To celebrate the 40th anniversary of John Coltrane’s groundbreaking improv-heavy composition “Ascension,” the Rova Saxophone Quartet brought in renowned guitarists Nels Cline and Fred Frith (who played electric bass), a pair of violinists, two electronic sound makers and a drummer to explore ‘Trane’s free-jazz landmark. The result was dense and even mournful, a molten New Orleans funeral march accented with blips and squawks that held together triumphantly for 50 minutes.
Coltrane’s recorded version, with Pharoah Saunders, Freddie Hubbard and other musicians straddling the bebop-avant garde border, slowly segues from dense collective passages into swinging solo statements. OrkestRova had Frith playing swinging and walking bass lines and then jumping into off-kilter collections of rumbling notes against which solos played out, quite often, as duels — a baritone sax vs. Cline’s guitar, tenor and soprano saxes going full tilt, drums fighting for aural space with electronic buzzes and squeaks.
Perf lacked Coltrane’s sense of a search for a higher purpose, but it had a better containment. Time has dimmed the patina of shock in this musical realm; in a twisted way, every bit of craziness had its own logic and, ultimately, played to a communal cohesiveness.
For an encore, band performed Coltrane’s gorgeous ballad from 1963, “After the Rain,” proving the Rova’s facility with a delicate piece of music and the musicians’ ability to let a composition breathe on its own while tugging at and spinning its possibilities.