Rova Channeling Coltrane / Electric Ascension & Cleaning the Mirror (DVD / CD / Bluray)


The Players:

Bruce Ackley – soprano saxophone
Steve Adams – alto saxophone
Larry Ochs – tenor saxophone
Jon Raskin – baritone saxophone
Chris Brown – electronics
Nels Cline – electric guitar
Hamid Drake – drums
Fred Frith – electric bass
Carla Kihlstedt – violin, electronics
Rob Mazurek – cornet, electronics
Ikue Mori – electronics
Jenny Scheinman – violin
Marc Urselli – sound engineer

Disc 1 (DVD)

Live At The 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival (68:35)
A Documentary by John Rogers on the musical history and creative process behind Electric Ascension. (44:55)

Disc 2 (Blu-Ray)
Live At The 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival (68:35)
HD, Dolby 5.1, Surround Sound

Disc 3 (CD)
Live At The 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival (68:35)

Live At The 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival
Famed for its scale and raw emotional power, John Coltrane’s 1965 recording, Ascension, has been re-imagined and rearranged for live performance by a veteran ensemble of improvisers led by the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

A documentary by John Rogers on the musical history and creative process behind Electric Ascension.
Shot at Sons d'Hiver in Paris area (France) and at Saalfelden Jazz Festival (Austria),
musicians speak about their inspiration, their approach to the music, and their connection to Coltrane. Interviewed are Nels Cline, Andrew Cyrille, Art Davis, Jason Kao Hwang, Eyvind Kang, Rova, Jenny Scheinman, and Elliot Sharp. With musical excerpts, archival photos, and behind the scenes footage.

Ascension composed by John Coltrane (Jowcol Music); arranged for Electric Ascension by Jon RaskinLarry Ochs.

Liner notes: Stuart Broomer / Photographs: Mark Lazarski / Cover design: Max Schoendorff / Cover realization: David Bourguignon


Review: ‘Rova Channeling Coltrane’ Offers More Than a Live Performance

Transience and permanence each play a role in any landmark recording of free jazz. This is especially true of “Ascension,” the large-canvas album made by the saxophonist John Coltrane in 1965. An experiment in form and scale, it was never performed in concert, even though that would seem to be its ideal manifestation.

The members of Rova Saxophone Quartet, an intrepid ensemble formed in the San Francisco Bay Area more than 35 years ago, took this into consideration when they conceived Electric Ascension, a repertory tribute group stocked with texture-mad improvisers like the guitarist Nels Cline. The expanded assemblage has toured in Europe and North America, and a vital album — “Electric Ascension,” credited to Rova::Orkestrova — was released on Atavistic in 2005.

“Rova Channeling Coltrane” similarly chronicles a live performance, highlighting the ephemeral qualities of the music. But because this new release contains not only an album but also a concert film and a behind-the-scenes documentary, it offers a more multilayered experience. (A surround-sound version of the album, on an enclosed Blu-ray disc, includes the option to tinker with the mix, focusing on a particular musician’s output within the collective squall.)

The music, from a 2012 concert in Guelph, Ontario, is at once ecstatic, enigmatic and volatile, often suggesting a flow of complex systems. But there are signposts, starting with Coltrane’s thematic overture, and there’s a method, overseen by two of Rova’s founding members, the saxophonists Jon Raskin and Larry Ochs.

The roster on “Rova Channeling Coltrane” includes Mr. Cline, Ikue Mori on electronics, Rob Mazurek on cornet and Hamid Drake on drums. Their interplay is striking: Each transaction feels contingent on its immediate context — what happened a moment ago, and what’s in the moment ahead.

Over a roughly 70-minute span, the music keeps realigning among smaller subgroups of players. One poetic stretch, emerging out of a cacophony, involves just Jenny Scheinman’s mournful violin and Mr. Cline’s quietly ringing chords; another has Ms. Scheinman and Carla Kihlstedt embroidering a dialogue on violin, against a percussive rustle. These smallish moments underscore the power of the full ensemble whenever it heaves into gear.

Electric Ascension, featuring Mr. Cline and others, appears on Sunday night at Le Poisson Rouge as part of the NYC Winter Jazzfest. Rova will also be at the Stone from Tuesday through Jan. 24, working with partners including the saxophonist and composer John Zorn.

