a column by
Orkestrova, 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival ©2013 John Rogers
John Coltrane’s 1965 recording Ascension has long held special interest as a symbolic watershed in Coltrane’s career and in the rise of free jazz. It’s likely in for more attention, as we advance on its 50th anniversary, with the imminent release of Rova Channeling Coltrane, a DVD package that includes both a 45-minute documentary on Rova’s work with Ascension, called Cleaning the Mirror, and a 68-minute performance of Electric Ascension Live at the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival. The films, both directed by John Rogers, were just completed in April 2013. Public screenings and distribution, for both a stereo DVD and a Blu-ray version with 5.1 Surround Sound, are presently in the works.
While Coltrane literally spent a day with Ascension, recording two takes of the piece on June 28, 1965, Rova has now been revisiting it since their 30th anniversary celebration of the work in 1995. The piece has changed monumentally in that time, in ways that make it an ever more important project, both in its relationship to the original and in its own autonomous development. We may hear Coltrane’s Ascension more clearly – both as work of art and as a moment in the history of jazz – as a result of Rova’s efforts. Rova provides through Ascension a special view of how jazz and improvisation have developed over the past fifty years, developments largely written out of a jazz history that would rather end around 1960 than understand anything that has happened since.
Getting to Ascension
As the background in Cleaning the Mirror makes clear, Ascension tended to divide listeners sharply. Free jazz advocates loved it; jazz conservatives loathed it. There is a litany of quotations about Coltrane and/or Ascension from the period in which it was issued. Bill Mathieu, for the positive, declared “This is possibly the most powerful human sound ever recorded.” At the opposite extreme, there’s Dan Morgenstern declaring of a 1966 concert, “It is sad to contemplate this spectacle, unworthy of a great musician,” while Joe Goldberg wrote, “I am being wildly assaulted and must defend myself by not listening to it.” Gary Giddins’ assessment – “The single most vexatious work in jazz history” – is closer to my own view. I loved and loathed things about it from its first release.
Ascension has long struck me as John Coltrane’s most problematic work, and the problem might even be in the word “work.” I don’t think of much of what Coltrane did as “works,” mostly Ascension and A Love Supreme, conscious LP-length productions, A Love Supreme structured as a specific sequence, Ascension as a band assembled for the day and a very specific kind of vertical organization, layering other instrumental voices where Coltrane once layered chords obsessively.
Ascension has a special status for several reasons, some largely circumstantial: because it’s Coltrane, because it looks like the first big band of free jazz; and because of its remarkable collection of recently arrived musicians, circa 1965. If trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and bassist Art Davis already had substantial reputations, trumpeter Dewey Johnson and the saxophonists Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, John Tchicai and Marion Brown were all relatively new voices and all belonged clearly to the school of free jazz. There is something wonderful and special about Ascension: it’s the screaming choir of improvising horns, seemingly shouting a new world into being. They possess a kind of infernal power, akin to the Sun Ra band in one of its darker, more cosmic moments. The horns keep coming back, between every solo, and they are things of squalling wonder. But then there are those solos themselves, and the redundancy of the overall pattern, and then the rhythm section, Coltrane’s group of the day.
It’s a kind of Jazz at the Philharmonic goes to Hell. Like some others, I have long muttered grimly about the particular configuration of the classic quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones. For me, the best moments came on elegies (almost all of Crescent), before they were the classic quartet (My Favorite Things; Live at the Village Vanguard); when they were more than the classic quartet (This comes in two stages: Live at the Village Vanguard, Africa/ Brass, Olé and virtually anything else in which Eric Dolphy played a part at the beginning of their history; Kulu Sé Mama, Selflessness and especially Meditations at the end of their history).
When it comes to Ascension, the rhythm section has long seemed just wrong to me for the idea, the piece and virtually every soloist in the band – even Jones, until then Coltrane’s essential rhythmic partner. By mid-1965 both Tyner and Jones were about to depart the classic quartet, each complaining that they couldn’t hear themselves in the band, yet they are, for me, the most obtrusive elements there, bombast versus expression. If Coltrane were interested in freedom, he could have checked out Giuseppi Logan’s rhythm section of Don Pullen, Eddie Gomez and Milford Graves, who in some ways actually played like a free version of the Coltrane band around Logan’s scalar materials.
