Larry Ochs’ interview with Luca Canini
Some years ago, when I first listened to “Electric Ascension”, I was shocked by the intensity and power of the performance: past/future, tradition/innovation. That disc and the few concerts around the world are a deep reflection on jazz, history, improvisation, sound. But everything started back in 1995, when Rova decided to celebrate the 30th anniversary of John Coltrane’s masterpiece. Can you tell me something about the birth of the project? How do you decide to approach such a “problematic” piece (if you consider Ascension a “piece”)? And do you remember the first time you listen to Ascension?
I think Coltrane’s “Ascension” is one of the great jazz compositions of all time. A great formal structure; a great piece. Not that I consider myself an expert on all jazz music. I really don’t. But I am an expert on the greatness of that composition. We have played it 11 times as “Electric Ascension.” And yes it is true that we re-arranged the piece and changed the instrumentation, but the basic composition “Ascension” is absolutely at the center of “Electric Ascension;” it totally influences all the music we play in the spontaneous performance. There is no doubt of that.
I remember seeing John Coltrane live at the Village Vanguard with his late great quartet in 1967. I was 18. The music overwhelmed me completely. There were maybe 20 people there for that second set of their night. Maybe 20. Less by the end of the set. Just a little bit of a factoid to contemplate. I probably listened to Ascension as a radio dj in Philadelphia a year or two later. And I would imagine that I dug the energy, being a fan then of The Who, Hendrix, etc. But probably I didn’t really hear the music yet.
Rova is always looking for challenges, and for excuses to mount larger projects that involve more than the saxophone quartet. In 1995 we noticed that the 30th anniversary of the original recording of “Ascension” was coming up, and at that time we thought it had never been performed live, so we decided to do it. And Black Saint, the legendary Italian label that we all wish still existed, they wanted us to record it. So we played it live and recorded it in San Francisco. Then a couple of years later we played it at Bolzano Jazz Festival. But at the time we played the original arrangement and with the same instrumentation: 5 saxophones, 2 trumoets, piano, 2 basses, drums… (But just to be clear: the arrangement was the same but the actual music was ours; no transcriptions of solos!!)
Some years later everything changed, with the inclusion of electric instruments. A step beyond. Why?
In 2002 we knew that Rova’s 25th anniversary was coming up; we wanted to mount some special concerts in San Francisco to celebrate that. We decided one of them would be Ascension again. But now we were in the 21st century, and we thought: if Coltrane were still around, surely he would use different instrumentation now. And once we changed the instrumentation radically, it only made sense to redo the arrangement. I use the word “arrangement” a bit loosely because really whatl I do is “arrange” who will play when. I decide before the show starts who plays in each section, who is out. A few other musical parameters are determined in real time. And we know that the original “head” that Coltrane composed will be played near the beginning and near the end of the piece. Other than that though, it’s wide open as to what kind of mood and approach will happen in any given section of the piece.
At the end, last year, Orkestrova (after three years of silence?) played “Electric Ascension” again, at the Guelph Jazz Festival. Nels Cline, Fred Frith, Hamid Drake, Chris Brown, Ikue Mori, Carla Kihlstedt, Jenny Scheinman, Rob Mazurek and the Rova Quartet: a dreaming band! Tell us something about that evening and the musicians involved…
Yes: It was the first EA show since the 2009 show in Saalfelden and only the second since 2007. This show (which might be the last; who knows?) was recorded live to 32 channel multi-track and filmed by 5 cameras. I’ve been involved in mixing it down since October. And sometime in 2013, we will have first an audio version and then a DVD version; the video is absolutely beautiful. The DVD will have 5.1 Surround Sound so this version is going to sound FANTASTIC in movie theaters with good sound systems. I look forward to blowing many, many minds.
To cover the costs of shoot Rova decided to use a “crowd founding” instrument like Kickstarter. Did it work? In Europe It’s still quite difficult to raise money from listeners and jazz supporters (maybe because festival and venues are still supported with public funds), but I see that in the USA the crowd funding is quite popular. Do you think this could be a way to survive for musicians and artists?
No, no, no… survive on crowd-funding. Forget that one. BUT we could never have shot the film that we did shoot without Kickstarter. The money raised – every last dime of that – went to the 5-camera professional film crew. But we have this great document now, so we are happy. But we are not wealthier because of it. What Kickstarter allows you to do is to finish projects that you believe in but that no funders are likely to believe in. It’s also less formal than applying to a foundation. More fun too.