Electric Ascension

Rova and the Coltrane Classic

Jon Raskin, Scott Amendola, Larry Ochs                 Laurence Svirchev©2006

Shoemaker: For me, your two versions of Ascension say something about, respectively, the 90s and now. When you look at the first one in the context of the struggles in the ‘90s over the jazz narrative, it’s almost protest music.  It’s the piece that Time Life will never anthologize. Yet, by presenting it on its 30th anniversary, and using the same ensemble configuration and roughly the same schematic as Coltrane, you acknowledged it as one of the great works, and helped codify it as such in a way that Lincoln Center could or would never do. And, by doing that, you made the proposition of repertoire more open and dynamic. The new approach places Coltrane's piece in a context that did not exist during his lifetime. The prominent use of noise and electric guitars is emblematic of an international improvised music scene that owes little to jazz, per se. At the same time, what musicians like Ikue Mori, Otomo and Fred Frith bring to the pieces turns the proposition of making a piece more accessible on its head. What's your take on the times in which you developed these two pieces?

Ochs: I’m going to leave the contextualizing of “the times” to Bruce. I mean: Jon or Steve can also chime in on that part of the question, but Bruce has those kinds of theories thought through better than I do anyway. Or: I’m more ambivalent. I find myself just trying to keep the “present” in focus. So I’ll just make a few comments on your question. Taking it from the end, I personally feel that Mori, Otomo, and Frith, as well as Nels do, in fact, make the piece more accessible to many, many people. If Albert Ayler hadn’t played with musicians from Canned Heat, if Ornette and Miles hadn’t gone electric, if Sun Ra had never used his synthesizers etc, I wonder where I’d be now. Jazz didn’t get to me first; I “turned back” to investigate it thoroughly only after the music of my time turned me around. So I think you have that assumption right for some listeners, perhaps jazz fans, but not for “most” listeners.

Out here, we were of course very, very aware of the Wynton Whitewash of the ‘90’s. But I can’t say that motivated the performance – at all. It was a “logical” thing for us to do at the time. (Producer Giovanni) Bonandrini was basically giving us carte blanche to come up with projects to record for Black Saint; that is: if we asked, he said “yes.” Once the recording was OKed, then – if not before – we had to take the situation seriously. And then, the actual experience was very important to many of the musicians on the stand that night. The implications of the work just reinforced Glenn Spearman’s own style, and I think it encouraged him to write his own full length piece for Tzadik not long after that. Don Robinson, the drummer, really became Don Robinson the great free jazz improviser that night; he carried the show, from my perspective. And we could hear the “contemporary improvisers’” influence on “jazz” in the large ensemble improvisations. By that I mean, the jazz foundation, the jazz language from 1965, was enhanced by all the listening and thinking that the improvisers in the band had been putting in to “group improvisation” as a stand-alone discipline – especially of course Rova. (But the Rova hand cues were not used in 1995; that didn’t happen until Electric Ascension.) So I guess I am saying that jazz is one discipline in the set of disciplines that make up the uber-set called “improvisational music.” And Rova is an improvised-music band that is jazz-influenced, but not a “jazz band” exclusively. So getting back to Wynton, I think that part of the confusion all around is that he was not open to the “improvised music set,” just to the jazz sub-set, which is what gets presented at the museum at Lincoln Center. (And that’s their privilege.) It’s a matter of opinion as to whether he’s being “exclusionary” to the point of rewriting the history of jazz, or more positively perhaps, ”focused” on his own musical bent.

And as long as I’m talking about this I’d like to insert a piece of information here: Raskin/Rova did NOT transcribe the entire recording of John Coltrane’s Ascension for that 1995 performance. The solos were ours; it’s mind-boggling to think that any serious critic could talk about the 1995 recording and “report” that it was a transcription; but that is exactly the rumor flying around the Internet.

Ackley: To step back a few decades, when Rova did the Steve Lacy record in 1983 (Favorite Street, Black Saint), we paid a tribute to an artist who had expanded the bounds of jazz by enlarging the scope of his own work over the previous 25 years. Our homage was not one of imitation, but instead, taking a cue from Lacy and other innovators, we crafted a record made up of his pieces; each reconstructed using Rova ideas to distinguish them from the methods of the Maestro. Yet, we were clearly aware that our involvement with his work connected us to the jazz world that was so much a part of Lacy’s legacy. Later, in the late ‘80s, I explored the idea of reworking Ornette’s Free Jazz to commemorate the 30th anniversary of that landmark (to me, a stronger piece of music in every way than Ascension – but that’s another story). I never got that together, but suffice it to say that I was looking for other ways to help define an alternate jazz tradition, broader in scope than recent waves of jazz. Then, in 1995, I regarded our first performance of Ascension as another avenue for Rova & Co. to participate in tradition in a way consistent with the work we had done thus far, and connect with a musical line we felt akin to: a path of inquiry, unconfined by narrow versions of what jazz making can be.