But wait ... Coltrane worked in the moment and he spent those moments with that rhythm section, with that particular conception of mass – Tyner and Garrison at times the world`s weightiest tamboura. And what role might they play in Coltrane’s group conception, his musical conception, and to a degree his conception of Ascension? Are they deliberately the rock of Sisyphus, the weight of the world, the immovable burden, a symbol of the intractability of form and the world (samsara), the foot of the mountain from which one ascends, the hard earth one smashes against if (when) one falls; are they, in Ascension, the gravity that pulls one back at the same time that the collective horns demand the upward escape, the keening, yearning pathos and need? Is Ascension, then, their ultimate and defining moment?
In this construction, every in-built failure that I perceive of Ascension’s quest for liberation is testimony to and part of Coltrane’s brilliance as an artist, largely outside the other currents of jazz around him and yet central to them. In this sense, one feels that the project is as much about the impossibility of “freedom” as it is about achieving it. It’s, yes, a kind of JatP goes to Hell, but one that is not doomed by hubris or self- indulgence (some of the solos suggest a kind of patented collection of style markers; others suggest musicians who are almost overwhelmed) or even collective self-indulgence but by design. In this formulation my long-standing inability to appreciate Ascension is in part my inability to understand the fullness of Coltrane’s genius.
So my feelings about Ascension are oddly double. I repeatedly assign it different values based on my interpretations of its intentions. Either way, it’s a difficult or painful listen, and I prefer to think about it while listening to something other than it, like Soultrane or Live at the Village Vanguard in terms of Coltrane’s combination of genuine mastery and genuine searching (a state of grace achieved only by the very best musicians), or Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz or Albert Ayler, et al.’s New York Eye and Ear Control (which genuinely privilege both the collective and the individual) or the Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume II, all of which would seem to do what I have always wanted Ascension to do – liberate the collective – and do it far more successfully, at least in musical terms, and in the cases of the Coleman and Ayler performances, did it before Ascension.
I suspect now that my view of Ascension was limited by the extent to which I did not understand Coltrane’s sense of his particular creative burden or his particular sense of a collective expression. I have long imagined Coltrane’s career in something like the terms with which John Berger approached Success and Failure of Picasso, a Marxist critique in which Picasso’s great achievement is viewed as the collective moment of Cubism with Georges Braque and Juan Gris, while his failure is viewed as the retreat into a kind of individualism.
How one distributes those ideas in Coltrane’s career have moved around for me, but Ascension has always been the most critical moment. It is clearly Coltrane’s most exhausting effort to record a kind of collective act. It is, conspicuously, about outreach, and it is also about the special struggles of African-American culture which in the period of Ascension are so complex as to be almost unutterable for a white writer even now, as for that culture at the time, a matter of both civil and spiritual matters, about the human right to be.
From the Spiritual to the Social
I long assumed Ascension was part of a spiritual (and musical) journey, the same journey alluded to in Coltrane’s roughly contemporaneous works like A Love Supreme, Om, Meditations and Selflessness.
In 1957, Coltrane had experienced a spiritual awakening. He had overcome heroin addiction and alcoholism and devoted himself to what became a spiritual quest through music. The four movements of A Love Supreme reflected that journey, made explicit in their sub-titles: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance and Psalm. When Ascension appeared, its title conveniently fit the pattern: it’s a term frequently used to describe the upward progress of the spirit, whether Christ’s ascension or Mohammed’s.
It is an inevitable step, perhaps, after the text-based Psalm, simply to accept Ascension’s subject matter as spiritual. It begins with a five-note motif that adds a single note to the four-note theme of Acknowledgement, a direct link to A Love Supreme. But after Coltrane has announced the motif, the other six horns swirl around him, transposing the phrase to other pitches, shrieking the notes of a few chords, already hinting at the maelstrom, creating the searing chorus that will return again and again.
What kind of “ascension” is this, in which a loose array of horns matches screams and honks against an oppressive thunder of drums and piano? Is it the struggle of people who don’t want to ascend, who would remain attached to the flesh? Is it a song of liberation, of bonds unloosed? Of torment?
