It's tempting to say that saxophonist Jon Raskin is the strong, silent Buddha of the Bay Area's veteran jazz/new-music combo Rova Saxophone Quartet. But anyone familiar with his trenchant compositions and explosive solo flights on sopranino, alto, and especially baritone may find the “silent” reference above a bit ludicrous. Still, compared to fellow bandmates Larry Ochs, Bruce Ackley, and Steve Adams, who have each recorded and performed with a number of non-Rova groups in recent years, from What We Live to Actual Size to the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble, Raskin seems to keep a low public profile in terms of side projects. Maybe Rova's demanding rehearsal and international performance schedule over the past two decades has been more than enough to slake the saxophonist's thirst for novel explorations in sound. Perhaps family and day-job duties have further precluded his pursuit of outside interests. Or it could be that Raskin's standards are such that he's just not easily swayed into non-Rova gigs.
When he does venture outside the regular forum, it's going to be for something special. Take for instance last year's The Bass & the Bird Pond, the saxophonist's exceptional debut recording as a leader. Culled from a couple of local live shows in late '96 with widely acclaimed New York downtowners Tim Berne (alto sax) and Michael Formanek (bass), and one-of-a-kind Bay Area expat (now living in Gotham) Elliot Kavee (drums, cello), the disc illustrates the kind of world-class company Raskin keeps. It also underscores his strength as a composer, which is synonymous with his prowess as an improviser. Invariably, Raskin's improvisations are connected to, but not bound by, the harmonic development of his extended compositions, which come across with an indissoluble yet elastic through-line, an internal logic that propels the music forward from the first to last notes. While evading predictability, every phrase makes perfect sense — a rare feat that often requires great foresight in the planning, then a greater letting-go in the playing. It's an exacting art, and Jon Raskin may be its Zen master.