Raskin proposed Ascension and I was dubious. I saw no particular need to re-do a piece that was almost ritual in nature, and so specifically delineated; this was not a work I thought it appropriate to replicate. And, it seemed apparent that our first approach was to be more of a replaying than a re-conceptualization—something I’d have been more at home with. However, performing the piece was an uplifting experience, and having the opportunity to play with Raphe, Glenn, Don, Dave Douglas, et al was a thrill. Getting in the thick of that din with a packed house in San Francisco opened doors to an ecstatic experience for all. When Glenn remarked on the way off the bandstand that December night that it was “like our Handel’s Messiah“ (not Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as mentioned elsewhere), and that we should play it annually, I agreed with him and then realized that Coltrane’s ritual could and should be shared more widely. Recognition that this piece had never been performed live previously further encouraged the idea of eventual repeat performances—perhaps with less ‘orthodox’ instrumentation and formal ideas.

Our first version was more of a teach-in than a protest. We were standing up for Coltrane’s proposal that large ensemble jazz could have a greater measure of improvisation, a greater reliance on intuition, more urgency than many are comfortable with. What became evident then (and still holds true through subsequent performances) is that risks taken in such undertakings pay off big time by delivering worlds of sound that aren’t available in more polite forms.

Early on there was talk of playing two versions of Ascension in one night: Set One—the original lineup, acoustic version; and Set Two—a reconstructed, electronic version. We never did that, but the concept of doing Electric Ascension was there at the beginning. Love of electric period Miles certainly fueled our desire to move things in that direction, as well the availability of a wealth of innovative improvisers currently working with electronic gear. And, partnering with players outside the horns/drums alliance that has monopolized the acoustic free jazz scene allowed a wider range of textures, dynamics and, therefore, available strategies. As we embark on the 7th performance of Electric Ascension a new “map” is being constructed that we are sure will result in another fresh performance.

Raskin: The 90s and the aughts are very different decades politically. Larry touched on the neo conservative main stream jazz bent of many of the well known musicians of the day, and there always has been a reaction against many of Coltrane’s later musical developments. I’ve always been drawn to the way that Coltrane balances forces and influences in his music. There is the intellectual vs. the spiritual/feeling side, west versus east, African vs. European and Christian vs. eastern meditation.

Ascension is a relaxing of the rules, and I first understood it from the feeling side. Freedom to play when and what you felt was the strongest music in the moment and to find an inner voice that added to multiple voices. But the relaxing of the structure wasn’t negating structure but rather changing the focus of the inquiry. The patterns that Coltrane using on chord changes found other relationships that in the 90s now had chaos theory to explain the formations of the sonic density.

It is part of the African American jazz tradition to borrow something and make it your own and than send it on its way. We started where Coltrane ended and then brought to bear our way of changing the focus of inquiry. This seems like a very good practice in the current decade.

Adams: Rova did get entangled in the Jazz Orthodoxy debate of the early ‘90’s. We had received a commissioning grant from Meet the Composer, and an article in the New York Times objected to us, among others, getting that grant because we weren’t “real” Jazz. That got me thinking about the issues that were flying around at that time concerning the definition and inclusiveness of Jazz. I felt like our first performance of Ascension was in part a way of insisting that the history of the music didn’t end in 1963, that late Coltrane was as important as Giant Steps, if not more so. The first performance was more of a reverent acknowledgement of the debt that is owed to Coltrane and the musicians of his era. But it was also intended, for me, to make the point that this piece deserves a place of honor in the history of the music, and that any definition of Jazz that leaves it out is nonsensical.

