On The Cover

Rova: Still Creative After All These Years
By Ken Waxman

Someone once described Rova as the Grateful Dead of Jazz. A comparison to the Rolling Stones would be more accurate. For more than 38 years, with only one change in personnel 27 years ago, the Bay area-based saxophone quartet has created high quality music. However unlike the venerable British rockers whose music hasn’t been cutting edge for decades, Rova continues to evolve and experiment.

Case in point: this month’s series of NYC concerts. From the 19th to the 24th, the band’s residency at The Stone offers a retrospective of classic Rova material as well as new works. Some sets will feature Rova and guest musicians, some of whom have never played with the band before. Before that, on January 17th at Le Poisson Rouge, an expanded Rove ensemble will perform Electric Ascension, a 21st Century re-imagining of John Coltrane’s classic work. Concurrently, RogueArt will release Channeling Coltrane, containing a live performance of Electric Ascension from the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival on DVD and Blue-ray; a CD of the music itself; plus Cleaning the Mirror, a documentary that mixes the story of Rova’s Ascension adaptation with a history of the creation of Coltrane’s seminal session.

“It’s a challenge to work on the older material,” admits Rova soprano and tenor saxophonist Bruce Ackley, 67. “We mastered these pieces at one point and now we’re playing them in a different way”. In preparation for the Rova retrospective, the group has been rehearsing old and new material since September, he adds. “And we’ll be in amazing shape for January.”

The saxophonist can easily vouch for Rova’s long-term capabilities. After all it was for a concert during the 1978 San Francisco Free Music Festival that he, sopranino and tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs, 66, alto and baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin, 62, plus original member Andrew Voigt first performed as Rova. Ackley had already been part of a wind trio with another saxophonist and a trumpeter and had decided that for experimental music “it seemed pretty natural to stay clear of a rhythm section. Without a piano you didn’t have chord progressions and without a bass and drums there were no time keepers,” he says. Earlier each musician had been impressed by the harmonies created on Steve Lacy’s Saxophone Special LP with Evan Parker, Steve Potts and Trevor Watts; plus the cut on Anthony Braxton’s New York Fall 1974 LP that included Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluitt. “Once we heard the harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of the four reeds and the interactive methods we evolved, we liked what we were hearing.” remembers Ackley. “We realized we could stretch things out for a long time.”

The four had started rehearsing nearly in September for the festival scheduled for November and when it was postponed to the following February were able tighten their performance even more. At around the same time, Ochs, who had radio experience, recorded some of the tunes that became Cinema Rovaté, the band’s first LP on Ochs’ own Metalanguage label, and he sent a tape of it to the artistic director of the Moers Music Festival in Germany. Apparently Ochs says he understands that the director played the tape when Braxton happened to be in his office. Hearing the tape Braxton became so excited by the sound that he insisted: “Hire those guys” and Rova was booked for the next year’s festival.

With this “carrot” as Ochs calls it, in front of them, the band was encouraged to seek out other performing opportunities, with like-minded musicians locally and elsewhere. Rova participated in one of the first West Coast performances of John Zorn’s Cobra for instance. It also began commissioning new works for saxophone quartet. In the years since, more than 30 pieces of structured improvisation have been created for the band by the likes of Terry Riley, Braxton, Pauline Oliveros, Fred Frith, Lindsay Cooper and John Carter. Some of these commissions are being revived during the Stone residency

“Being on the West Coast has kept the band together all these years,” suggest Ochs. “There was less pressure to make it. We were sort of isolated and there weren’t a billion musicians out here.” In fact, Rova soon became established enough that in 1983 the band members became the first American improvisers to tour the Soviet Union. That concert’s release on hatArt as Saxophone Diplomacy led to affiliations with more record labels and the gradual de-emphasis of Metalanguage, except for a single Rova and John Zorn LP in 2011.

Acclaimed elsewhere, Ackley suggests the Bay area situation was different. “When we started we were thought of as unusual, as heretical. We didn’t fit in the [notated] avant garde realm because, we didn’t have degrees from Yale and we weren’t really in the jazz realm. Our music was idiosyncratic.” Determined to expand the audience, the non-profit umbrella organization Rova:Arts was created in 1986. Since that time, with Ochs as acting executive director plus a board of directors, Rova:Arts administers the ensemble's activities, produces Rova shows as well as the annual Rovaté festival and commissions new works. This status also allows the band to apply for funding. “Grants let a lot of things happen,” states Ochs firmly. “There would be no Electric Ascension without a grant.”

