Sax Maniacs

The Rova Saxophone Quartet blows hard and dense

"That's the strangest thing I've ever heard," remarked a friend in the dazed aftermath of a live performance by the Rova Saxophone Quartet of Larry Ochs' "The Secret Magritte." The heady work was originally commissioned by the Antwerpen '93 festival; the U.S. premiere was this concert at Mills College last summer. The quartet (Ochs, Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, Jon Raskin) and five supporting players -- two bassists (Lisle Ellis, Barry Guy), two pianists (Marilyn Crispell, Chris Brown), and a vibist/percussionist (William Winant) -- pummeled the Mills College audience of new-music devotees and their unsuspecting companions. It wasn't the sound mass in itself that was so brutal; but one of the heaviest sonic barrages you'll ever likely encounter, when combined with an oppressively warm, stuffy, and acoustically muddy room, created an overwhelming experience for many listeners.

The ambitious piece is much more clearly defined, and palatable, on the recent CD release of the live gig. The recording's dynamic EQ and the well-balanced channel separation of the instruments magically bring the individual performances, along with Ochs' vision, into sharp focus. Full ensemble sections are as engaging and audible as the mesmeric bass duet of the intro. It's even possible to discern the composer's structural breakdown of the nonet into discrete units of horns, basses, and the piano and vibes. Ochs says his work, inspired by Belgian artist Magritte's paintings, tries to tell "an impressionistic story open to varied interpretations, all 'correct.' "

My impressed concert partner interpreted "The Secret Magritte" as an awesome blowout -- not only of sheer information overload but of conceptual ingenuity as well. She was amazed that someone actually conceived of such a dense, "prickly" way of putting sounds together. Since she had never been exposed to the recorded landmarks of collective improv's pioneering restructuralist ideas -- works like Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz, John Coltrane's Ascension, or any of Sun Ra's intergalactic bombardments -- her reaction made perfect sense. With no point of reference, she could find no place to break into the music, no way of differentiating between the collective intensity of the group and the individual expressions of the players. She couldn't grasp the totality of the music because she couldn't hear what was going on.

This underscores one of the chief arguments for ignoring this kind of music, namely, that most non-initiates need to prime their listening mechanisms (ears) in order to actually hear it. And in a society that demands and often obtains instant gratification, why should one go through the trouble? Jazz critic John Corbett offers an answer on the notes to the quintessential new Rova disc, Ptow!! (an ideal onomatopoeic statement of the quartet's mighty impact): "Rova's music isn't immediately 'accessible,' but that's because it is mature enough to hold back some of its joys, smart enough to delay certain gratifications. It requires that the listener spend quality-time listening. On repeated hearings the significance of the work doesn't fade, but grows sharper, bolder, more definite."

Four years ago at my first live Rova experience (at Great American Music Hall, if memory serves) I was steamrolled by the audacity of the sonic assault. Cross-town traffic came immediately to mind: an abrasive, seemingly chaotic but structured mass of sparring horns -- horns of all sizes, from the mammoth baritone to the petite sopranino, colliding and colluding to mess up my mind. With few reference points of my own at this time, I was nonetheless taken at once with the full-throttle madness, and sucked in by the immediacy of the music's hugeness. The aggressive energy and internal rhythms echoed familiar grooves of thrash or hardcore punk, but there were obviously more sophisticated, deeply layered musical principles at work as well.

Rova's trademarks are calculated development and constant metamorphoses in volume, tempo, tone, rhythm, and spellbinding melody. Although they blow with extreme intensity at times, the band members have been known to temper the full-on pounding with beautiful pianissimo passages. They also employ a full range of fascinating extended techniques -- player-conducted game pieces, cue cards, contrapuntal juxtapositions, and numerous other collage methods -- as springboards for the improvs. Stressing unpredictable harmonic progressions, unusual aggregates of rapid-fire, simultaneously voiced notes, and timbral evocations of feral creatures (from wounded water buffalo to cheeping ducklings), Rova's music is totally alive every moment of the music-making.

Inspired almost 20 years ago by Anthony Braxton's quartet recording of "Composition No. 37" -- for fellow saxophonists Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett, who would later team up with David Murray as the World Saxophone Quartet -- Rova grew out of a desire to play what Ackley calls "very energetic, expressive music that was not totally indebted to black music" like straight-ahead bop or the modal extrapolations of the post-Coltrane, New York energy school. Ackley sees Rova's music as a "particularly American hybrid" that encompasses the "declaration" and power of hard rock, the "rhythmic speech quality" of rap, various blues approaches, the full jazz traditions (minus bebop, because it's overdone and has "become like a religion"), and new-music elements of 20th-century classical composers like Xenakis, Stockhausen, and Cage.

The saxophonist explains, "We've consciously tried to create something that's very personal, that's our own. And we come to it with discipline [via] structures or strategies for improvisation to help fill out and balance the written music." The level of artistry that Rova brings to its seamless integration of open (improv) and closed (composed) forms has garnered it a small but enthusiastic following of creative-music fans from Latvia to Seattle. The group's thoughtful confrontations are a necessary challenge to the preponderance of disposable musics in the mainstream. Unlike the World Saxophone Quartet -- whose most recent album, Four Now, augments its horn base with market-friendly African drums and vocals -- Rova has never attempted to modify its sound for commercial purposes.

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