We were also part of the Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Kaiser project Yo Miles! around that time, which played the music of Miles Davis from his electric period. That and other tribute projects of the time got me thinking about what worked and what didn’t in them, and I felt like the more successful ones re-thought or re-contextualized the music in a significant way. So when the idea of the second performance of Ascension came up, I wanted it to be with a different instrumental line-up so that the sonic space it creates, while recognizable, would be forced into new areas. The choices we made were motivated both by a desire to update the sonic palette and by the nature of the people we felt would bring the most to the performance. It also comes from the feeling we all had after the first performance that the composition itself is much stronger than we had realized, and that it could easily be translated into a new ensemble without losing its identity. So the idea of including someone like Otomo Yoshihide made perfect sense because of his amazing improvisational capabilities, and that fact that he plays turntables instead of some instrument that was on the original recording was part of the process of recasting the piece for that point in time.

Ochs: I just feel like commenting on three things Bruce said. One is that, Glenn Spearman did blow Beethoven’s Fifth in my ear after the acoustic Ascension. But Handel’s Messiah is certainly another possibility for the metaphor, and Glenn being Glenn, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person he jawed with in his voluble and winning way that night. Second: I suggested doing both sets as Ascension, but there was no discussion of changing the instrumentation between sets! It was just the idea of doing two takes like Coltrane did when he recorded. Luckily, everyone else in Rova told me I was nuts… At east that’s my memory of it.

Then there’s Ornette’s Free Jazz being a better composition than Ascension. I guess that is for another discussion. I would humbly disagree for now, and leave it at that.

Shoemaker: Has the relatively recent discovery and release of Stellar Regions altered the way you consider Ascension and what we commonly call the late period? For me, paired with Interstellar Space, Stellar Regions diminished my earlier sense that his last music was a rapturous flame-out. Instead, he seemed to be regearing his music in new directions that he unfortunately wasn't able to fully explicate.

Raskin: No, I never considered what he was doing as the end of the line really. He was in an incredibly fertile period which hadn’t seemed to settle anywhere, and was opening up paths that others have been following ever since. Also, there were so many interesting things going on at the same time; it is conceivable to me that he would have broadened out and taken his music in a whole new direction. He was in a unique situation: while he had standing in the mainstream community, his adventures were leaving large portions of that population behind. There was a lot of work for the more adventurous music in Europe. He would have had a great career in the 70’s and 80’s just doing. Just imagine the Evan Parker- John Coltrane duet records: Soprano Madness and Tenor Insanity.

Ackley: What about Sun Ship and Transition? These albums appeared in the early ‘70s prior to Interstellar Space and all of these recordings (along with “Selflessness” and “Living Space”, etc.) help provide us a fuller picture of what was going on with Coltrane as a perennially developing artist in 1965-67. Coltrane died before his 41st birthday so, had he lived, from my perspective (I’m nearing 58!), there certainly was potential for more periods of groundbreaking activity. I agree with Jon that I never had the impression that Coltrane was flagging in any way. I do think that some of his former colleagues and fans, many of whom were invested in his carrying the jazz torch, were dismayed with the directions his music took as it broadened in scope during the sixties. For that reason it seems that there was a perception that he was burning out or losing his mind. The truth is that his concepts about harmony, form and performance had outgrown his jazz past. Thankfully, some of this was documented outside the mainstream recording world that was trying to domesticate his music by presenting it in commercial chunks – albums that were edited for public consumption, but had little to do with his actual performance practices.

Ochs: It’s interesting to think about the effect that this music had on the younger musicians following him. When an artist has a break-through of massive proportions like this, the positive ramifications tend to be better understood long-term. It’s the superficial elements or qualities that get dealt with / copied first. Looking at other musicians and artists, for example, if you look at what Terry Riley invented, and then listen to all the essentially watered down music that followed; sure, those repetitive riffs were retained, but the beauty and the surprise was just not there. Most of the copycats created elevator music you could wash dishes to. Jackson Pollack created incredible paintings, but when his methods were copied as live ‘action painting,’ the results were often of the “so what” variety. Coltrane’s fount of energy had a firm foundation that allowed him to shoot himself out into Interstellar Space and do something meaningful there. But think of all that early seventies blow-man-blow stuff and how little of it you would choose to play on your turntable anymore. On the positive side, the great early seventies musicians were forced to acknowledge that the road Coltrane had taken was something they needed to understand and then incorporate into a vocabulary of their own; they had to avoid sounding like Coltrane as much as possible while retaining the right to find their own path out into Interstellar Space. I remember, for example, an interview with Braxton in which he mentioned thinking along these lines as he was creating his For Alto solo album. In fact, it wasn’t until many years later that someone like Nels Cline, who openly acknowledges the impact on his electric guitar playing of Coltrane’s late music, when he first heard it as a young musician… it wasn’t until 20 years later that he could approach Interstellar Space without fear and make a fresh and totally wonderful statement with those same compositions. Similarly our working on Ascension; there needed to be some distance put between the first revolutionary performances in order for a thorough understanding to be possible.

