Morphological Echo, the Rova saxophone quartet's twentieth-anniversary release consists of a 1989 New Year's Eve recording and one track from 1992. The 1989 piece is the bravura "Maintaining the Web Under Less Than Obvious Circumstances," a six-part meta-suite which takes up 32 of this disc's 47 minutes. Rova's strengths are deployed here to dazzling effect: top-notch instrumentalism, passionate intensity and quiet fire, extraordinarily subtle and skillful ensemble passages. Individual voices emerge, combine with others, separate out again, and melt back into the ensemble without a seam. Just when the stuff sounds most chaotic, they suddenly stop or combine, as in part two of the suite, "Circumstances," to essay a soft-spoken section with admirable grace.
The third section, "Under," is likewise muted, if not placid, and well illustrates the versatility of this quartet. "The Web," the longest section of the suite, finds all four reeds braying, hectoring, declaiming, asserting, countering. The closing section, "Maintaining," begins with some Steve Lacyish ducksax-eventually even that voice is smoothly integrated. And ah, the opening to "Grace," the piece from 1992, is simply gorgeous, and practically symphonic in texture before and after Ackley's searchingly beautiful unaccompanied soprano. Then comes an equally graceful (per the title) unaccompanied alto, commenting upon and extending what has already been built. Improvised music is highly conversational, and with four voices as individual and assured as these, the particular drama of this music, as in debate or any conversation, is in the interplay. This is true whether they are playing simultaneously or consecutively.
Larry Ochs plays tenor and sopranino saxophones; Jon Raskin baritone and alto; Steve Adams alto, sopranino and baritone; and Bruce Ackley soprano and tenor. All have worked extensively with other groupings, but Rova is like the Beatles: they bring out the best in each other. "Maintaining the Web Under Less Than Obvious Circumstances" is, according to Derk Richardson's liner notes, "a network of improvisations resulting from a series of musical 'games' and 'strategies' extemporaneously cued by the musicians during the actual process of creation. Although the signals and the rules are set, such crucial aspects as order and duration are determined on the spot. Thus the piece cannot be played the same way twice, and yet it always sounds like The Web."
This cleanly-recorded performance makes for one of Rova's most impressive and enticing releases. Try to distinguish between previously composed and improvised sections; of course, there are free-for-alls where it isn't so hard to tell, but it's those edges that kill you. There are no seams in this music-no doubt after twenty years their ability to forecast each other's next move is highly advanced. What's more, Morphological Echo is itself a virtual distillation of all the saxophony of the last thirty years. It will do nothing but further enhance the deservedly exalted reputation of these masters.