves of blues variants, the solos of Pharaoh and Trane opened up the ‘doors of perception’ for me, showering beautifully crafted gems that transcended the category of ‘jazz’, and really music. Talk about ‘It’s not about notes anymore’!

That a composition so open yet so clearly determined could accommodate such a range of expression is what held my interest, and continues to through the Orkestrova performances. Having done several Ascension gigs, each with different players and a new “map/score,” I am continually fascinated by what happens with a powerful ensemble of imaginative and experienced improvisers working with a simple theme and a couple of harmonic devices; and the legacy of this piece requires a spontaneous approach to the materials which results in authentic discovery every time.  Respect for Coltrane and his heritage encourage soul-searching delivery by the musicians every night, making each concert of Ascension an unforgettable experience for everyone involved. These elements keep Ascension alive for me 40 years later, and provide a thread connecting me to my genesis as an improviser and saxophonist.

Jon Raskin: The first time I heard Coltrane was his Om record which I picked up because I liked the cover. I had no reference at that point to understand the way the music was put together. The intensity was scary and the language they used really changed the way that a saxophone could sound for me. At the time, I was struggling with improvising in a Blues Band and working in a Zappa/Beefheart inspired group.

As I became more aware of Coltrane’s work and fell in love with his sound it became more of problem not to be a clone. His work is very seductive but ultimately his solo language had more of an impact on me than his compositions.

When Ascension was re-released on CD I was listening to it and realized that it had never been performed live and that it was 30 years old. I thought it was time to perform it live and see where the work would go now that the language and relationships between players had been thoroughly explored. The process of performing made me really understand the form of the work as something that I had been striving for. Less is more. It is Jazz Tune that is opened up to allow for the each player to interpret as the need to make the music happen.

The surprise for me was that we didn’t go very far away from the original in the 1995 version. I thought beforehand that it would open up to include some of the ideas it ended up generating but there is a strong enough form that it keeps an identity. It was a gratifying realization since the “rap” at the time seemed to suggest it had no form.

I thought after the performance that the way to move this in a different direction was to radically change the instrumentation so that the language itself was different and when we decided to perform it again at our 25th year concert, Larry and I came up with a road map which changed up the solo, chorus, solo chorus nature of the work.

This seemed like a natural place to go with it because Coltrane explored non-song form improvisation shortly after this as well.

Steve Adams: I was first interested in playing Rock and starting exploring Jazz around 1969, listening to things like Miles’ In a Silent Way and Charles Lloyd’s Forest Flower. I was listening to the radio a lot too, and I have a vivid memory of hearing some Coltrane piece at that time which was probably Meditations and finding it both fascinating and truly frightening in its power. So I started investigating Coltrane and came to Ascension some time shortly after that. It was immediately clear that this was a pinnacle of this music, and I listened to it quite a bit at that time. I remember a friend telling me about going to a party where Ascension was on and he and several others were grouped around the speakers, grinning and saying things like “Did you hear that!” A few years later I was doing a radio show on the MIT station and discovered they had the alternate version in their library, which instigated a new round of interest in the piece.

For me Ascension cut the ties to the music that had come before in a liberating way and opened the doors wide to the possibilities that lay ahead in a way no other piece had. I think it was too easy for critical opinion to dismiss it because of the apparent simplicity of the composition, which, as we found, has a profound effect on its realization. I still love the ecstatic virtuosity of the solos, especially Coltrane’s and Pharaoh’s, and the way it balances the individual and the group is also deeply influential. Also on the level of music as political metaphor it made a significant statement about how the individual and the community can fit together to move forward.

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