Placés dans l’air
Potlatch P103

Victo cd 086

Once thought outlandish, all saxophone bands have become so commonplace in improvised music that it takes real inventiveness to differentiate any reed collective from others. PLACÉS DANS L’AIR and RESISTANCE manage to overcome this maxim, but in entirely different ways.

Actually, the superiority of the second CD shouldn’t surprise anyone: it’s by ROVA, the Bay area-based sax quartet, which has been operating in this configuration since 1978, constantly evolving and innovating. Organized as temporarily as ROVA is long standing, the trio of soprano saxophonists on the first CD is a one/off meeting among three experimental reedists: Paris-based Michel Doneda, Milan-based Alessandro Bosetti, and Bhob Rainey from Boston. Their disc succeeds because they manage to fuse their individual low-key approaches to the horn so that it appears to take on the characteristics of one immense reed instrument.

Each comes from the silence/sounds side of the improv continuum. Rainey, for instance, is part of the nmperign duo with experimental trumpeter Greg Kelley and has also collaborated with theremin master James Coleman and fellow reedist Jack Wright. Longtime innovator Doneda has worked with soundsinger Beñat Achiary, percussionist Lê Quan Ninh and fellow saxist Daunik Lazro. Member of the multi-European improvising group Phosphor, Bosetti even spent some time in the mid-1990s in the Takla Wind Quartet.

Don’t expect any conventional blending or harmonies on this disc’s more than 41½-minute continuous performance, however. Numerous and varied pitches, tones and resonances come to the fore, but the conventional sound of a soprano saxophone isn’t among them. The one strategy that seems consistent, however, is for one musician to take what in other circumstances would be called the lead, with the other two, doing what elsewhere would be called accompaniment.

Among the techniques on show are the hiss of whistling air, reverberations that could come from blowing through a plastic pipe; trumpet-like plunger spetrofluctuation; and bubble-blowing vibrations. Often each saxophonist will create more than one line himself, so there are periods when it seems that there are nine reed sounds — echoing sounds, overtones and undertones — floating through the air. Although aviary chirps and duck call tones fit into the scheme, swing and animation don’t. All the improvisations are linear, but often inert, moving ahead by expelled mouth pressure, not through rhythmic movement.

There are portions where the output is so hushed that even with your playback volume cranked up to maximum, it appears as if an ear trumpet could be called into play. Other times the three saxmen combine to come up with piercing, grating, reed-biting whistles that are nearly ear splitting. These segments can be so off-putting that they can put your teeth on edge — the approximate place where Bosetti, Doneda and Rainey’s choppers are anyways.

Add to all this a reliance on slap tonguing, growls, shrills at the tippy-top of the already elevated soprano pitch, reed kisses, vibrato-laden breaths, key-popping percussion, growling rumbles and split-second snarls that could come from a trapped feral animal and acceptance of the end result on the trio’s terms is mandatory. Yet if you put aside ideas of how reeds should sound and embrace the ugly beauty of the performance you’ll be audibly rewarded.

After more than a quarter century of inventiveness, ROVA insists that you accept the band on its terms as well. Individually, and as a group, the four has worked with everyone from trumpeter Dave Douglas and pianist/electronic composer Chris Brown, to fellow saxophonists Anthony Braxton and the late Glenn Spearman. Along the way the group has tried out many musics for size. Furthermore, as these performances from 1997 (the title track) and 2002 (the two others) attest, the Californians also often offer the listener more aural signposts than the trio on PLACÉS DANS L’AIR.

Case in point is tenor and sopranino saxophonist Larry Ochs’s “The Drift”. Referencing blues, hymns and shouts it initially couples restrained blues pattern from the sopranino with an euphonious balladic melody. Soon one of the tenor saxists — either Ochs or Bruce Ackley — and baritone saxist Jon Raskin steps forward for a series of swinging exchanges that bring to mind baritonist Hank Crawford and tenor man David “Fathead” Newman’s work with Ray Charles band in the early 1960s.

Riffing big band horn section allusions aside, the result is such that you can actually tap your foot to the proceedings. However before the listener gets too comfortable with the pseudo-Count Basie groove, razor sharp tones help to break up the rocking rhythm into more POMO reed separations. Soon the piece is unrolling altissimo, and off beats are added to the constant rhythm. The tenor continues with his solo, the baritone provides the ostinato underneath, and after a series of honks and trills, the tune ends with unison crescendo.

At once more abstract and more traditional, “Resistance”, a group instant composition, may include pre-recorded sax quartet samples to add to the sound picture at times. But elsewhere there’s an alto saxophone solo — probably played by Steve Adams — which seems to be built around standard changes, and which is surrounded by the other horns emulating the close harmonies of backup singers in a doo-wop group.

Although more concerned with pitches, tones, rests and vibrations than Bosetti, Doneda and Rainey, the quartet — and its sampled brothers — can combine rhythmic key- pad percussion, squealing tones, tugboat-whistle shrills and a cross section of tongue slaps to recreate gridlock traffic sounds. At the same time, as elsewhere, one member will usually take what could be called the lead — say Raskin sustaining pedal point continuum — the others will move in and out of the backing formation, taking turns using honks and harmony to cushion or comment on the purported front line. Sometimes the bari masticates great chunks of bottom-feeding tones and other times the soprano and sopraninos combine to produce a flock of swirling, bird-like vibrations. At intervals one saxman squeezes out an achingly pure tone as the other reeds snort, honk and expectorate.

Wadada Leo Smith’s 22-minute “the M’ad Din”, with portions inspired by graphic symbols in the Koran, coalesces all these influences, adding an additional tinge of Middle-Eastern exoticism. Introducing some elevated muezzin-like tones at the top, the composition soon finds the four moving back and forth between harmonies reminiscent of a society band’s reed section and individual lines.

Anything but discordant, a burbling baritone vibrato can be followed by a piercing sound resembling that of a Persian ney. Combined, overlapping, reed barbershop quartet harmonies realign themselves in a horizontal line, with each sax man contributing in turn. Throbbing, repeated soprano tones will be interrupted by a sprightly child-like theme, or a legato, very legit-sounding reed combination will morph into Swing band sax section riff patterns. By the end, protracted, smeared baritone sax cries meet the sopranino ney-pitched phrasing, while tonal, harmonic combinations lead to a multi-varied ending.

ROVA’s members would probably be surprised to hear their music referred to as traditional, but in comparison to Bosetti, Doneda and Rainey’s it is. What this means, though, is that there’s a choice of discs here for reed appreciating improv types — whether they’re really adventurous or really, really adventurous.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Placés: 1. Placés dans l’air 1 2. Placés dans l’air 2 3. Placés dans l’air 3 4. Placés dans l’air 4 5. Placés dans l’air 5

Personnel: Placés: Alessandro Bosetti, Michel Doneda and Bhob Rainey (soprano saxophones); Pierre-Olivier Boulant (subjective stereophonic recording)

Track Listing: Resistance: 1. Resistance 2. The Drift 3. The M’ad Din

Personnel: Resistance: Bruce Ackley (soprano and tenor saxophones); Steve Adams (soprano and alto saxophones); Larry Ochs (sopranino and tenor saxophones); Jon Raskin (sopranino, alto and baritone saxophones)