Totally Spinning
Black Saint BS 12026-2

Always improvised music’s second best-known saxophone quartet, the unWSQ perhaps or maybe more appropriately the Rolling Stones to the World Saxophone Quartet’s Beatles, Bay area-based ROVA has maintained an impressive consistency over the years.

Unlike Mick, Keef and the boys – and unlike some of the WSQ’s more populist recent projects – ROVA’s commitment to constant experimentation has kept it from becoming complacent or slipping into expected patterns. Almost 30 years on, the band still remains as vital as ever.

There’s also plenty of ROVA music to be experienced, as this session demonstrates. Recorded in 1996, but newly released, it finds the quartet members – soprano saxophonist Bruce Ackley, baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin, Steve Adams on soprano and alto saxophones and Larry Ochs on sopranino and tenor saxophones – in a particularly rhythmically driven mood.

Intentionally or not framed by eight minute plus introductory and concluding tracks, the four reedists use the eight compositions to highlight their individual and collective flexibility. Harmonically sophisticated as well as highly metrical, these tunes and others showcase a variety of riffs, vamps, call-and-response cross-patterning plus double-up-to-quadruple counterpoint.

The offbeat harmony doesn’t preclude theme and variation, and theme recapitulation, yet during these episodes, the players also illustrate unison honking and snorting, fluid trills, fortissimo broken octaves and tongue slaps. Looking for a link to the tradition? There are many passages throughout when Raskin tongues a snorting ostinato, and another hornman – usually Ochs on tenor or Adams on alto – vibrates higher-pitched split tones around it.

With echoes of other timbres ranging from granular R&B-style pedal point baritone saxophone honking – on “Preshrunk” – to slinky “Pink Panther”-like swelling alto saxophone split tones – on “Stiction” – ROVA subverts the standard parts of the compositions with extended reed techniques. Swelling contrapuntal lines and spetrofluctuation make their appearance more often than mellow obbligatos and close harmonies.

Although pointed nasal soprano lines and hocketing tenor side-slipping get better showcases elsewhere, the lengthiest pieces are the nearly eight-minute “Cuernavaca Starlight for Charles Mingus”, a straightforward tribute to the bassist-composer who always knew how to voice reeds, and the almost 16-minute episodic “It’s a Journey, Not a Destination”.

Playing up Mingus’ debt to Duke Ellington, the close-harmony interpretation on the first tune almost turns the piece into an outside concerto for Harry Carney’s baritone – with Raskin doing the honors – while the higher-pitched horns unite for a smeary approximation of another favorite Ducal device – the clarinet trio. Mid-range and comfortable, the piece allows for metallic reverberation as well as trilling polyphony.

More overtly contrapuntal as well as polyphonic, “It’s a Journey, Not a Destination” knits notes into a fabric of sharp, emphasized reed timbres. Moving horizontally most of time, the spinning and sprawling contrapuntal melody leaves enough space for a series of solos. First there’s clean, clear a capella from Adams’ alto, then that’s gradually doubled by the cello-like resonance of Raskin’s baritone. Ochs and Ackley riff in unison, until the call-and-response section opens up into snorting baritone pedal point, stuttering, biting tenor lines and glottal tongue-stops and slips from the others. Peeping snaps from the sopranino, plus tongue slaps and stretched tones from lower-pitched saxes give way to up-the-scale rappelling scampers and rhythmic note clusters. Climatically, the interconnected, almost impressionistic harmonies reflect back to the introduction before reaching a suitably lyrical finale.

No leftover blast from the past, Totally Spinning is vital music that can be heard in any year.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Let’s Go Totally Spinning 2. Stiction 3. Radar 11/19/01 4. Cuernavaca Starlight for Charles Mingus 5. Kick It 6. It’s a Journey, Not a Destination 7. Preshrunk 8. Radar, Version 731

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