Track Listing: Cesar Chávez (12:45); Trouble Ticket (12:25); Whose To Know (For Albert Ayler) (25:23); Head Count (2:26); The Buried Quilt (15:59)
Rova meets up with the Nels Cline Singers, sneaks into a phone booth, and becomes The Celestial Septet. With the great Singers' rhythm section of Trevor Dunn and Scott Amendola pushing everyone majestically, the band performed three concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area in May 2008. The results were so exciting and in some ways unexpected that the septet decided to reconvene in November 2008 for one more live concert followed immediately by 2 days in the studio. The results of that recording session (plus one piece recorded live at Yoshi's San Francisco) have been released by New World Records. To read the CD liner notes by Derk Richardson, click here
The Celestial Septet Album Review One
The last time the guitarist Nels Cline crossed paths with ROVA (along with a bunch of other folks), the result was the mighty Electric Ascension, the only Coltrane repertoire album in existence that’s actually in the same class as the music it pays tribute to. The Celestial Septet is nowhere near as cataclysmic but nonetheless continues these musicians’ exploration of 1960s free jazz, taking cues from everything from Aylerian ecstasy/fury to Ornette’s prickly lyricism to Sun Ra’s cosmic wanderings. (Larry Ochs’ “Head Count”, an earthy two-minute guitar rave-up whose kicking bari/tenor line has something of a demented Ceilidh flavour, is the disc’s sole outlier.)
Members of the Singers (who – just to bring newcomers up to speed – consist of Cline, bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola, but no vocalist) contribute the CD’s bookending pieces, both beautifully spacious. Amendola’s “Cesar Chávez” is hauntingly simple yet nearly upstages the rest. Aching/caressing sax lines wander across Cline’s hushed electronic duststorms and Hoff’s soulful pedal point, and after a while Larry Ochs’ baleful/tender tenor pushes to the fore. (It’s a welcome reminder that he’s got one of the greatest, most individual vibratos in the current jazz scene.) Cline’s “The Buried Quilt” is jazz as alien visitation: vistas of benign cosmic stillness, the slow mating rituals of planets, Day the Earth Stood Still theremin loftily admonishing mankind, touches of Kubrick (i.e. Ligeti)... Via a few compositional curves, it crashes to earth with a densely cross-cut sequence of duets and trios (tenor/drums burnout weaving in and out of cool-blue soprano/guitar), before the flying saucers abandon Earth and benighted humankind and you hear the original theme echoing across the universe.
Steve Adams’ “Trouble Ticket” is a burlesque rondo, its gruffly comic theme (saxes bobbing heads like pigeons, then converging on a “wrong answer!” buzzer) gradually revisited/revised across various solos and duos (including a lengthy Cline feature that goes from electronic slide-guitar cutup to tongues-out raving) then emerging somewhat more serenely at the end. Ochs’ other piece is “Whose to Know”, a 25-minute tribute to Ayler that stands imposingly at the album’s centre. Its gradual shift between emotional poles at the start is genuinely impressive, blossoming across 5 minutes or so from Middle Eastern-flavoured melancholy to quickening joy so subtly it’s hard to spot the joins. Indeed, though there are certainly passages of ecstasy and lung-tearing fury, as one would expect of an Ayler homage, the piece seems more centrally concerned with how Ayler’s music upends one’s conventional emotional associations with certain musical styles and modes. Major-key melodies here can seem intensely sorrowful; collective improvisation can nonetheless express profound solitude. As always with Ochs, “Whose to Know” offers genuine food for thought about one’s experience of music, even as it itself offers an involving musical experience.
The Celestial Septet Album Review Two
One perk of the Other Minds festival was the healthy selection of CDs at the merch table — from the composers, the performers, and Other Minds’ own stacks. Amid those on Thursday night was a surprise: the about-to-be-released CD of the ROVA/Nels Cline Celestial Septet.
The band combines the ROVA Saxophone Quartet with the guitar/bass/drums trio called the Nels Cline Singers. A 2007 show at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley was the band’s debut, I think, followed by a show at Yoshi’s in May 2008.
These shows were a real treat, providing lots of free-jazz fireworks and healthy doses of Nels freakouts. One song that stood out in memory was “Trouble Ticket,” a crackling Steve Adams composition that had the kind of dynamism that seemed suited for radio; it’s why I chose to play that track last Friday.
But the song I really wanted to hear was a memorable Cline composition that was a standout of the live performances. Its middle part involves the four ROVA players wandering offstage and out of the auditorium altogether. Gradually, they work their way back, each playing small, relatively quiet phrases. They work their way back to the stage and surround Amendola, like space rocks drawn to a gravitational center, and they continue to play in snippets while Amendola records and processes the sounds into an electronics stew.