There are other readings of Ascension possible, perhaps even necessary, to fully address its issues of collective dialogue and form. At Jazz em Agosto in Lisbon in 2006, an edition largely themed around Coltrane’s music (it included my first live hearing of Orkestrova’s Electric Ascension), Evan Parker gave a talk on Coltrane in which he mentioned an alternative or another dimension to the spiritual journey, citing Ascension Island in the Atlantic, where ships of the British anti-slavery fleet were harboured, and more pointedly, “a slave ship called Ascension, one of 32 slave ships that left Newport, Rhode Island for Africa in 1794.” (The talk is available in Point of Departure, Issue 9, January 2007). Parker immediately switched his focus to the Newport Jazz Festival, but that boat deserves a closer look. On a 1797 voyage from Mozambique, there was an unsuccessful slave uprising on the Ascension (Eric Robert Taylor, If We Must Die: Shipboard Insurrections in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade, LSU Press: 2006, p. 209) while in another year, “the ship Ascension arrived with a whopping cargo of 283, by far the largest for any Rhode Island negrero ever!” (The Long 18th Century in Greater Rhode Island: www.kouroo.info)
Ascension is one of the signal moments in the history of jazz, actually in several histories of jazz. In addition to histories of the collective, harmony and form, the blues, and the history of the big band, it may belong to the history of jazz as a specifically social discourse, that history that highlights Louis Armstrong’s performance of Fats Waller’s “Black and Blue,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus,” Benny Golson’s “Blues March” and Max Roach’s We Insist: Freedom Now! It may belong to a smaller sub-genre as well, compositions inspired by slave uprisings, the subject of Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song,” celebrating the first successful slave uprising in the Western hemisphere, and Anthony Davis’s opera Amistad about a shipboard uprising.
I know of no evidence that Coltrane associated Ascension with the slave trade, but the reading fits its mood. When Coltrane composed a memorial for the four girls killed in a Ku Klux Klan bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, he called it simply Alabama. Ascension may be heard as an improvised continuation of the exhortatory horns of Coltrane’s Africa. Ascension’s power may speak at once of the spiritual and the social, the individual and the collective. Its notion of freedom functions on many levels, like so much of the discourse of the African-American civil rights movement of the ‘60s. Its torment may be precisely that of the social and spiritual in collision. What may be most terrible and amazing about that ship, even if Coltrane never heard of it, is the direct relationship it seems to make between religion and the slave trade, as if the Ascension’s trade was blessed, as if that ship went about the seas, shuttling between Newport and Mozambique, on the Lord’s work.
Coltrane’s Ascension is heroic work, on a scale at least comparable to Picasso’s Guernica. Its intensity is the free response to African-American musical history, the necessary response to a history that begins with slave trade workers collecting musical instruments for the Africans to distract themselves during the passage to America (described in Dena J. Epstein’s Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), and which extends to the critique circa 1962 that Coltrane and Eric Dolphy played “anti-jazz.”
Ascension, Repetition and Variation
Ascension’s dynamism is one with its suspension between ecstasy and horror, between success and failure. Even its release suggests ambivalence. There were two takes. The original LP had the second take, later switched for the first take at Coltrane’s request. Current CDs include both versions (Impulse 314 543 413-2). It may be that the original in both versions, refuses to come free, its searching, longing horns ever restrained by the immoveable burden of the rhythm section. Its tensile structure may dictate that it always repeat itself in the search for resolution.
Rova first performed Ascension in 1995 as a 30th anniversary tribute to the work in an arrangement by Jon Raskin and Larry Ochs that in many ways replicated the original, matching Coltrane’s instrumentation tenor for tenor (John Coltrane’s Ascension, Black Saint 120180-2). To the four saxophones of Rova, the group added Glenn Spearman on tenor, trumpeters Dave Douglas and Raphe Malik, pianist Chris Brown, bassists George Cremaschi and Lisle Ellis, and drummer Donald Robinson. The arrangement transcribes the theme and the sequence of chords that structure the ensemble. The solo order is not dissimilar and it seems like a meditation in the midst of turmoil, but its moods and its internal dynamics are sometimes subtly, sometimes utterly different.
Its textures are more consistent, for example, and many of its solos are, in a sense, more realized, more clearly coherent utterances. It benefits not only from thirty years of free improvisation and the rhetoric of energy music developed around and immediately after the original Ascension: its soloists also know that it can be done and that they have done it individually on many occasions. It is no longer the terra incognita of the original, and it is, strangely, also free of the baggage of the original, by which I intend the rhythm section. The playing of Chris Brown on piano is particularly impressive, especially in his strong support of the trumpet solos, turning them into virtual duets without oppressing them. At the end of the performance, Larry Ochs reports, Glenn Spearman said, “Let’s do it again next year.” It presses the question, is Ascension repeatable or can it ever be done only once?