Orkestrova, Lisbon                                          Gerard Rouy©2006

Shoemaker: Within a span of about six weeks, you performed Electric Ascension at festivals in Vancouver and Lisbon with two different ensembles. Some of the musicians in Vancouver had never played the piece before, while the ensemble on the recording was reconvened for the Lisbon performance, for the most part. Were there any notable contrasts between the two performances and do any differences between the two alter your view of the possibilities for the piece going forward?

Raskin: This is a work by an improviser for improvisers; as such, adding or changing the lineup of musicians has been an enjoyable process. (Although it makes a few more phone calls for Larry.) All the players we have worked with for Electric Ascension bring their individual approaches and willingness to go along with our schemes and these show up as contrasts between the performances. In the end it shows the resilience of the composition. How much structure do you need for improvisers to create a vehicle that has an identity and gives a shape to musical concerns and gives room for the musicians to create in?

I feel that part of Coltrane’s message was to find your voice and to do good and I try not to over-think the music as it is unfolding. The elements in the chart operate as reference buoys and the title operates as a path. Evan Parker, during a talk about Coltrane at the 2006 Jazz Em Agosto Festival in 2006, remarked that the past needs to be reviewed to understand the present and mentioned several seemingly unrelated facts; about how North Carolina didn’t import slaves but had to purchase them from Virginia who sold the more troublesome slaves. That research on slavery ships show that a ship in the late 1700s set sail that set sail from Newport, Rhode Island to Africa and was named the Ascension. Some further research of mine finds that the Island of Ascension was used as a support station for the British West African Squadron that worked against the slave trade. These coincidences give thought to other possible readings for the name of the composition. It suggests more possible readings of the music, not an explanation for a reduction of its content.

We started out with this work to give a public performance after 30 years existing only as a recorded document, and I feel somewhat humbled by the chance to add our contributions and the chance to let it breathe and grow with the different ensembles in its 40th year. There is the element of spirit in an expansive and encompassing sense in this work which feels necessary with the fundamentalist reduction going on regarding questions of faith and reason for being. So I guess, for me, the arc of his artistic progression wasn’t about being late but pushing through and opening up to the nature of things, building boats to carry all.

Ochs: Jon’s response could be mine. I mean: I like it a lot. It feels right. On the other hand, I have several comments.

One thing in favor of working with the same players in our version (or versions) of (Electric) Ascension: For each performance I create a map or score for the piece that is different each time. Now what this map indicates is simply and only which players are allowed to improvise in each section. The choruses and group improvisations are for the entire ensemble; all other sections are for from 2 to 7 players… You can see the map for the original Electric Ascension inside the CD cover, below the CD itself (essentially: the inside of the tray liner, visible once you remove the CD.)

The map for the Lisbon concert was extremely successful. What I do each time is take a look at past maps, reminding myself of what really worked. Then I try to imagine how the piece will go if I put grouping Y after grouping X and before Z; in other words: I try to imagine the transitions from, for example, a Nels Cline solo, played over the Rhythm and Noise Section of the band, to the next section which in most cases when Carla Kihlstedt is performing, includes her and electronics. Then I try to imagine who should be added or subtracted from that, and how will that addition/subtraction alter the music, and then how will the ultimate small grouping sound as the entire ensemble is cued back in on a chorus.

Of course, in the end, what I imagine is not exactly how It happens, Especially since Raskin is making 85% of the cues that bring in new players, or fade out the current players – playing in “X” - who will not be playing in the next section - “Y” - on the map. It’s obviously not going to sound exactly like I imagined it would. But I am finding that, if I can imagine / hear groupings in my mind that work, then in concert those groups work well in fact.

Obviously, then, working with players I am familiar with is going to make this imagining possible; working with new people, especially musicians I have never heard live, makes the imagining difficult or, at times, even impossible.

