Playing by Ear

Bruce Ackley and the art of listening

Soprano saxophonist Bruce Ackley honed his craft not by playing, but by listening. He's developed that skill for 21 years as a member of the celebrated Rova Saxophone Quartet, a collaboration that demands its members play close attention to each other to keep improvisation fresh and varied. His vast record collection, which dominates a whole room of his Upper Haight flat, shows that the 50-year-old Ackley has a world-class ear. Most of the thousands of titles are, predictably, jazz, but the collection also contains everything from Bach and Beethoven to Buck Owens & His Buckaroos, spiked with European and American folk and Gypsy music. "I have an ear for everything," he says.

Listening is such an important part of Ackley's life that when he finally released his first solo album -- on John Zorn's respected Avant label -- he called it The Hearing.

When Ackley performs these pieces live with his trio, Actual Size, he unassumingly and articulately introduces each composition. A year ago at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, he explained that when he and Rova partner Steve Adams wrote "Mr. Mood," Ackley was thinking of Billy Strayhorn, the late composer and Duke Ellington collaborator.

As Ackley blew into his horn he glanced at the crowd like a schoolteacher over the top of his glasses, which had slipped down the bridge of his nose. He suggested the melody to the bass and drums (George Cremaschi and Garth Powell) before taking off immediately on slow, sweet lines of thought, building them up like a fountain. Gradually it became apparent that Ackley was improvising freely, turning the sweet melody he'd just introduced inside out in a way so organic to its original structure that the audience hardly noticed at first. It was as though Ackley had disconnected himself from the source of the fountain, but had somehow managed to keep the water going up and up by some mysterious power.

When the fountain came down at last, Ackley splashed a jazz of notes everywhere, squawking and braying them through his horn, tightening his lips to spray out short brassy gasps. He flowed back into the original melody, the rhythm of which had miraculously been kept up by Cremaschi and Powell, and the song quietly came to a stop. Like Strayhorn's music, the tune was catchy yet complex, deceptively simple and soaring.

I met Ackley later that night. As we talked, I realized that his entire life is a reflection of the thoughtful, patient, finally astonishing way that he plays music. The way he listens.

When he's not playing with Rova or Actual Size, Ackley works two days a week at Amoeba Records in Berkeley. He prices used vinyl and invariably sets aside a stack of the records that seem interesting to him. "I've been collecting since I was a teen-ager, but this particular collection got started when Rova put out our first record, Cinema Rovate," he says, motioning to the enormous wall of crates in his home. "I don't know how many I have, but there are always more coming home with me."

Amoeba's not his only job; he has a computer gig that, with Amoeba, gives him a 40-hour work week. Nevertheless, Ackley tries to practice a few hours a day. He admits that his work responsibilities are sometimes frustrating. "[I]f I were younger maybe I would just pack it in and go play," he says, "but I started late."

Ackley grew up in the Detroit suburbs; he didn't begin learning the sax until he was 22. "When I was young, I sang," he remembers. "I sang in choirs and glee clubs; I was always interested in music. I did sing soprano until my voice changed, and then I still sang soprano in falsetto sometimes because I really liked it, and I always listened to doo-wop, the high falsettos, and I really loved that."

When he was 14, a friend played Ackley an album that had just come out called My Favorite Things, featuring John Coltrane on soprano sax. "I was floored, I was really, really floored," he says. "I didn't really pick up that thread in the music for another four or five years, but it definitely planted a seed."

It wasn't until an art school friend gave him a sax and invited him to a weekly informal jam session that Ackley began playing. Wary of the structure of art school and the difficulties he'd faced there, Ackley developed a practice technique that was deceptively simple, a philosophy that still informs his music today.

"I wanted to do in music whatever would make me want to continue doing it," he says. "So I didn't want to present myself with some kind of obstacle that would be discouraging at that point. I didn't want to do music I couldn't play, I just wanted to stay within my limitations. I just played free.

"I did start to practice, I did start to learn scales and chords, and it was fun. [But] when there was this implied way that you had to do something, like you had to learn how to play bebop or ... jazz or blues or funk -- I had no interest in that whatsoever." Ackley ruminates on this point for quite a while before concluding, "I think people learn what they have to learn to do what they have to do. And I think that still applies for me."

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