ROVA & Nels Cline Singers

The Celestial Septet
New World Records NW 80708-2

A prime – and rare – case of parts actually adding up to a more impressive whole, The Celestial Septet joins two independently functioning improvising units into a first-class ensemble. Although both California-based ensembles, ROVA and the Nels Cline Singers, create impressive programs on their own, referencing sounds ranging from Energy Music to Noise Rock, this nearly 69-minute CD is open ended enough to provide a superlative environment for each band’s enhanced creativity.

More than 30 years old, ROVA is improvised music’s pre-eminent saxophone quartet, promulgating creations that link Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor with Iannis Xenakis and Morton Feldman. As a unit or on their own, the four band members – Larry Ochs, Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin and Steve Adams – have worked with everyone from composer/saxophonist Anthony Braxton to kotoist Miya Masaoka, plus bassist Lisle Ellis and guitarist Fred Frith. A newer configuration, where thankfully no one is a vocalist, the Nels Cline Singers, are headed by a guitarist who has plays with musicians as varied as multi-reedist Vinny Golia and the band Wilco. Drummer Scott Amendola is part of a couple of Ochs’ side projects as well as playing with guitarist Jeff Parker among others; while bassist Devin Hoff is as comfortable working in the avant drums-and-bass duo Good for Cows as with the Sling and Arrow band.

Centrepiece of the session is Ochs nearly 25½-minute salute to saxophonist Albert Ayler, who was known to vocalize himself on occasions. Ignoring the divide between the so-called front line and rhythm section here as well as on the other compositions, “Whose to Know” has a theme as connected to the unison horns’ andante slurs as Cline’s folksy, trebly connective licks. As the bent notes multiply as the performance picks up speed, the tune exposes layered overtones that are both chromatic and sfumato. With the other saxes riffing and stuttering, Ochs’ outlines the narrative, while Cline’s solo turns quicken from plinks to a staccato replication of Ayler’s wide-bore melisma, with the additional distortion available from slurred fingering and reverb. Down below the hocketing cacophony, Amendola ruffs, smacks and drags, while Hoff’s thick stopping and wood-knocking pulse creates a frame for the polyphonic saxophone coloring. Completing the exposition by the final variants, Cline’s now gentle picking and Hoff’s slithering bass slaps introduce conclusive electronic drones which complement screaming, splintering reed tones.

Electronic swirls and pulses are more prominent on the drummer’s portrait of “Cesar Chávez”, which matches Raskin’s baritone saxophone snorts and slurs with downward strokes and twangs from the guitarist. Eventually, following some sopranino shrilling, the otherwise bulky reed parts coagulate decisively into thick vamps that are reminiscent of unison bagpipes lines.

Far removed from the other pieces is Cline’s 16-minute “The Buried Quilt”, whose overriding characteristic is serenity. This is advanced by waves of understated signal-processing, chain rattles, ceremonial bell ringing and curlicue triple sopranino flutter tones. Episodes of fortissimo atonality involving tongue-swallowed reed runs, polyphonic snorts and heavily rubbed bass lines meld with the oscillated electronic pulses for massed, whistling and conclusive timbres.

A first-class achievement the performance on this CD may not be incontestably heavenly, but it’s certainly celestial.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Cesar Chávez 2. Trouble Ticket 3. Whose to Know (for Albert Ayler) 4. Head Count 5. The Buried Quilt

Personnel: Bruce Ackley (soprano and tenor saxophones); Steve Adams (alto and sopranino saxophones); Larry Ochs (tenor, sopranino saxophones); Jon Raskin (sopranino, alto and baritone saxophones); Nels Cline (guitars); Devin Hoff (bass) and Scott Amendola (drums)