ROVA Channeling Coltrane - Electric Ascension Live (RogueArt, 2016) *****

When John Coltrane's Ascension was released in 1966, jazz critic Bill Mathieu from Downbeat wrote "This is possibly the most powerful human sound ever recorded", an apt description of Coltrane's free jazz masterpiece. My Penguin Guide To Jazz says "If Coltrane had never recorded another note of music, he would be guaranteed greatness on the strength of Ascension alone". My Oxford Companion To Jazz calls it "one of his most awesome, daunting, recordings". Dave Liebman called it "the torch that lit the free jazz thing". It was a fourty minute long group improvisation with two trumpets (Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johson), two altos (Marion Brown and John Tchicai), three tenors (Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders), two basses (Art Davis and Jimmy Garrison), one piano (McCoy Tyner) and one drums (Elvin Jones). This band of jazz icons improvises as a group around changing sound structures, alternated by solos of the band members, in this way shifting between sonic density and lightness, between rhythmic and a-rhythmic passages, playing with dissonance and harmony, resulting in music that sounds like rolling waves of sound full of musical power and relentless emotional weight. If you don't have it yet, run to the store now!

So why cover this masterpiece? Who has the audacity to think that it can be improved? Who has the arrogance to pretend people are waiting to hear a new version of it? I never understood why anyone would dare cover what is already sublime, a clear strategy for failure as the new version's mediocrity can only be obvious to anyone familiar with the original. But then it does happen! Already in 1995, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the piece, Rova took its first take on Coltrane's Ascension, and it took till 2005 for it to be released as a really strong album that does not try to emulate the orginal, but rather uses it and gives it a different direction without relinquishing what makes the original powerful (ROVA::Orkestrova - Electric Ascension (Atavistic, 2005). Rova has played Ascension at various festivals and concerts in the past decades, with changing band members, but with pretty much the same instruments : four saxes, two violins, trumpet, electric guitar, bass guitar, drums and electronics, indeed, something else entirely than the original line-up of Coltrane's band.

Now, fifty years after Coltrane's original release, we get what we can already call one of the must-haves of the year, a musical event that will be hard to match, not only because of the music, but because of the total package : a CD, a Blue Ray and a DVD for what is called : "a 21st century reimagining and arrangement" of Coltrane's masterpiece.

And I can tell you that you will love the total package. The music itself was performed at the Guelph Jazz Festival in 2012, with the following band members : Bruce Ackley on soprano saxophone, Larry Ochs on tenor saxophone, Steve Adams on alto saxophone, Jon Raskin on baritone saxophone, Chris Brown and Ikue Mori on electronics, Hamid Drake on drums, Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman on violin,  Nels Cline on electric guitar, Fred Frith on electric bass, and Rob Mazurek on cornet.

They start with electronics to set the scene of today's sound, and then the whole band joins with the grand theme of the composition, followed by improvisation around it by all musicians together, a sonic firework of flowering notes that weave in and out of the theme based on hand signals by Jon Raskin ... and then the solos erupt out of the theme, mostly for duets or trios, sometimes highly energetic with fast-speed reactions to each other, sometimes in chamber music simplicity and calm, sometimes ferocious and wild, sometimes solemn and spiritual, sometimes with crackling electronic soundscapes, yet always full of purpose and focus for more than sixty minutes of musical delight, every so often falling back on grand joint harmonies which unravel again in new musical vistas in a wonderful eb-and-flow between collective interplay and intimate interaction between two or three individuals. This is no longer Coltrane, this is something else entirely, but in the spirit of the master, a modern piece of art that can stand on its own. Needless to say that all musicians are excellent and fully comfortable with the material, and if any names have to be mentioned then Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman are worth highlighting because of their contribution to the overall sound, and their surprisingly free improvisations are exceptional (meaning I have never heard them perform in such a free context).

You get the performance on CD, obviously. On the Blue Ray, you get the entire concert in wonderful visual broadcast quality, filmed with more than a handful of cameras, with a director who knows what and who needs to filmed when, which is usually one of the shortcomings of concert videos.

The DVD offers both the concert and "Cleaning The Mirror", a documentary by John Rogers on the concept of Electric Ascension, including insightful interviews with some of the fifty musicians who have performed the piece so far : Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Nels Cline, Andrew Cyrille, Art Davis, Jason Kao Hwang, Eyvind Kang, Rova, Jenny Scheinman, and Elliot Sharp. The documentary offers musical excerpts, archival photos, and behind the scenes footage.

Jazz Times (USA) review of Rova Channeling Coltrane

— Mike Shanley March 2016

ROVA Channeling Coltrane: Electric Ascension

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.