So I am inclined to think that – personally speaking – I’d rather be working with the same band each time. But reality makes that kind of thing impossible when you are trying to work with a band that includes from 12 to 15 people in each performance. Number 1: The festival budget will often not permit us to import all the original players. (I guess I might as well say that I do start off asking to employ all the original band members first, since it is the Electric Ascension CD after all that gets us these gigs, and each one of the original players made that CD what it is.) Number 2: Someone or another will almost always have a prior commitment. For example, in Lisbon, Chris Brown had to drop out, and then the promoter asked me to include Rainey and Parkins since they were already performing there (which I was happy to do, as they both had played great in Wels in 2005.) (Or in Paris in 2007: Carla K has a previous commitment; others could also eventually call and drop out; it’s inevitable.)

But now that we’ve done this in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Wels with many different players involved, we are in fact developing, shall we say, a wonderful set of alternative voices for the main band.

In fact, I am sure that I would prefer to perform the piece using 75% or more of the originals each time. And I do wonder if there isn’t a bottom line to the number of replacements we can use in one show and still get the piece to really rock. Or could there be a question as to the quality of the new people? Not their specific ability as improvisers so much as their appropriateness for this particular piece of music. Or is there a limit to how many musicians we can add whom we know nothing about? In Los Angeles there were 5 new players and four we had never heard before; the music went well, but the map was far from perfect. Certain groupings were not optimal…In Vancouver there were 5 new players involved with the piece, but only one that I had never heard before. In fact I had played in small groups with all the four of the other new players, so the formations created for the map in Vancouver, and the order of those groupings, went really pretty well, even though I much preferred the variation in contours and intensity that evolved in the Lisbon performance to the (rather incredible) jet-propelled version that occurred in Vancouver.

In other words, on the one hand, when you change the line-up each time you get a lot of surprises and fresh ideas. On the other hand, if we were to work with a set line-up, I wonder how much deeper the piece might go, or how much deeper the players might get as they get more familiar with each other and the score/map.

Ascension is a special piece; it’s a revelatory foundation for internal discovery. As such it might also be a good thing that we play it only occasionally, much as I love it each time out. Too much of this good thing just might make it harder to elevate, to lift the bandstand with it each time out.

The final variable is the physical venue, and it is a major contributor to the overall character of each version. Outdoors at Lisbon, soundman Myles Boisen had way more control of the sound than he had in the wood-paneled theater in Vancouver. Onstage we could all hear far better. We had 20 monitor mixes instead of the 4 we had in Vancouver. But the Vancouver environment led to an incredible sonic energy free-for-all that was indeed unique to that performance; it seemed to never let up, and it was a positive free-for-all; listening was continuing at all times, or so it felt from where I stood onstage.

Ackley: So many variables affect the outcome of a performance of improvisation-based music, making this a hard question to answer with any certitude. That is, both concerts were successful in their own ways and, while it’s true that there were more ‘seasoned’ players on the Lisbon gig, other, more relevant factors were at play which determined the measure of success for each show.

The Vancouver gig was somewhat compromised by a bad room, and less than great sound system. The audience didn’t seem to mind however, and there was no discernable difference in the audience responses to the two shows. And, Lisbon happened outside with a great sound system and I think the results were better translated to the public.

The roadmap, or chart for Lisbon seemed better conceived, allowing for hookups that I especially liked. But, reviews from the inside are particularly subjective, since our experience is so localized. And, maybe I should just leave it at that!

As far as the personnel differences, the inclusion of Jesse Zubot on violin, Peggy Lee on cello, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards and Scott Amendola and Devin Hoff, drums and bass in Vancouver worked really well. The fact that they hadn’t yet played the piece was not a liability, but a plus, making things more spontaneous. In general, I think that’s the case. Remember that Free Jazz and Ascension (as well as many other favorite improvised recordings) happened without much preparation (for the particular date, that is). It’s all about being prepared for the unknown really.

With Nels, Rova and Frith on hand, with a good drummer, we’re good. It’s a reliable core that can be augmented in a lot of different ways. And, if we’re to play it much more, perhaps a rotating ensemble will keep it fresh. I do like the original cast for Electric Ascension, and look forward to seeing and playing with them each time the occasion makes it happen.

Currently, Electric Ascension is scheduled for the following 2007 performances:

January 26:Paris, France – Festival Sons D'Hivers, @ Espace Culturel André Malraux, Le Kremlin Bicetre

January 28: Rome, Italy – ControIndicazioni Collective presents…
@ Auditorium Parco de la Musica

February 10: Philadelphia, PA – Ars Nova presents @ International House

Clean Feed Festival

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