Rova’s first Ascension might now be an interesting footnote to Coltrane’s original work had they not decided to revisit the work eight years later in 2003, radically recasting it as Electric Ascension (Atavistic ALP 159 CD). They stopped matching the original horn complement, instead opting for the broader range and distinctive voices of Jon Raskin on baritone, Larry Ochs on tenor, Steve Adams on alto and Bruce Ackley on soprano. The two trumpets were replaced by the violins of Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman, but the principal difference is in the amplified and electronic instruments. Nels Cline and Fred Frith play electric guitar and bass respectively; Otomo Yoshihide plays turntable, the medium of the original Ascension becoming a sound source; Chris Brown foregoes the piano for electronics and Ikue Mori plays drum machine and samples, with Donald Robinson returning on drums, and Myles Boisen adding sound design. It’s a vastly expanded and significantly altered sound palette, virtually a new world. As Ochs describes it in Cleaning the Mirror, “And even more than [the electronics] – no piano. We really didn’t want to have the chords holding us down or that we would have to have pitch all the time.” So the greatest shift in Electric Ascension is not an addition, but a subtraction – an opening up of tonality to the world.
Rova has regularly revisited Electric Ascension since 2003 adding and substituting musicians and making temporary shifts in instrumentation. When I first heard Electric Ascension live at Jazz em Agosto in Lisbon in 2006, the changes included the addition of Natsuki Tamura, restoring the trumpet of the original Ascension; Thomas Lehn played analogue synthesizer, and Nels Cline’s trio with Andrea Parkins on keyboards and Tom Rainey on drums entered Orkestrova whole.
Rova Channels Coltrane gives a sense of just how many musicians have now played with Rova in its incarnations of the piece. There are filmed performances from Paris and Philadelphia in 2007 and Saalfelden in 2009 that variously include violist Eyvind Kang, violinist Jason Kao Hwang, guitarist Elliott Sharp, bassist Trevor Dunn, turntablist Marina Rosenfeld, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and trumpeter Peter Evans.
So Orkestrova isn’t fixed. Roles have broken down and while the cataclysmic saxophone chorus remain at its heart, the ritualized pattern of solo with rhythm has been broken, traded for a series of determined textures, shifting sub-groupings that, while set for each performance, proceed with tremendous freedom, changing the constituent musical languages.
The film of the 2012 Guelph performance is a major event in the documentation of free improvisation, with five synchronized cameras involved in the filming. It lends new detail to the sound of the performance as well. The group is very close to the 2003 personnel, with Hamid Drake on drums in place of Donald Robinson and Rob Mazurek’s cornet replacing Otomo’s turntable.
For Ochs, “one of the very exciting parts of this recording is just how musically different in feel it is from the recording made of the first performance in 2003, which makes it another example of how cool the Coltrane composition Ascension is, that the piece could accommodate both versions performed by 12 musicians, ten of whom were there at the first performance, and be so different. Quite cool.”
There are moments of exploratory electronic tranquility throughout Electric Ascension, a frequent play of new sound whether from percussion, synthesizer, electric bass or guitar. It’s space in which to contemplate the passages of the massed horns. Even the saxophones are permitted gentler moments. Orkestrova is capable of genuine lightness, whether it’s quietly lyric sonic play by a trio of Raskin on baritone, Rob Mazurek and Hamid Drake or a strangely Hot Club-esque duet between Nels Cline and Jenny Scheinman.
It is the achievement of a new ground, the terrain that is still “the territory ahead” in Coltrane’s marvelous and terrifying original. It’s as much as ever a text of liberation, but it’s a gentler freedom, as much a retrospective on liberties achieved as the original is an intense and essential testing of bonds.
In Rova’s translation of Ascension into contemporary practice, Coltrane’s Ascension remains as a great gift for the energy it presents, the sheer unfailing intensity with which it fights toward its collective freedom. The original is a major work of art, not merely an episode but a larger process. Rova’s substantial achievement consists in assuming the responsibility of Coltrane’s great original, treating it not simply as a memento of liberation but as a tool for it as well.
As Larry Ochs remarks, “What I love is being part of the deep evolution of collective improvisation, and just reflecting on how far this music has come as a discipline since Ascension was written in 1965, and then thinking about just how disparate the musics of so many of those musicians up there are when playing in their own worlds, and yet when put together to perform in the Ascension world, they can make a collective gesture of that depth.”