Two premiere saxophone quartets came out of the final quarter of the last century, and both continue to carry on (each having lost one original member along the way). Rova and the World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) are notable for having overcome the limitations posed by groupings of like instruments, each finding their way to distinct voices and full sounds.
Where they differ is in tradition. WSQ are unabashedly a jazz group, recording an album of Duke Ellington material and dedicating another to Miles Davis. Rova, on the other hand, fall into that undefined hinterland of "New Music," playing scored material and commissioning works from significant (sometimes jazz-leaning) composers.
Bruce Ackley, Larry Ochs and Jon Raskin marked the 25th anniversary of their first performance as Rova in February (Steve Adams replaced founding member Andrew Voight in 1998). Since the group's inception, they have collaborated with or played works by Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Henry Kaiser, John Adams, Kronos Quartet, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Terry Riley, Fred Frith, Butch Morris, Alvin Curran and Steve Lacy, to name more than a few. In 1995, they arranged, performed and recorded a sax quartet version of John Coltrane's opus “Ascension.” Their resumé, in other words, is more than respectable.
With this new release (which inches their discography toward the 50 mark), they present three long and varied pieces. The title track, credited to the group, is a tour de force of form and style, slowly shifting moods and extended settings. The group is more often about environment than soloing, and here they remain a unit, with slow prolonged segments, a percussive passage (built on the sounds of padded saxophone keys shutting against the metal horn) and strong, melodious sections. The Ochs composition "The Drift" is a fun, slowly swinging blues.
Rova's long list of collaborators no doubt is the result of their ability to realize the different styles called for by different composers, and it can be revelatory to hear a familiar artist's voice spoken by musicians up for the job. Resistance closes with a composition by trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith entitled “The M'ad-din,” dedicated to the Sufi teacher Cerno Bokar Saalif Taal. The prolonged tones, interrupted by quick phrases, are adeptly played, reminiscent of Smith's own musical meditations.
The three tracks come from two studio sessions from 1997 and 2002, and as with most Victo releases the disc sounds bright and warm, keeping the recording process from standing in the way of the players (as the players themselves never block the view of the other composers with whom they work). If at times in the past Rova have come off as jagged or academic, here they play sweetly. A remarkable commemoration of their silver anniversary.
Note: this review originally appeared in All About Jazz: New York .
Track Listing: 1. Resistance (Rova) 19'36"
2. The Drift (Larry Ochs) 11'16"
3. The M
Personnel: BRUCE ACKLEY : soprano and tenor saxophones,
STEVE ADAMS : alto and sopranino saxophones,
LARRY OCHS : tenor and sopranino saxophones,
JON RASKIN : baritone, sopranino and alto saxophones.