Two storms collided when The Celestial Septet hit the International House stage on February 22.
This was a rare meeting between the Rova Saxophone Quartet and the Nels Cline Singers. They put out a CD last year, The Celestial Septet, but this show, produced by the Ars Nova Workshop, was their first live public performance. And it was a monster.
Rova is a long-lived ensemble who started in 1977 playing a music steeped in complex compositions mixed with furious free improvisation. The Nels Cline Singers are headed up by Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and they play their own complex works mixed with equally furious free improvisation topped by Cline’s, expansive, electronically altered approach to the electric guitar. Together these ensembles played a music that ranged from Hendrixian forays to Coltrane like “ascensions” with nods to Forbidden Planet, Albert Ayler and Raymond Scott.
The opening piece, “Cesar Chavez,” set a deceptive mood of contemplation as drummer Scott Amendola looped a tom-tom that sounded like rolling thunder just over a distant horizon. But as Rova’s saxophones began intertwining in elongated counterpoint, energy built as tension released around Cline and Amendola’s scrapping haunted house effects and the horns agitated into a slow, abstracted Albert Ayler-like blues. The storm had arrived.
The Celestial Septet played long tunes that shifted through many moods. There were no grooves to speak of and rarely even a pulse as Amendola shifted liquid colors against Rova’s saxophones. On “Trouble Ticket,” they alternated between a deconstructed Looney Tune and a romantic Hollywood theme. A gurgling baritone sax solo from Jon Raskin and a wild alto workout from Steve Adams led into a crosstown traffic intersection before Nels Cline finally stepped out from the background, with a muted, chopped and diced solo. Rova seems to be a leaderless band in that everyone changes roles directing traffic, counting down beats and designating configurations.
It often felt like The Nels Cline singers were just back-up musicians to Rova. But on “Whose to Know” (which I misheard as “Ooze to Know”) they finally stepped out on one of the few tunes to hit a pulse of a groove. Nels Cline ripped into a mutated rock solo that bent through his effects boxes, whose knobs he obsessively twisted, building to a screaming crescendo that recalled Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” Woodstock performance. It made me want to hear more of that sound which I had heard in full effect when The Nels Cline Singers played Johnny Brenda‘s last year. (Read review). That foreshadowed the climax when Rova entered and created a fury of horns like the National Anthem meeting Coltrane’s “Ascension.”
The final piece of the concert, unnanounced, was a curious work. The horns slowly left the stage to the Nels Cline Singers who orchestrated a random array of effects and sounds, gradually leaving just Scott Amendola’s alien bloops and bleeps from his electronic and looping devices. It was like a transmission from outer space, recalling Bebe & Louis Barron’s score to Forbidden Planet and maybe Sun Ra in his final earthly home (Philadelphia). As the signal settled in, you could hear the bleating horms of Rova emanating from the back of the theater as they walked to the front, slowly converging on the signal. They huddled like members of scattered lifeforms gathering around a foreign object, having alien dialogues that basically sounded like “What the hell is that?” Once they figured that out, they gathered back in the front for one more blowout of pulsing free jazz with a Herculean tenor solo from Larry Ochs.”
The Celestial Septet’s performance was epic in length, dimension and depth. Rova can assume a hymnal stance of subtlety overlayed lines like a Gregorian hymn and they can also channel a wilder gospel in saxophone supralingua dialects. There were occasions when the music begged for a little swing, a touch of groove or maybe just a steady pulse from hyper-active bassist Trevor Dunn or Amendola. And you can never have enough Nels Cline. That kind of balance would probably come from more performances. But if this is how they sounded on the first gig together, their last concert, which will be Sunday, February, 27th in Baltimore, should be even more revelatory. You can see their remaining tour schedule.
Hopefully the Celestial Septet will gather a little more frequently than Halley’s Comet.
John Diliberto ((( echoes )))