Coltrane's Ascension: Jeremy Strachan & Ensemble
Guelph Jazz Festival
Macdonald Stewart Art Centre
Friday, September 7, 2012
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Coltrane Reimagined: ROVA's Electric Ascension
Guelph Jazz Festival
River Run Centre (Main Stage)
Friday, September 7, 2012
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The Michael Stuart Quartet with Jerry Bergonzi
Guelph Jazz Festival
City Hall outdoor stage
Saturday, September 8, 2012
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John Coltrane's iconic compositions had a substantial presence at the Guelph Jazz Festival this year, with two quite different – but both large-scale – interpretations of his free jazz piece Ascension, and a third, more melodic, tribute to his music of the same period by a Canadian and an American tenor saxophonist.

Ascension is considered a major inflection point in Coltrane's career, moving him further towards free jazz, as well as being an influential album in its own right. Recorded in June, 1965, it is only minimally composed, although it starts and ends with the same theme. Instead, it alternates between ensemble playing and individual solos: one musician indicates change points, but improvisation is the key to how this piece is played. It runs for about 40 minutes, uninterrupted although with frequent changes in musicians and emphasis.

It's also a large ensemble piece: the original recording had 11 musicians, and the two presentations in Guelph each had that number or more. Coltrane apparently referred to Ascension as his “big band thing”, but its sound is the antithesis of any standard big band.

In fact, on first listening you might call it cacophonous.

Bassists Pete Johnston (l) and Rob Clutton (r)  explored the full tonal range of their instruments ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Bassists Pete Johnston (l) and Rob Clutton (r) explored the full tonal range of their instruments ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Jeremy Strachan & Ensemble: Ascension

The Guelph Jazz Festival's two presentations of Ascension were both on the same day: the first in the late afternoon at the university art gallery (MSAC), and the second in the evening in the largest concert hall in Guelph. The afternoon concert was organized by Toronto multi-instrumentalist Jeremy Strachan, who had initially presented Ascension live at Toronto's Tranzac Club in 2007.

Unfortunately, Strachan's group was ear-achingly loud right from the beginning, as evidenced by the number of listeners who hurriedly put in ear plugs. The 11-musician line-up – three tenors, two altos, two trumpets, two bass, piano, and drums – was the same as on the original album, but it didn't seem to have the same quality of nuance. The group started at an accelerated pace, playing all-out, and except for a few places near the end, stayed that way.

In particular, the drums were a constant presence, but not a particularly varied one: the cymbals were only heard near the end, and there was a heavy emphasis on the bass drum. Their speed ranged from fast to faster, and at times they were overpowering.

There were several high points in the solos, which were individually clearer and more unified, although still overall high-speed. Trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud moved into the stratosphere with a high-pitched but very clear solo; saxophonist Colin Fisher's solo started strong and continued that way as it soared up and up. I especially enjoyed bassists Pete Johnston and Rob Clutton's duet, in which they explored the full tonal range of their instruments with both bows and fingers, quick running riffs alternating with low grumbles.

But the combination of the high decibel count and the frenetic pace made it difficult to distinguish patterns or individual instruments in the ensemble sections, nor were they playing in a coordinated manner. Ultimately, it was a noble experiment with some good passages, which needed more work and coordination, and a different performance space than an acoustically hard and modestly-sized visual art gallery.

Hamid Drake, Carla Kihlstedt, Jenny Scheinman (l-r) ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Hamid Drake, Carla Kihlstedt, Jenny Scheinman (l-r) ©Brett Delmage, 2012

ROVA's Electric Ascension

The evening performance was very different from the Strachan ensemble's performance. The 12 musicians on stage were billed as a “dream team” of master improvisers led by the Rova Saxophone Quartet from San Francisco. But this was an Electric Ascension, rearranged by Rova members Jon Raskin and Larry Ochs to include a very different collection of instruments: electric guitar, electric bass, electronics, and violin, to complement the saxophones, cornet, and drums.

And it worked – in the same spirit of joyful experimentation as Coltrane's original.

This Ascension started more softly, with individual notes, a bit of random electronic noise, and then the instruments assembling together into an anthemic opening with the baritone sax and cornet particularly prominent. It moved to a high, joyous refrain before splitting into many uncoordinated strands and then came together again in a loud climax. And then the solo sections started.

Except they were mostly duos, not solos, an arranging decision that allowed for a wider range of interactions and sounds from the stage. Still separated by ensemble sections, the duos included alto and cornet, two violins, cornet and drum machine, guitar and soprano sax, and more. I was particularly impressed by the pairing of Carla Kihlstedt on electric violin and Fred Frith on electric bass, where Kihlstedt's delicate, elegiac lines on violin were underscored by slow, beautiful notes on bass. Kihlstedt was later joined by the other violinist, Jenny Scheinman, as both created pointillist melodies from individually plucked notes.

