Into the Maelstrom

The Rova Saxophone Quartet once again honors the freewheeling spirit of Bay Area jazz improvisers

"First of all, I'm a melodic writer, so I write melodies," he says of the music he wrote for Rovate. "I think of every musician as his own individual, with his own voice as part of the whole. Each individual, a real democracy -- you know what I mean?" He adds: "This is an orchestra that accompanies itself. I have the freedom to do all these different colors under the solos, to enhance the solos, I mean to stimulate them -- this is what it's all about when you write for virtuosos."

The four musicians who make up Rova -- Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, and Bruce Ackley -- have been every bit as persistent as Rivers in their pursuit of original sounds.

Inspired to structure their improvisations by composers like Braxton and Mitchell, early pioneers of the saxophone ensemble, Rova is now listed in the Rough Guide to Jazz as "arguably the most exciting of the saxophone quartets to emerge in the format's late-'70s boom." Music from that early period, rich in improvised melodies textured smoothly above intricate, supple harmonies, is excellently documented on 1985's Saxophone Diplomacy, a live recording (with original member Andrew Voigt) of the historic tour the group made of the Soviet Union in 1983 at the height -- or nadir -- of Reagan's "Evil Empire" days.

That tour sparked a collaborative thrust that has shaped Rova's music ever since. In 1984 the group established itself as a nonprofit organization, which allowed it to apply for grant money to fund the many fruitful collaborations it's embarked upon with musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Fred Ho, John Zorn, and the Kronos Quartet. Highlights of Rova's more recent output include its live recording of Ascension with a large ensemble, released in 1997 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of that important free-jazz piece by John Coltrane, and 1998's Bingo, made up mostly of guest compositions that play like short surrealist films in the mind's eye.

The Rovate festival, and Rova's collaboration with Rivers, is a natural continuation of this collaborative spirit -- in this case, one that took a long time to come about. "We had a chance to perform some quintet improvisations [with Rivers] at a festival in Seattle a few years ago," says Raskin. Rivers and the band "hit it off" according to Ackley, and as Rova continued touring they met again in Orlando, where Rivers and his wife now live, and discussed a collaborative project. "We began to realize Sam is a prolific composer and that he had extensive compositions for big band," says Raskin. "He has a large ensemble in Florida that performs these works, but this is too expensive to tour with. We thought the big-band music would be the best choice to present because of the wealth of great players in the Bay Area."

That wealth was on display at last year's Rovate festival, which featured local improv artists such as Wadada Leo Smith, John Schott, George Cremaschi, and Lisle Ellis performing in ensembles with Rova members like Ochs' What We Live and Ackley's Actual Size. There was also Schott's large ensemble piece with Rova member Steve Adams, Carla Kihlstedt of Tin Hat Trio and Charming Hostess, and Gino Robair, among others. The two-night festival had an overall sense of experimentation and fun, as Rova members switched between different groups as fluidly as they switch instruments during performances by their own quartet.

This year, local talent will make up the bulk of the large ensemble, consisting of six saxes, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, bass, and drums. Rivers is bringing his own rhythm section, Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole, but otherwise the roster will consist of Rova and Bay Area improv artists.

"The main challenges are logistical," says Raskin of the big-band format. "Getting everyone together to rehearse and play." And while the large-ensemble Rivers music will obviously be the centerpiece of the festival, Ochs stresses that local musicians are also featured in the rest of the program, in which Rova premieres three new compositions commissioned from Bay Area kotoist Miya Masaoka ("Music for Mouths"), guitarist Schott ("Second Thoughts"), and clarinetist Ben Goldberg ("Three Habits").

Says Schott of Rova: "They've played together 20-plus years, they rehearse constantly and ferociously, they tour and record prolifically, they go out of their way to encourage and create opportunities for up-and-comers, and they are just so damn good at what they do.

"Who wouldn't want to be involved with that?"

Rova Saxophone Quartet presents Rovate 2: An Improvisers Festival Friday and Saturday, June 25 and 26, at 7:30 p.m. at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. (at Shotwell), S.F. Tickets are $15 per night, $12 students and seniors. Call 863-9834.

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