Rova faced another challenge in 1988 when Voigt left the band. Although alto and sopranino saxophonist Steve Adams, 63, technically stepped in as a sub just before a seven-week European tour, he’s been with the band ever since. A former member of composers’ collectives plus Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet in Boston, Adams has similar interests as the other band members. “Rova has a creative approach to structure in improvised music and when I first heard it I found it was only group in jazz – in its broadest sense – that was able to erase the differences between composition and improvisation,” notes Adams. “The group’s openness excited me when I joined, though playing in Rova was like picking up a new language.”

After participating in a one-hour piece Terry Riley composed for Rova and also playing alongside Braxton during that European tour, Adams obviously mastered the language. Original material from all Rova members will be played during the Stone residency and Adams is also “rearranging and renovating” Ochs’ 1994 eight-saxophone composition “Figurer 8”, since three of the four other participations weren’t on the original recording and play different saxophones. “Figure 8” is just one of the many older pieces that will be part of the Rova retrospective at the Stone. Another is Carter’s “Colors”. Recently Rova has deemphasized scores in favor of improvising, reports Ackley, so it’s been a challenge to play something like ‘Colors’.” The piece is “mind blowing” in how complex it is, yet how easily the parts flow together, agrees Ochs. Over the years Rova has reveled in this kind of challenge as well as forming ad hoc ensembles with other musicians. “It’s really important to have people we play with who really push it; and we’re always looking for that,” declares Ochs.

Seeking a new challenge is what convinced the band in 1995 to tackle the iconic Ascension after both of Coltrane’s recorded versions of Ascension were released in one CD package. Reading the booklet notes, Raskin was shocked to realize that Coltrane’s 11-member ensemble had never performed the piece live. “This is such a good piece of music,” he recalls thinking. “Rova should do it.” Transcribing the arrangement from the record with the exact instrumentation “was pretty simple”, he says. “When we got to the end the first time we played it I was amazed to see how the form was really a jazz composition. The form decides the shape of the piece. There’s an exposition, the melody and four chords to improvise on. Coltrane was involved in letting individual players go out and be free and that’s why you end up with that wonderful cacophony.”

A few years after the acoustic Ascension was performed and recorded, Raskin and Ochs thought of recasting the piece for Rova’s 25th anniversary celebration. Figuring that Coltrane would have moved with the times and investigated the possibilities of using electric instruments, the piece was then arranged for electric guitar, electric bass and electronic processing. This version too has been performed numerous times and recorded. “We imagined what Trane would have done 30 years later,” reveals Raskin. “Ascension isn’t a dead end. If you take something, move on it and make it your own, that’s what’s involved in jazz. How many versions of ‘All the Things You Are’ exist for instance?” Adds Ackley: “Ascension has been very important in my life. When I first heard it I couldn’t image how intense it was. And now there are times I walk on stage and can’t believe that I’m going to play it.”

San Francisco producer/director John Rogers who has been similarly fascinated by Ascension was for many years involved in filming Cleaning the Mirror. The drawback was that besides interviews, all the music he had was hand-held-camera cutaways of the Rova Orchestra performing the suite. A multi-camera concert performance with high quality sound was needed, and the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival show was ideal. “I’m usually the guy who has to face all the worry and stress when arranging something like this,” recalls Ochs. “But when I was on stage [in Guelph] listening to the performance, I said ‘this is a great concert’. Steve Lacy once said that when you play you should lift the bandstand and it happened several times during that concert.” That’s why an audio version of the concert is included in the RogueArt package. Ochs is also excited about a particular feature of the Blue Ray disc which allows viewers to pick one musician from the mix and follow his or her playing throughout Ascension.

Ochs is the Rova member most involved in other projects, with his own bands such as What We Live, the Frictive Five and the Sax & Drumming Core. “Braxton once said play or die,” he relates, “and that’s what I do. I like to be on the road or in the recording studio." Although the others also work in other local ensembles, none imagines Rova dissolving any time in the near future. “I don’t see any reason for us to stop,” says Ackley. “We’re still all very enthusiastic.” Yet perhaps Raskin describes the situation most profoundly: “When you hear the band you know we’ve been together for a long time. It shows in the nuances in our playing. After 38 years it’s obvious we’ve been working on things for a long time and working to make them better.”

Recommended Listening

Rova Saxophone Quartet – Cinema Rovaté (Metalanguage 1978)

Rova – Saxophone Diplomacy (hatArt 1985)

Figure 8, Rova Saxophone Quartet – Pipe Drams (Black Saint 1995)

Rova – John Coltrane's Ascension - Rova's 1995 Live Recording (Black Saint 1995)

Rova & Nels Cline Singers – The Celestial Septet (New World Records 2010)

Rova Saxophone Quartet – Channeling Coltrane (RogueArt 2016)

—For The New York City Jazz Record December 2015