It was like a formal dance, alternating between figures expressed by the entire group and dancers breaking off for smaller performances. It was complex and multi-layered, yet there was an overall clear form.

But the heart of the entire performance was Hamid Drake on drums. The Chicago-based percussionist – whose work I have admired since I first saw him at Guelph in 2009 – produced a wide-ranging palette of sounds which consistently anchored and enhanced the work of the other musicians. His drumming ranged from authoritative to intense to simple light tapping or hand drumming, but always was the centre of the action. At the same time, he never overly-dominated the sound but was inspired by the other music happening on stage.

The two musicians playing electronics, as well as others such as Frith who electronically modified their instrument output, fit in surprisingly well. Their higher notes melded with the electric guitar and violins: at some points it was difficult to tell where some of the sounds were coming from. The overall ensemble sound ranged from traffic-jam dissonant to soaringly melodic – sometimes within a few minutes of each other – but the changes in the soundscapes flowed well together, and ended with an impressive climax which then slowed to a light, tuneless electric whine, a few lines of violin, and then silence.

This turned out to be a longer performance than the original – 67 minutes – but the audience certainly didn't look bored. They celebrated the ending with calls of “Bravo!” and a strong standing ovation. The musicians returned for a shorter encore: Coltrane's “After the Rain” arranged by Rova's Steve Adams, a satisfying closer filled with melody and unity.

This was only the tenth performance ever of ROVA's Electric Ascension, and only the second since 2007. However, through a Kickstarter funding campaign, Rova:Arts arranged to have the Guelph performance filmed by a multi-camera crew for a stand-alone concert video. This video will complement a documentary-in-progress by John Rogers of Ideas In Motion called “Cleaning the Mirror”, which will explain how Electric Ascension evolved from Coltrane's composition. Rova:Arts said it plans to release the Guelph concert video on DVD and show it in theatres in the US, Canada, and Europe.

The Michael Stuart Quartet with Jerry Bergonzi

Michael Stuart (tenor) and Jim Vivian (bass) ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Michael Stuart (tenor) and Jim Vivian (bass) ©Brett Delmage, 2012

On Saturday afternoon, the music had different challenges on an outdoor stage. Coltrane had to compete with intermittent thundershowers and whipping wind gusts (enough to send music stands flying), as well as unexpected cold temperatures that had one musician breathing on his fingers for warmth – and still succeeded in keeping a general audience out for a free public concert listening and interested.

Toronto tenor saxophonist Michael Stuart brought along his mentor and teacher, American tenor player Jerry Bergonzi, along with an all-star group from Toronto and Guelph: drummer Ted Warren, bassist Jim Vivian, and keyboardist Brian Dickinson. The four scheduled pieces in their set were not only all by Coltrane, but also all pieces which Coltrane had recorded within months of Ascension, in three cases only a few weeks before.

But the sound was more mainstream and much less abstract than the previous day's offerings, even with a healthy dose of improvisation in the solos. The first piece, “Transition” was a driving blues in which Stuart and Bergonzi played together and apart, circling around each other. For “Living Space”, Stuart switched to soprano sax: the bluesy inflections remained but it slowed down to more of a lament, with a long, smooth, full solo by Bergonzi. “Resolution” upped the energy again to fight the cold, with a strong, muscular sound, while “Welcome” was romantic and evocative of an aching heart. The group finished off with a short unnamed Coltrane piece as an encore.

The musicians fit beautifully together. Dickinson's keyboards ranged from lively to bluesy to sparkling, and Warren produced his usual strong but never excessive drumming, with a thumping solo on “Resolution”. Despite the worrisome weather, Jim Vivian produced some deep, intense, and emotional solos, and particularly in “Welcome”; Vivian can put more feeling into a bass line than almost any other musician I've heard.

The Guelph Jazz Festival should be commended for highlighting material from a period in Coltrane's career where he was trying out new ideas, influenced by the likes of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman – as well as showcasing how present-day musicians can continue onwards based on Coltrane's ideas and material. Too often, despite his large and influential recorded repertoire, Coltrane is boiled down to “Giant Steps” and “My Favourite Things”. The three Guelph concerts were a riveting reminder of how much more he contributed to jazz.

    – Alayne McGregor

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Coltrane Reimagined: ROVA's Electric Ascension
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Coltrane's Ascension: Jeremy Strachan & Ensemble
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