Author: Phillip Greenlief
Description: ROVA: Live in Petaluma

Achieving Spontaneity in Controlled Environments
ROVA: Live in Petaluma

The ROVA Saxophone Quartet has created a body of work that considers an array of compositional sources and performance practices. They have proliferated an improvised music that utilizes open and predetermined forms. The quartet has also embraced composition, which has led them into clearly defined spaces and the contributing composers (both within the group and commissioned from beyond) have expanded the cultural identity of the music. ROVA has developed Radar, a performance practice that allows for predetermined activities to occur via hand signals amongst the musicians. The players have their own unique musical conceptions that are shaped by their diverse musical influences and all of these modes of expression find their way into ROVA’s music through original composition and from utterances forged in the moment.

As I sat down for a few sets at the Zebulon Lounge, I wondered if it was possible to find a microcosm of ROVA’s work in one concert. Can many years of music-making emerge in a single evening?

First Set
When I arrived, the group was playing a composition that gave Bruce Ackley some great playing space, accompanied by some written figures cued by Steve Adams. The motifs were clever and generated a lot of humor. These motifs continued behind the baritone solo and increased in rapidity until I nearly burst into hysterics. The piece changed radically after that and it seemed that I had walked in on a suite of short, tightly composed environments, presenting intervallic shapes that yielded some nice overtones among the upper voices.

Then they played one of Zorn’s Masada pieces arranged by Larry Ochs that featured the Radar practices in open sections, which seemed the best bits of the selection. There wasn’t a lot of melodic influence from the composition in the improvised sections, which was mildly disconcerting. Nevertheless, the music they made in the open space was fantastic. It crackled with an electric spontaneity and had clear, constructivist ideas that never bogged down but rather kept mutating and evolving in surprising ways.

The compositional elements in Jon Raskin’s Jukebox Detroit created distinct passages with lots of character and his ostinato figures on baritone made for mad grooving. But the work didn’t seem to offer Ackley or Ochs the inspiration to help listeners understand why they are exploring blues forms in 2003. They continued with some wildly energetic improvising between Ochs and Adams that freshened things up and reminded me of some of the youthful exuberance I heard back in 1980 on first exposure to the band.

The piece continued, but lost some of its momentum and I felt the overall shape didn’t balance out – too many sections perhaps distorted what started out as a clear conception. Later, Jon mentioned that Jukebox was a vehicle for Bruce, so I wondered if they had moved into another composition and I missed the transition. If so, the “second half” of the suite or medley didn’t seem well paired with Jukebox – it felt a little like a long journey from somewhere specific to nowhere in particular. (Although, how can you criticize in art what most of us do in life nearly every day?)

Second Set
ROVA started the second set with a reading of Don van Vliet’s Steel Me Softly Through Snow, which started with swirling phrases that led to a short soprano figure that sounded a bit like a night at the circus. More composed fragments occurred (along with a hocket or two) that allowed the role of improviser to be passed about like a juggling act. This action repeated and accelerated until the orchestration dropped down for a memorable unaccompanied passage on baritone. This was a really well conceived sonic landscape and exists in memory as my favorite piece of the evening.

During the rest of the second set the roles of composition and improvisation became increasingly blurred. Both changed rapidly and these areas allowed players to “solo” against 1) written melodic shapes, 2) suggested tones creating interesting intervals, 3) pure sound textures generated from extended techniques, multi-phonics, etc. This type of interplay engages the listener in a unique way that makes multiple listening on CD or hearing them in a club equally (and highly) rewarding. One of the more valuable contributions to this music is the group composition and controlled freedoms that occur when ROVA activates in Radar mode. It seems to bring out the best of their skills as improvisers in a setting where form and orchestration can change at the drop of a hat or, (more specifically), the cue of a hand.

Throughout the evening, the ensemble’s living history produced great group communication, exciting improvisation that occurred in a wide variety of sonic environments, and the composed forms were played with humor, great energy, and concentration.

Phillip Greenlief
Oakland, CA