Last year the jazz world celebrated the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s spiritually charged album, “A Love Supreme,” a work embraced then and now as a masterpiece. The saxophonist’s next major release, 1966’s “Ascension,” left the jazz world divided, and it’s safe to say its golden anniversary is going to pass without much notice by the jazz establishment.
A 40-minute piece that explodes from a simple five-note theme referencing the “Acknowledgement” section of “A Love Supreme,” “Ascension” is an ecstatic free jazz revelation featuring 11 musicians, including Coltrane’s classic quartet and an almost ad hoc collection of horn players.
Where “A Love Supreme” served as a finely wrought vessel for Coltrane’s spiritual yearning, “Ascension” was more like glimpsing the face of God directly, and many of Coltrane’s fans refused to follow him into this daunting realm.
Leave it to Rova, the long-running Bay Area saxophone quartet featuring Steve Adams, Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin and Larry Ochs, to put their own stamp on this marvelously unruly music. Their new release, “Rova Channeling Coltrane,” is a three-disc set with a CD, DVD and Blu-ray of the 12-piece Orkestrova performing “Electric Ascension” at the Guelph Jazz Festival in Ontario in 2012.
Rova has been wrestling with “Ascension” for decades. They released an acoustic version of the work back in 1995 featuring the same instrumentation as Coltrane’s recording. But when they revisited it as part of their 25th anniversary season in 2003, they included volatile electric guitarists Nels Cline and Fred Frith, and electronics experts Chris Brown and Ikue Mori.
I caught that concert and it was a stunning experience, but the version documented on “Rova Channeling Coltrane” is more powerful (the set also includes “Cleaning the Mirror,” a thoughtful 44-minute film by Bay Area documentarian John Rogers on the enduring influence of “Ascension” and the making of “Electric Ascension”).
Over four decades Rova has recorded a vast array of new music, generating their own material and often commissioning new works. Rova deftly sidesteps whatever pitfalls some jazz artists encounter by dwelling on the music of past masters by treating “Ascension” as a point of departure rather than a destination.
For Rova, Coltrane’s improvisational framework serves as the fulcrum for a community of musicians. The cast here also includes two Chicago masters: powerhouse drummer Hamid Drake and the polymorphously creative cornetist Rob Mazurek. Arranged by Ochs and Raskin, “Electric Ascension” unfolds as a study in contrasts, with bristling density and gleaming transparency.
Interpreting a work as abstract and unbounded as this might seem like an invitation to let loose, but Rova’s crew knows all about the power of silence and space. Free improvisation doesn’t mean everybody wailing all the time. It’s about listening as much as playing, and these musicians create a distinct choreography out of the music’s tension and release, phasing in and out of the fray. When the thicket of sound clears, quiet interludes by Cline, Kihlstedt and Scheinman reveal the striking beauty and quietude that lurked within late-career Coltrane.
The saxophonist died of cancer in 1967 and his music evolved considerably in the two years after recording “Ascension.” At the time he said, “There are always new sounds to imagine: new feelings to get at. … But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.”
Rova takes that directive to heart. More than ever, this latest “Electric Ascension” distills truths and essences for an entire constellation of artists. While not for every listener, it’s an album that can surprise, amaze and gratify if given the chance.