John Coltrane’s “Ascension” album of 1966 was a courageous declaration of independence even for him. It was an independence from conventional jazz harmony, melody, groove, a 40-minute burst of dissonant, often violent, always highly emotional, yet surprisingly logical free jazz from a massive, ad hoc 11-piece group. It drove a wedge between him and the mainstream of jazz, many of his devoted fans, and even some members of his own quartet who reeled with confusion and quit the band not long after.
But “Ascension’s” undeniable power was bolstered by the weight of Coltrane’s authority and sincerity, and its influence has filtered all the way down to present generations — in particular, to music ensemble wild Up’s chief spark plug, Christopher Rountree, who organized his own idea of what “Ascension” means, with concerts that try to jam together several compositions of varying styles in hopes of making them soar and sound like one world of music.
An unconventional concert inspired by an unconventional album deserves an unconventional format — which it certainly got Saturday night at the Soraya in Northridge. The audience was seated onstage on risers facing the empty hall and band. At times, members of wild Up wielded mini-cams and aimed them at their colleagues and themselves to produce sometimes grotesque video selfies on a pair of video monitors.
There were no program notes, no spoken introductions for each piece, the works on tap were listed only on a not-easy-to-read banner hanging from the ceiling. wild Up has pulled this sort of information blackout before at the Soraya, and it leaves those who would like to know more about the music they are hearing in the dark.
Now, it should be made clear that this program, which Rountree calls “Of Ascension,” was not a re-creation of Coltrane’s album. On the Soraya stage, pieces by different composers followed one another, often without pause, whereas the Coltrane album is a succession of individual jazz solos separated by cacophonous outbursts by the entire band. The styles within wild Up’s 100-or-so-minute set varied erratically, unlike the album, which stays rooted in jazz even in its wildest flights.
Yet there were some passages within wild Up’s set of nine compositions that approached the sound of Coltrane’s album, deliberately or not. Ted Hearne’s “Illuminating the Maze” came the closest, with the entire 13-piece ensemble going crazy all at once as Matt Cook laid down a steady groove on trap drums, albeit without the complex polyrhythms of an Elvin Jones. Some free ensemble blasts in Weston Olencki’s “bent” also captured the feeling of “Ascension” at its most liberating.
When bass clarinetist Brian Walsh plowed through Brian Ferneyhough’s “Time and Motion Study I,” a 1971-vintage avant-garde staple, one could imagine sometime Coltrane collaborator Eric Dolphy improvising something similar. But Ferneyhough wrote out every torturous note of the score, which made fascinating viewing on a monitor when Rountree aimed his mini-cam right on the page.
Much of the time, though, with Rountree conducting in his highly physical, cheerleading manner, wild Up created its own musical universe.
The Julius Eastman revival continued with a version of “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” (a self-mocking title?) — whose score no longer exists and had to be transcribed from a recording. A good deal of the piece consists of slowly ascending or descending chromatic scales, bolstered by thick, satisfying, bottom-heavy textures. Trombonist Matt Barbier hunkered down to navigate the solo gymnastics of George Lewis’ “Oraculum” — a U.S. premiere — under the withering gazes of no less than eight mini-cams.
Hearne’s “One Like,” a West Coast premiere, juxtaposed barrages of electronic noise triggered by a keyboard with off-kilter rhythms and outbreaks of extended technique from the wind players operating in the shadow of “Ascension.” Björk’s “ Desired Constellation,” with plaintive vocals by Jodie Landau and Maggie Hasspacher, made for an ethereal interlude performed in the dark. It was hard to tell where Olencki’s “bent” — a world premiere — left off and Jen Hill’s “Piece for Internet” — a West Coast premiere — began. But together, they formed a wild, exhilarating, disturbing picture of our pixelated times, with video images taken right off the web in real time, and free passages in which trumpeter Jonah Levy could be heard throwing Mahler, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky quotes into the mix.
After the chaos had subsided, French hornist Allen Fogle could be spotted way up in the top balcony delivering the “Interstellar Call” from Olivier Messiaen’s “From the Canyons to the Stars” clear as a bell to wrap things up. You could say that this final touch was a peaceful ascension in a literal sense above a fragmented, polarized, digitized world that is driving us mad.