Electric Ascension
Atavistic ALP159CD

Giving the symbolic finger to the museum-quality preservationists who make up most of jazz repertory companies, Rova, the Bay Area sax quartet, has audaciously created its own version of “Ascension”, John Coltrane’s seminal work from 1965. Then as further nose-thumbing to the crowd that prefers polite Duke Ellington or Miles Davis-Gil Evans style recreations, the band plus eight helpmates, has conflated the piece still further into a noise and electronic extravaganza.

What’s more, this is the second time the Rova crew has honored “Ascension”. In 1995, adding a rhythm section and additional stellar soloists such as trumpeter Raphe Malik and the late tenor saxophonist Glenn Spearman, the band created a lengthy acoustic version of Trane’s original suite. Still convinced that “Ascension” is a master work that deserves to be played even more often, Rova members Larry Ochs and Jon Raskin decided on another go round, radically changing the instrumentation without losing the composition’s essence.

Nonetheless, nay-sayers may wonder why another run at the piece is necessary. No one seems to question the seemingly endless re-recordings of Beethoven symphonies and other classics of so called serious music. Then when it comes to jazz, recording more of Ellington’s, Monk’s Mingus’ or Goodman’s most popular compositions doesn’t seem to bother anyone either. In terms of Coltrane however, while different versions of “Giant Steps” and “Equinox” are de rigueur for many sax men, “Ascension” still frightens.

After all the recording was the only time Trane surrounded himself with a large group of younger Free Jazz improvisers and it signaled for the hard-bop sentimentalists that the John Coltrane of “My Favorite Things” and the BALLADS LP had changed forever.

As unable to remain complacent in its achievements as Coltrane was in his, the four members of Rova – soprano saxophonist Bruce Ackley, alto saxophonist Steve Adams, tenor saxophonist Ochs and baritone saxophonist Raskin – have never shied away from a challenge and they meet this one with skill and equanimity. Replacing Coltrane’s ensemble of five saxes, two trumpets, piano, two basses and drums are Rova, Tin Hat Trio member Carla Kihlstedt on violin and effects; Jenny Scheinman on violin, Wilco and Vinny Golia associate Nels Cline on guitar; Fred Frith, who has worked with Ochs on many projects as a guitarist, on electric bass; and the Bay Area’s paramount Free Jazz drummer Don Robinson, a longtime associate of Spearman. Additional rhythm and noise comes from New Yorker Ikue Mori on drum machines and sampler, Japanese-based electro-acoustian Otomo Yoshihide on turntables and electronics and Chris Brown, Ochs’ associate in the band Room, with electronics.

So what’s the result? Well for a start, Robinson’s offbeat patterning and percussion exploration is as important – perhaps even more important – for this “Ascension” as Elvin Jones’ drumming was for the original. Not a polyrhythmist like Jones, he nonetheless serves as this creation’s heart beat. As distorted echoes from the electronics mix with multiphonic vibratos from the strings and power shifting from the saxophones, it’s Robinson’s accented bounces, ruffs and rebounds that serve as bonding glue.

Another standout is Raskin. With many of the sax passages and solos constituted in screaming altissimo here, his basement tones maintain their individuality, and there’s even a point midway through, when his tremolo snorts mix it up with the rough snickering of Yoshihide’s pulsating sine waves to stretch the sound development. It sort of makes you wish a baritonist like Charles Davis or Pat Patrick had made the original date.

Definitely finding a place for themselves on this one are the violinists. Scratching and side-slipping, both fiddlers make full use of sul tasto and sul ponticello runs to mark their sonic territories, sometime adding to the slurred fingering of the other strings with pizzicato fills. Scheinman has a particularly satisfying exchange with Ackley at one point, as she turns from speedy multiphonic bowing to shrilling upper partials, while he works out sour soprano tone variations. All the while Frith is proffering a thick, steadying bass pulse and Robinson detonating disconnected drum cadences and bell ringing.

Distinctive in a sideman’s role that gives him proper strictures, Cline contributes cascades of slurred fingering and pinpointed tones, infrequently using knob-twisting and whammy bar finesse to cut through the hiss and flutter of the electronics. His judicious use of distortion extends his flat picking, while the final section has him pumping out a melodic line which builds up to Spanish-styled rasgueado before the final appearance of the tune’s head. Instructively, Adams use rapid-fire phrasing and split tones to make his point against Cline’s chromatic picking. But this is merely more double counterpoint, like Ochs’ squealing exchange with scratchy violin jettes.

Ochs himself has some irregular pitched, reed-splitting demonstrative outbursts, emphasizing the honking potential of his axe with glottal punctuation. Together the four saxes push the material every which way, though true to their role as preservationists, theme snippets appear every so often.

Anti-electronic traditionalists shouldn’t despair either, since the most noticeable electronic interface occurs when curved oscillations from either Brown or Yoshihide answers Cline’s quivering semi-tones built up with delay and slurred fingering, or when Mori adds her drum-machine textures to the acoustic ones created by Robinson’s kit.

As a postlude, drums and guitars produce longer and broader strokes, violins and higher-pitched electronics shrill like the missing brass of the original LP, and everyone joins with the sax choir to gather the disparate strands for a climatic finale.

More please.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Ascension, Parts 1 through 13

Personnel: Rova: Bruce Ackley (soprano saxophone); Steve Adams (alto saxophone); Larry Ochs (tenor saxophone); Jon Raskin (baritone saxophone); plus Carla Kihlstedt (violin and effects); Jenny Scheinman (violin); Nels Cline (guitar); Fred Frith (electric bass); Don Robinson (drums); Ikue Mori (drum machines and sampler); Otomo Yoshihide (turntables and electronics) and Chris Brown (electronics)