An Alligator in Your Wallet

By Ken Waxman
December 27, 2004

Limited to Japanese distribution, An Alligator in Your Wallet is an important CD because it provides new evidence for what already should be regarded as truisms.

One is that the usually self-contained Bay area saxophone quartet ROVA can smoothly function as the sax section in any sized ensemble. The other is that pianist Satoko Fujii, who divides her time between Tokyo and New York, is a versatile enough composer to utilize the idiosyncrasies of these musicians in more experimental pieces than she usually writes for her own bans and combos.

A motley crew of the West Coast’s best improvisers, the 12-piece Orkestrova includes trumpeter Darren Johnston, veteran Michael Vlatkovich and Tom Yoder on trombones, violinist Carla Kihlstedt and Scott Amendola on drums and electronics. Added are Fujii, her husband and playing partner, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, Angelo-turned-Brooklynite bassist Ken Filiano, and ROVA itself. That’s Bruce Ackley on soprano and tenor saxophones, Larry Ochs on sopranino and tenor saxophones, Jon Raskin on baritone saxophone and Steve Adams — who wrote the two pieces here not from Fujii’s pen — on alto saxophone and bass flute

Interestingly enough, for a musician who is a member of the best-known, so-called avant-garde sax quartet, it’s Adams’ pieces that inch closest to pure swing. His “Chuck”, for instance, is a bluesy romp that at times sounds as if it’s being played by Count Basie’s horn section. The more-than-16 minute composition is borne on call-and-response riffing from the reeds as well as Fujii’s outgoing arpeggio-rich soloing until it splinters into individual solos. Backed by walking bass and syncopated drumbeats, for instance, the composer frolics, slithers and squeals when it’s his time in front of the mic.

After that, Ackley produces reed blasts that match up with Yoder’s full plunger mode output, their duet mirrored later at a wavering, slower tempo by resonant licks from Raskin paired with breezy grace notes from Johnston. Polyphonic horn expansion then gives way to a perfectly executed ‘bone display by Vlatkovich that’s simultaneously clean and funky. As the piece reaches its climax, bravura hocketing and humorous broken octaves from all the horns meld, than fade away.

“Survival (in Five Acts)” — Adams’ other contribution — is a touch more extended than the former tune. It showcases his sonorous bass flute that presages a symphonic melding of timbres cushioning sweet, vocalized smears and wavering broken chords from the horns. Ominous sounding in parts, the line is extended with metallic electronic-like oscillations, with the constriction burst by Ochs’ twittering altissimo tone, high-pitched string-stretching from Filiano and irregular piano pulses. As Ochs continues to double and triple tongue, Kihlstedt’s jettes turn spiccato and pantonal lines sluice back and forth. Polyphonic sax timbres slow the tune down back to an echoing bass flute solo that reshapes the theme as the finale.

Fujii’s compositions are another matter. Experienced in creating for large groups —she leads both a Japanese and an American big band — she manages the incredible feat of crafting dual-purpose pieces. Their performance seems to showcase screaming free-for-alls that you’d expect from other Energy Music classics such as Ascension or Machine Gun, while calling on the disciplined harmonies of a drilled modern swing ensemble like Gerry Mulligan’s legendary Concert Jazz Band. Certainly the first track, “A Lion in your Bag”, has all those attributes.

Characterized by a firm tempo, reminiscent of one of Anthony Braxton’s early marching band-style pieces, the title tune places jittery, flutter tonguing from Ackley on top of a malleable bouncing vamp from the other horns. As the trombones lob rubato grace notes at one another, Amendola’s percussion texture resembles big top circus music. Whinnying, whistling trumpet lines precede reed riffs and foretell a high-pitched, brassy ending.

Most atonal of the lot is the almost 10-minute “A Zebra on Your Roof”, where percussive rolls and flams plus massed reed section vamps follow almost otherworldly electronic oscillation. As the horn parts augment in volume, other timbres turn subservient to sul ponticello sweeps from the fiddler. In opposition Adams — on alto — produces smeary, circular, runs, while other hornmen assert themselves through determinedly vibrated lines. Pulsating piano chording that churns beneath all the other parts, mixed with faux-romantic violin tones, together suggest a chamber music concerto. That is until slammed percussion rhythms meld and mutate the shifting theme. Putting all classical references aside, the climax finds the brass heading towards Cat Anderson-like screeching tremolo territory.

Worth seeking out, the CD confirms the multi-faceted skills as players and orchestrators of both ROVA members and Fujii herself.