“Ascension” has become a signature piece for the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, or at least a favored experiment-in-progress. They’ve performed the album-length Coltrane epic at least seven times, usually under the auspices of “OrkestROVA,” where the quartet gets augmented with other great musicians. They’ve recorded it twice, once in acoustic form (on Black Saint, 1998) and later — with Nels Cline and others on hand — in a searing reading called “Electric Ascension” (on Atavistic, 2005).
They’d like to document the next performance of “Electric Ascension” on video, and there’s a Kickstarter fund underway to help with the substantial costs.
The performance, at September’s Guelph Jazz Festival (an hour west of Toronto), will feature a stellar crew of current and former Bay Area musicians, most (if not all) of whom have played a ROVA “Ascension” before. Special guests augmenting the band will include cornetist Rob Mazurek and drummer Hamid Drake. The “electric” part will be provided by Nels Cline (guitar), Fred Frith (bass), and Ikue Mori and Chris Brown (electronics).
That performance will happen regardless. The Kickstarter money would fund a highly professional filming of the concert, capturing this epic work in its entirety, with a visual scope to go along with the audio documents of the past. As ROVA’s Kickstarter pitch puts it, “a five-camera, high quality video of Electric Ascension, performed in its entirety, will be an unprecedented musical document.”
There’s more: The concert footage would punctuate Cleaning the Mirror, a documentary about the evolution of “Electric Ascension.” The film, four years in the making, follows the musicians as they develop “Electric Ascension” and explore their relationships with Coltrane’s music and this epic piece.
The original Ascension is probably familiar to anybody who’s curious enough to find this blog. The idea is deceptively simple: a majestic theme, played by the band, followed by a succession of solos, with composed or pre-arranged material appearing between solos.
It’s not just a 50-minute blowout. In past ROVA shows, a band leader used hand cues to indicate which pre-written segment would emerge next, and to trigger a soloing section or a large-group attack. (Coltrane apparently used hand cues as well, according to the liner notes to the Black Saint album.) The music is big, aggressive and mighty, but it adheres to a plan. The concert audience gets a taste of that plan, and now a video audience would be able to as well.
(There’s also the fact that the band playing “Ascension” has to be big. As I’d remarked before, the song takes on a different vibe when played by a smaller group.)
I don’t think it’s out of character with Coltrane’s late period to consider “Ascension” to be a live quest for a truth. It’s a spirit rally, a “seance,” as one review put it. That’s what makes the piece worth revisiting, and it’s what makes the process worth documenting.
Plenty of worthy concerts, CDs, and tours are seeking funds on Kickstarter. This film is a little different — more ambitious, more historic. Let’s help make it happen.