Saxophone quartets are no longer the radical innovation they once were. Groups like The Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet and The Brooklyn Saxophone Quartet among others have appropriated the mantle originally carved out by ensembles like ROVA and the World Saxophone Quartet and in the process made the instrumentation a far more commonplace occurrence. But back in 1981 when As Was
was first released ROVA and the WSQ were essentially the only ensembles on the block willing throw their creative chips into such a seemingly lopsided coffer. Comprised of four Bay-Area based multi-reedists, ROVA was arguably the more resolutely avant-garde of the two aggregations. Emphasizing a balance between intricate composition and effervescent improvisation the four reedsmiths were all about testing the preconceived strictures of both their instruments and their imaginations.
This set of five finely crafted blowing vehicles begins with the blustery “Daredevils” and segues swiftly into the soprano centered “Quill” where Ackley beats a twisting path through a thicket of peripheral horn voicings from his partners. “Escape From Zero Village” rockets forward under the power of two twining altos and belligerent tenor with soprano wailing tonal streaks above. The interlocking lines become so dense at points that careful concentration on the part of the listener is all but demanded in order to sort out exactly who’s saying what and when.
“Under the Street Where You Live,” a piece generated collectively by the group in honor of Albert Ayler, is another dizzying lattice of intersecting lines. Ochs, on tenor, works out of a precisely improvised tangle of twin sopranos raised by Voight and Ackley while Raskin blurts a second bulbous progression of textural honks on baritone. Spiraling through abstracted itinerary the piece never seems to set down into clearly linear territory.
The closing “Paint Another Take of the Shootpop,” which must have taken up most of the original album’s second side carries the dual dedication to Olivier Messiaen and Otis Redding, two composers whom by Och’s estimation “have in common a concern for the emotional power of beauty.” Spliced into five audibly seamed sections the piece moves from a solo tenor introduction through a series of trios and solos both written and improvised. The overall effect is symphonic in sound and conception moving from staunchly serious to whimsically lyrical and back again. Each man weaves an agile and brightly cast spell both in isolation and in unison, scrawling a collective scribble of lines that under close scrutiny makes complete sense. ROVA’s shared hold on the saxophone quartet market may have loosened some with the influx of so many new investors, but this welcome reissue makes abundantly clear that their cardinal stature, which remains ironclad today, was in fact firmly in place from the beginning.
Atavistic/Unheard on the web: http://www.atavistic.com
Personnel: John Raskin- baritone, alto & soprano saxophones, clarinet; Larry Ochs- tenor, sopranino & alto saxophones; Andrew Voigt- alto, sopranino & soprano saxophones, flute; Bruce Ackley- soprano saxophone, flute. Recorded: April 1981, Berkeley, CA.