Rova / Planetary
Bruce Ackley, Soprano and Tenor Saxophones / Steve Adams, Alto Saxophone / Larry Ochs, Tenor Saxophone / Jon Raskin, Baritone and Alto Saxophones
Track Listing: Parallel Construction #1 (Adams) (5:02); S (Ochs) (7:55); Flip Trap (Adams) (5:35); Glass Head Concretion (Adams) (1:06); Planetary (Ochs) (17:05); Parallel Construction #2 (Adams) (10:26). Tracks 1, 3, 4 and 6 recorded at Guerilla Euphonics, Oakland, CA by Myles Boisen on April 17-18, 2009. Tracks 2 and 5 recorded at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies, Berkeley, CA on April 6, 2003 by Myles Boisen.
Planetary Album Review One
It was a long time coming, but here is the first recording by the Rova Saxophone Quartet on a Russian label, released almost three decades since they headed off on their initial tour of Eastern Europe. It is worth searching out this CD for the liner notes by Alexander Kan alone, which provide the great back-story on how that first tour in 1983 came about. But of course, the music recorded by Rova is always well worth checking out and this collection of realizations of compositions by Steve Adams and Larry Ochs are no exception. The recording opens and closes with readings of two of Adams’ “Parallel Constructions” series, built off of long melodies as a framing focus for group improvisation, with particular note going to the closer, which builds labyrinthine waves of harmonized clusters and duo sections that course against each other with gathering layers of countering detail. Sequencing Ochs’ “S” and Adams’ “Flip Trap” together provides complementary examples of how the ensemble uses overlapping lines and mercurial, constantly morphing time signatures as the various sections of the quartet move in and out of synch with each other. Adams’ “Glass Head Concretion” and Ochs’ “Planetary” are more expansive structures, the first providing an immersive structure of changeable collective densities and textures and the later providing a jumping off point from a pulse-based theme into a swirling interactive game structure for spontaneous simultaneous solos. This 17-minute piece is a tour de force as each of the reed players spin off on propulsive excursions that constantly careen off of each other in new directions, using cellular motifs as a focal structure. With such a deep and extensive discography, it’s easy to miss out on Rova’s output, but this one is a particular winner.
Planetary Album Review Two
Those close to the venerable saxophone quartet suggest that the group was less than fully satisfied with 2007's The Jukebox Suite, though it hardly seems fair to single out this provocative album from a terrific run over the last few years (and hey, I dug it). Regardless of that appraisal, however, Planetary is a corker.
ROVA has often switched between albums that are relatively heavy on collaborations, on repertoire (theirs and others'), and on more or less exercise pieces. If that latter term sounds derisive, it's very much not: game pieces, graphic scores, and the like have often served as some of ROVA's most energizing source materials, and the six pieces on Planetary (two from 2003 and the rest from 2009, all of them by either Steve Adams or Larry Ochs) prove the truth of this.
"Parallel Construction #1" shows how vividly the band can use melody without being hamstrung by it, using the openness of certain well-constructed, pliable lines as a platform for multi-directional exploration. Here, it's a long, slow melody that sounds fully improvised, from the opening Jon Raskin statements to the unisons that sound like a glorious medieval canon. The churning riffs of "S" are pure Ochs, with lots of big, piping backgrounds, the whole like a metallic hurdy-gurdy. "Flip Trap" features an incredible duo for Adams' alto and Bruce Ackley's soprano, starting out gruff and intense and then morphing almost imperceptibly into something fragile sounding, almost vaporous. It's continually amazed me how deftly and gracefully ROVA can navigate structures like these, not only in terms of how they move between composed and free materials (or interpret relatively open-ended constructs) but in terms of how they swing from fragment to fragment without obvious flag-waving or signaling. Just consider "Glass Head Concretion," whose cool serenity might initially signal "new music" but – after a lovely gliss from sopranino – they could almost be cooing and strolling in some 1930s Kansas City band, that is, until the piece stutters its way into a field of static, little burrs, and cries. The title track, originally from 1995, opens with still more righteous swing, and is apparently rooted in what Ochs calls "a structural-improvisational" game. But it's hard to believe that a piece this richly balanced and considered is mostly improvised. There are fulsome chords, unisons, dazzling counterpoint, little cells and solos, you name it. But then, when a group has been this exploratory for this long, these kinds of things are possible (putting the lie to the notion that the first time is the best time in improv). And then after "Parallel Construction #2," which opens with a glorious section of Bartokian dances, an hour has somehow gone by.
Playful and serious at once, lyrical and out, this band draws together so many different ideas and idioms, it's not so much about inventing new languages as rejecting certain languages that would see things as opposed. ROVA again moves from strength to strength. Long may they thrive.