Rova Saxophone Quartet - Planetary (2011)


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Rova Saxophone Quartet
By S. Victor Aaron

Imagine a conversation with three other people where topic...a theme if you will...is selected and all four of you are to converse on that topic at certain points in time. And then at other times, a random topic is chosen, but everyone has to be conversing on topic together. And the topics can change on the fly, several times, before returning the the original, complex “theme" topic.

I'm trying my darnedest to describe the knotty song constructions of the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

Though you might not yet know anything about this group, you can already surmise from its name that its comprised of four people playing saxophones. The group was formed around 1977 with Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Andrew Voigt and Bruce Ackley; “Rova" is an acronym made up of the first initials of their last names. In 1988, Voigt left he group and was replaced by Steve Adams in the only lineup change so far in the band's 33+ year history.

It's almost too easy to draw parallels between the Rova Saxophone Quartet and the World Saxophone Quartet, which was formed at roughly the same time. But while the WSQ has shown its capability in music forms both daring and conventional, I find Rova living on the edge more. They use the four-sax format to explore the overlaps among free jazz, modern classical, experimental music and a generous smattering of other styles. But like World, Rova had found liberation in the absence of a rhythm section or a chordal instrument; they've gotten so good at piloting complex rhythmic patterns and joining their horns to create chordal patterns that no one should miss those other instruments.

The RSQ has made over two dozen recordings that feature their original music and now just released another one. Planetary is their first non-collaborative album since 2007's Juke Box Suite. Last year, though, came forth a very fascinating summit meeting between them and the Nels Cline Singers, The Celestial Septet. Now, Raskin, Ochs, Adams and Ackley return to their tried and true four saxophones-and-nobody-else format.

“Parallel Construction #1" is the commercial track that kicks off this set of half dozen originals. OK, it's not commercial at all, but comparatively speaking, with it's relative lack of free-form improvisation and five minute running time, it's practically radio ready relative to what follows. There's even a ever-so-subtle quote from “April In Paris" that emerges near the end of the track, one of the rare hints of conventional melody they drop on listeners for the entire album. “S," however is the most fun cut here. It starts out like a music scored for a noir film with some Eastern European folk music tossed in the middle of it. Then a repeating figure is stated with Rova's unusual layers adding intrigue. Suddenly, the ostinato breaks up and speeds up simultaneously, leaving free expression in its wake. Eventually, the song regroups into more through-composed sections with soloing sprinkled around it, and finally a statement from the beginning is revisited right at the end. “Flip Trap" is like Glenn Miller on acid (and I mean that in a good way), or maybe Fletcher Henderson...which would make it like Sun Ra.

“Glass Head Concretion," on the other hand, veers closer toward 20th century classical/new music. It's notable by the pockets of space and sparer sounding than the other songs. There's not enough space here to explain all of what's going on in the last two tacks, “Planetary" and “Parallel Construction #2," as they are dense, shape-shifting, rootless tour de forces that liberally blur the lines between the composed and improvised portions. The only constant throughout is the astounding rapport among the four.

There is a method, or rather, a multitude of methods to this madness, of course. Ideas were formed and decisions were made on how they would be interpreted. That involved setting some ground rules for improvisation for each composition, how each of the players would pair off or form a chordal trio with which of the other players, or when to take a lead role, the flipping through meter changes (without percussion instruments, listeners don't really about that but it's vitally important to the players), and the deconstruction and reconstruction of themes.

But luckily, I don't need a doctorate in music theory to appreciate what these guys are doing. They might be speaking Greek to me, but I just love the way their language rolls off their collective tongues.

Planetary went on sale this week and is offered by Moscow-based SoLyd Records.

Purchase: Rova Saxophone Quartet—Planetary

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