Defin­ing a sound

The Rova Sax­o­phone Quar­tet at Gig

Pasatiempo - - NEWS -

The Rova Sax­o­phone Quar­tet came to­gether in 1977 and per­formed its de­but con­cert in Fe­bru­ary 1978 at a mu­sic fes­ti­val at Mills Col­lege in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia. The group’s lineup — Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Bruce Ack­ley, and Steve Adams — has been the same since 1988, when Adams re­placed An­drew Voight. Rova’s em­pha­sis over the years has been on com­po­si­tion, mostly from its mem­bers but also from a dis­tin­guished list of com­posers who have writ­ten new­mu­sic works, in­clud­ing free-jazz pieces, for the quar­tet. Rova has made a place for it­self at a point where those two cat­e­gories over­lap, mak­ing it at once ad­ven­tur­ous and ex­per­i­men­tal. In 1985, the group ini­ti­ated Rova:Arts, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion to fund com­mis­sions and per­for­mances. Jazz drum­mer Jack DeJohnette, min­i­mal­ist com­poser Terry Ri­ley, ex­per­i­men­tal com­poser-gui­tarist Fred Firth, and many oth­ers have writ­ten for the quar­tet un­der the Rova:Arts ban­ner. Other col­lab­o­ra­tors range from free-jazz com­poser and sax­o­phon­ist An­thony Brax­ton to gui­tar power trio the Nels Cline Singers. But it’s Rova’s own mu­sic, of­ten with un­usual har­monies and rhyth­mic pat­terns, that best de­fines its sound. When Ochs, who sees duty mostly on tenor, pulled his car over on an Oak­land street to tell Pasatiempo that he’s on his way to re­hearse some new Rova com­po­si­tions to be per­formed on April 17 at San Fran­cisco’s Cen­ter for New Mu­sic, it seemed some­thing of an an­nounce­ment. Might some of those works be heard when the quar­tet ap­pears in Santa Fe at the Gig Per­for­mance Space on Fri­day, April 24?

Ochs im­me­di­ately tried to play down Pasa’s no­tion that Rova will be per­form­ing newly com­posed pieces by its mem­bers. “It’s not like we haven’t pretty much al­ready ex­plored ev­ery nook and cranny of the sax­o­phone quar­tet. We al­ways come up with fresh ma­te­rial, but it’s prob­a­bly not some­thing ground­break­ingly new and in­no­va­tive. We keep it in­ter­est­ing, though.”

Over the years, Ochs has writ­ten only a dozen or so pieces for the quar­tet, un­like, say, Adams, who’s writ­ten more than 50. Ochs said he usu­ally thinks in terms of larger en­sem­bles. “I’ve done more writ­ing for our col­lab­o­ra­tive sit­u­a­tions. I’m not sure why. It just seems eas­ier to think of things to do with two drum­mers or do­ing orches­tral things. That’s where most of my writ­ing en­ergy goes.” One of Ochs’ quar­tet com­po­si­tions, “Paint An­other Take of the Shoot, Pop,” heard on Rova’s 2003 col­lec­tion of live record­ings, From the

Vault, is il­lus­tra­tive of the band’s sound. Af­ter Ochs’ long, in­quis­i­tive solo, the quar­tet de­vel­ops themes, aired by dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of so­prano, alto, tenor, and bari­tone, that slowly evolve into more de­fin­i­tive state­ments filled with em­bel­lish­ments and break­away lines in a fas­ci­nat­ing mix of in­di­vid­u­al­ism and in­ter­play. This ap­proach puts Rova in a class by it­self, apart from other sax­o­phone quar­tets such as the per­son­al­ity-driven World Sax­o­phone Quar­tet, also founded in 1977, whose mu­sic springs al­most ex­clu­sively from jazz and im­pro­vi­sa­tion.

Rova’s in­ter­na­tional visibility jumped in 1983 with the re­lease of Fa­vorite Street — Rova Plays Lacy ,a trib­ute on the Ital­ian Black Saint la­bel to in­no­va­tive com­poser and so­prano sax­o­phon­ist Steve Lacy. It was also the year that the quar­tet trav­eled to the Soviet Union, re­sult­ing in a PBS spe­cial and a dou­ble LP,

Sax­o­phone Diplo­macy, re­leased in 1986 on the Swiss Hathut la­bel and still a cult clas­sic. Rova’s non­profit busi­ness model paid off al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter its launch in 1985, fund­ing a U.S. visit from the Rus­sian Ganelin Trio, a Soviet-era free-jazz pi­ano, sax­o­phone, and drums combo. The non­profit sta­tus also gave Rova the stand­ing to seek money for hir­ing noted com­posers to come up with work for the quar­tet. “In the ’90s we were se­ri­ously into com­mis­sions,” Ochs said. “There were two things driv­ing that. One was that the Meet the Com­poser foun­da­tion in New York was

pro­vid­ing money for com­mis­sions so that we could go and ap­proach dif­fer­ent com­posers for mu­sic. We knew that you weren’t go­ing to get some­one like Jack DeJohnette to write some­thing for you un­less you can pay. So we had the op­por­tu­nity to do that over the whole decade.”