The piece was untitled at the time and I’m guessing it’s the same piece that goes by “The Buried Quilt” on this record. Lacking the live-performance aspects, the studio version settles for a pause in the dark intro, after a segment of clamorous drums by Scott Amendola backed by dissonant sax parts. From there, tiny sax sounds start to dart and swirl, then give way to an explosion of sound. From there, it alternates: loud brazen sax, then a bluesy-quiet sax/guitar duet, then more bombast, eventually ending with grand, sweeping gestures. It’s a fitting way to end an album, and the piece presents a wide enough canvas to be a worthy listen on its own — but it’s still a particular treat live.
The album opens with a daring choice: Amendola’s powerful composition “Cesar Chavez.” It’s got the emotional weight of a great song but not the feel of an opener: crawling, atmosphering. Its combination of sorrow and hopefulness made for a strong closing to Amendola’s 2005 album, Believe. As an opener, it’s not the obvious pick, but it brings a sense of gravitas that serves the rest of the album well.
The Celestial Septet Album Review Three
A veritable West Coast summit meeting, The Celestial Septet is the first recorded encounter between the legendary Rova Saxophone Quartet and The Nels Cline Singers. Though each ensemble is renowned in their own right, together they form a unique aggregation, seamlessly integrating acoustic and electric tonalities. Sharing aesthetic viewpoints, their mutual appreciation of the jazz tradition extends from the New Thing to early fusion and modern composition. Free from stylistic restraints, they fuse elements of primal free jazz, visceral rock conventions, aleatoric meditations and austere classicism into a series of unorthodox compositions that balance formal structure with unfettered improvisation.
The origin of this collaboration can be traced to 1998, when guitarist Nels Cline and ROVA first recorded together on Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith's Yo Miles! (Shanachie). Cline later played on Rova's Electric Ascension (Atavistic) in 2003, an electro-acoustic re- interpretation of John Coltrane's Ascension (Impulse!). By 2006, all three members of the Singers joined Rova in a performance of Electric Ascension at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Regular practices ensued on arrangements of Coltrane tunes like "Living Space," followed by original works written specifically for this line-up. Though not limited by Coltrane's concepts, the master's passionate marathon improvisations and reliance on extended modal forms continues to provide the collective with a surfeit of inspiration.
The septet's debt to Coltrane is most evident on drummer Scott Amendola's atmospheric opener, "Cesar Chavez." Imbued with the same spiritual serenity as many of Coltrane's later works, the piece unfolds glacially, underscored by a plaintive motif. Amendola's spare accents, Devin Hoff's modal bass pedal tones and the saxophones' lush underpinning support a lyrical conversation between Larry Ochs' plangent tenor cries and Cline's delicate filigrees, building to a rousing but controlled finale. Alto saxophonist Steve Adams' jittery "Trouble Ticket" ups the ante of the preceding work, careening through a series of contrapuntal horn charts, fragmented rock rhythms, quicksilver call- and-response dialogues and a climactic focus on Cline's coruscating fretwork. But these pieces are merely prologues to the main event. Recorded live at Yoshi's, in San Francisco, (musicians’ note: actually was recorded in studio) the 25 minute "Whose to Know (for Albert Ayler)" is the album's majestic centerpiece. Devoid of any obvious patterns, the tribute develops episodically, featuring a variety of instrumental configurations and individual solos; Cline's blistering excursion with the Singers and Hoff's sinewy bass cadenza are notable highlights. The cumulative effect of Rova's buzzing saxophones at the work's fervid conclusion attains that rare hypnotic quality reserved for transcendental music like Ayler's. Serving as an epilogue of sorts, baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin's brief "Head Count" follows, clocking in at just over two minutes. Arranged as a vehicle for Cline, celebratory fanfares and scattershot downbeats fuel his unrelenting six string assault, spotlighting his more extreme tendencies.
Cline's own offering, "The Buried Quilt" ends the session with high drama. Evolving through a spectral opening to a riotous midsection, the extended work offers a recapitulation of the album's primary themes. Lush horn chorales, scintillating gongs and ethereal electronic washes modulate into altissimo saxophone drones, frenetic percussion and sonorous arco glisses, before the tune suddenly explodes. Ochs’ tenor heads the charge, surging through a thicket of caterwauling horns and manic stop-start tempos, punctuated at intervals by introspective duets between a rotating roster of participants. Cline's pithy interjections spar with Bruce Ackley's probing soprano during an early interlude, while Raskin's gruff baritone sputters alongside Hoff's churning double-stops later, inverting pitch and mood simultaneously. Eventually subsiding in a regal denouement, the album comes to a close, ending as it began.