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2012 Guelph Jazz Festival Report: John Coltrane’s Ascension

The Guelph Jazz Festival is the most innovative and avant garde festival in North America, it is award winning and international in scope inviting artists from South Africa, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Israel, India…

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The Guelph Jazz Festival: September 5-9, 2012 – Ascension

Report by Paul J. Youngman – Sept. 2012.

The Guelph Jazz Festival is the most innovative and avant garde festival in North America, it is award winning and international in scope inviting artists from South Africa, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Israel, India, Brazil, the United States and Canada. The nineteenth version featured two alternate takes on John Coltrane’s Ascension (1966 Impulse) a pivotal work of art that ignited the New Thing revolution in the mid sixties.

The first take witnessed the Jeremy Strachan Ensemble at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre on Friday at 5 pm and featured a cast of young professional Canadian musicians that duplicated the instrumentation that Coltrane utilized. A solid rhythm section made up of piano, two – string bass players and a drummer. The front line featured three tenor saxophones, two altos and two trumpeters. The second take occurred a few hours later at the River Run Centre with Rova Orchestra’s Electric Ascension made up of some of the most experienced improvisers on the scene with the rhythm and noise section of Nels Cline, electric guitar, Fred Frith electric bass, Hamid Drake drums, Ikue Mori electronics, Chris Brown electronics and a front line of Carla Kihlstedt electric violin, Jenny Scheinman violin, Rob Mazurek cornet and electronics as well as the Rova Saxophone Quartet of Larry Ochs, Jon Raskin, Steve Adams and Bruce Ackley.

Both groups stayed true to the essence of Coltrane’s Ascension. The Strachan Ensemble played it as a tribute, perhaps even a memorial and the fire, the energy, the passion and the youthful enthusiasm came through from the first solo to the very last of the ensembles dissonant chords some forty five minutes later. Strachan’s ensemble played it acoustic and the spiritual elements were allowed to simmer, ebb and flow. The music took on a hypnotic pulse that never wavered, from ensemble work to individual solos the standing room only audience seemed locked in rapt attention. Upon completion a long standing ovation implied delight by all who witnessed this Ascension.

Rova’s Electric Ascension had the benefit of a much better sound system and the theatres wonderful acoustics. Electric Ascension displayed a version of Coltrane’s music nearly half a century after the revolution, perhaps as Coltrane may have envisioned it. The music was a cohesive wall of sound and a cacophony of noise. Noise in a manner of organized chaos with hard pressed rhythms and blurred melodies, the sounds rolled and pulsed, the drums beat, purr, crash and scream as the bass and guitar modulate tones and project colours. And the colours of the saxophone ranged from soprano through to baritone, they were laughing, ripping and groaning with sounds of joy, pain and pleasure. The violins played with pitch and modulation, the modern state of electronics ran the gamut of noise and an all encompassing peace was conveyed. The manipulation of sound waves created a pleasant, enticing and deeply expressive modern take on Coltrane’s Ascension. An Ascension Re-imagined and one that should be made available to the public in the near future as the concert was filmed and recorded.

An independent journalist, based in Toronto, Canada. A professional musician and a fan of music, dance and the arts. I have written short stories, lyrics, poetry and reviews. I have been published in numerous online webzines. I’ve taught drumming and played in bands; I have felt the passion to create. I enjoy expressing that passion, the artistic experience, in words, reporting on the shows and musical experiences that I have witnessed.

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