Tuesday, February 13, 2007

When ROVA: Orkestrova’s Electric Ascension started last Saturday night at Philadelphia’s International House, the audience hadn’t even stopped chatting amongst themselves. Maybe it was the way in which turntablist Marina Rosenfeld’s first manipulations of her dub plates – digitally prerecorded electronic music pressed into large acetates, not unlike the old “masters” for LPs or 78s, which Rosenfeld then handles much the way hip-hop DJs do commercial records – echoed the effects of an orchestra warming up. Gradually the rest of the semicircular arc of musicians join in – Wilco guitarist Nels Cline; Andrew Cyrille, veteran of more than 100 CDs with everyone from Dave Burrell to Anthony Braxton, on drums; bass guitar maestro Trevor Dunn, a one-time member of Mr. Bungle; violinists Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman; and Andrea Parkins on a giant white electric accordion as well as laptop electronics. The volumes & complexities build.

Finally, the ROVA portion of the “Orkestrova” kicks in as Larry Ochs, Bruce Ackley, John Raskin & Steve Adams of the ROVA saxophone quartet come in. By now, the 400-seat theater is utterly filled with a solid wall of sound. The only time I’ve ever heard anything like it in my life was a Paul Butterfield Concert at UC Berkeley, circa 1965, where the Chicago blues band turned its volume up to max & wailed. The feeling tonight, tho, is different. It’s not about volume, but about fullness. If it’s a wall, it’s a remarkably Louise Nevelson kind of structure, not the slightest monolithic or totalitarian. But it is unquestionably overwhelming. Your immediate instinct is to check your “fight or flight” reaction. And you can feel the 300 or so other souls in the audience doing likewise. But almost instantaneously, you begin to hear into the music, as the Orkestrova begins to explore the intent & possibilities of John Coltrane’s vision of epic improvisation.

Electric Ascension is an arrangement of John Coltrane’s 1965 masterwork, Ascension, in which Coltrane attempted – whether he succeeded or not has been a point of contention for over 40 years – to create a form for intense improvisation within the big band form. ‘Trane also used 11 musicians: five saxophone players (himself, Archie Shepp & Pharoah Sanders on tenor sax, Marion Brown & John Tchicai on alto), two trumpets (Freddie Hubbard, Dewey Johnson), McCoy Tyner on piano, two bass players (Art Davis & Jimmy Garrison), and Elvin Jones on drums. Coltrane’s version – he recorded it twice & actually switched versions midway through the original release of the LP – runs roughly 40 minutes.

In 1995, ROVA and the late Glenn Spearman teamed up to form the “5 sax” core of a recreation of Ascension, with Dave Douglas & Raphe Malik on trumpets, George Cremaschi and Lisle Ellis on bass, Don Robinson on drums, with Chris Brown on piano. While this version was faithful to the instrumentation of Coltrane’s original, it has – at least in the ears of the two ROVA members with whom I discussed this over cheese cake in a student bar after the concert – something of a “historical re-enactors” feel to it.

So in 2003, ROVA set out to do it again, but with a new arrangement that incorporates the latest trends in contemporary music ensembles. In the version that was recorded by KFJC & released as the Electric Ascension CD, Robinson is still on drums & Chris Brown is still involved, now on electronics. The string section – Kihlstedt & Scheinman – is the same as played at I-House on Saturday. And you will find Nels Cline still on guitar. On the recorded version, however, Fred Frith handles the bass, Otomo Yoshilhide the turntables & Ikue Mori operates the drum machines in lieu of an accordion. The CD is superb, but you will need great speakers and a lot of volume to get even a remote sense of what we heard at I-House.

This is where the question of live vs. recorded music, especially in a genre with a lot of improvisation, becomes especially acute. Two of the musicians on Saturday – Rosenfeld on turn tables & Cyrille on drums – were tackling the composition for the very first time. Others have been there for each of its nine or ten performances to date. In any event, the transformation into a new arrangement with new instruments removes any impulse toward literal recreation: the most you get are the reiteration of certain key themes, particularly at the beginning & end. As the piece evolves – there are a remarkable number of potential combinations to consider, tho the final project is actually spare in terms of the number it deploys – some remarkable moments & explorations occur – the high point Saturday (for me at least) was the violin duet between Kihlstedt & Scheinman, who’ve collaborated on more than a few projects together since they first met at Oberlin – it was both a collaboration &, it felt, a contest almost in the rap challenge or “doing the dozens” sense.

My program has notes scribbled over it describing my sense of the feeling of the overall project during the course of the 60-plus minutes that the Orkestrova takes to work its way through Coltrane’s 40-minute map: wall → ocean → forest → cathedral. Each, it occurs to me in retrospect, represents a stage of increasing involvement & differentiation, from the impenetrability of the initial wall through the dive into to the overallness of the ocean to some individuation of details (literally the trees within the forest) to, finally, a resonant & remarkably symmetrical sense of architectural form.

The was the first time in the non-quite-twelve years that I’ve lived in Philadelphia that ROVA has played here, and it occurred to me that one of the things I miss most about not living in the Bay Area is not being able to hear this group two or three times each year. There are early sections of The Alphabet, Blue in particular, that were written almost entirely either at live jazz events in San Francisco (especially the large free jam sessions at Pangaea on Bernal Heights that often would involve two or three members of ROVA’s original lineup, plus others such as John Gruntfest). Although the expansion of distribution, from houses like the Jazz Loft or the Downtown Music Gallery (which is just up the street from the Bowery Poetry Club in Manhattan), has improved greatly in recent years, Saturday’s event reminded me no amount of CDs or downloadable MP3s can replace the three-dimension experience of literally being in the music at a live performance, especially one that has as many ideas, as densely & intensely packed, as this one. So here’s to the Ars Nova Workshop, who sponsored the ROVA Orkestrova last Saturday, and which has been a fabulous addition to our local music ecology. Mark Christman, the secret sauce of the Ars Nova project, has been doing a great job. Thank you, Mark!