If the ’90s were de­voted to com­mis­sions, the first decade of the 21st cen­tury was de­voted to col­lab­o­ra­tions. “We were able to in­vite all kinds of mu­si­cians to work with us — some that we might have worked with be­fore and some that we had never worked with.” Per­for­mance col­lab­o­ra­tions in­cluded Elec­tric As­cen­sion, a re­make of John Coltrane’s clas­sic free-jazz piece with an en­sem­ble of new mu­sic gui­tarists and other mu­si­cians; Raskin’s The Hear and Now with the quar­tet and a Chi­nese in­stru­men­tal en­sem­ble; and Eye Mu­sic for Ears, a col­lec­tion of com­po­si­tions by Adams, Raskin, Frith, and oth­ers writ­ten in graphic no­ta­tion — mu­sic played from il­lus­tra­tions rather than tra­di­tional mu­si­cal scores — with for­mer Kronos Quar­tet vi­o­lin­ist Joan Jean­re­naud, gui­tarist Frith, jazz bassist Mark Dresser, and oth­ers.

It’s been like a long mar­riage. We’ve re­ally got­ten to know each other. We can walk

into a room any­where, un­re­hearsed, and put on a good con­cert. I feel like, yes, things change, but there’s a cer­tain kind of strength we have to­gether that’s never

go­ing away as long as we’re on the planet. And that’s pretty cool. — Larry Ochs

The quar­tet con­tin­ues to do col­lab­o­ra­tive pieces — its 2010 work, The

Sax Cloud, writ­ten by Adams and Raskin, was per­formed by 16 sax­o­phon­ists — but the pace has slowed. “We got to a point like we were do­ing too much of it and not enough quar­tet pieces from com­posers in the band.” Part of that slow­ing is due to the fall in arts fund­ing from pri­vate givers and the way mu­sic is dis­trib­uted in the 21st cen­tury. “The arts busi­ness has taken a big blow in the last five or seven years, since the fi­nan­cial cri­sis,” Ochs ex­plained. “Things are much more dif­fi­cult now. Ev­ery­one on the planet is try­ing to fig­ure out how to in­ter­face with the new de­liv­ery sys­tem over the in­ter­net. That’s been a big hit: Not hav­ing record stores pretty much changes ev­ery­thing in terms of be­ing able to make a record­ing and get it out in ef­fec­tive ways. Now, even down­load sales have dropped as stream­ing sales go up. Stream­ing is maybe a great thing for pop mu­si­cians, but def­i­nitely not for peo­ple who write com­po­si­tions that last 10 or 15 min­utes.” Tour­ing re­mains a con­tin­u­ing way of get­ting the mu­sic out there. “That’s the only way that arts bands like us sur­vive,” Ochs said, not­ing that gov­ern­ment sup­port of the arts has also tum­bled since the group’s Sax­o­phone Diplo­macy days. “Now that cap­i­tal­ism doesn’t have to prove to com­mu­nism how cool its arts are by pre­sent­ing them all over the place, it’s up to us to put peo­ple in the seats.” Rova has adapted to to­day’s mu­sic-dis­tri­bu­tion mar­ket by of­fer­ing a large sam­ple of its mu­sic through its web­site ( for free.

As for its New Mex­ico con­certs, Ochs said, “I can tell you that what we’ll play will prob­a­bly be 95 per­cent Rova com­po­si­tions.” Af­ter nearly 40 years, he ad­mit­ted, the group doesn’t re­ally work from a set playlist. “Some­times we’ll get into a per­for­mance space that has a cer­tain feel and we’ll think of a piece that would be per­fect in there. Af­ter all this time, we’ve got a pretty deep book.” De­spite changes in the mu­sic busi­ness, the mak­ing of mu­sic, he said, only gets bet­ter. “Even Steve, our new guy, has been in the band over 25 years. So it’s been like a long mar­riage. We’ve re­ally got­ten to know each other. We can walk into a room any­where, un­re­hearsed, and put on a good con­cert. I feel like, yes, things change, but there’s a cer­tain kind of strength we have to­gether that’s never go­ing away as long as we’re on the planet. And that’s pretty cool.”

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