Defining a sound
The Rova Saxophone Quartet at Gig
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 (www.rova.org) 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.”