Review: Legendary Rova Saxophone Quartet performs in Poland for first time

The highlight of the first week of the Krakow Fall Jazz Festival was probably the first-ever performance in Poland by the legendary (and I don’t use the word lightly) Rova Saxophone Quartet last Sunday at Alchemia club. Their inaugural 1978 concert at Mills College, Oakland hardly raised a blip on the radar of public consciousness, yet they have remained together (with one personnel change) since then, racking up over 50 recordings in the process.

According to “The Wire” magazine, they are one of the few groups of their kind who manage to successfully combine “the expressive richness of the jazz saxophone with the structural precision of the European string quartet.” Praise indeed.The old stereotype of the saxophonist, fortified by liberal use of alcohol and narcotics, lumbering onto the stage to “tell it how it is” would be anathema to the studious Rova Quartet. They don’t preach so much as draw the listener in with a potent mixture of dry academic experimentalism, gutsy wailing and an extraordinarily eclectic arsenal of influences, which on the evidence of Sunday’s performance embraces at the very least Brazilian music, Rhythm and Blues and the indigenous music of the Middle East.

The band aesthetic, which has barely changed in 30 years, is laid out very clearly to their growing band of starry-eyed young acolytes. Reading from music, tuning up with each other and challenging original compositions are in; extended soloing, hackneyed standards and commercialism are most definitely out. They even run themselves as a non-profit organization, which apparently makes it easier for them to commission works by composers they approve of (these include John Zorn and Terry Riley).

In addition, each member of the quartet is a virtuoso and considerable composer in his own right.An embarrassment of riches one might think, and the confidence with which Rova performed works of quite remarkable complexity certainly took the breath away at times. They felt so at home that they took leisured breaks between numbers, ruffling through sheaves of music as they discussed what to play. When tenor player Larry Ochs dropped his sax onto the hard wooden stage, it barely raised an eyebrow.

He just performed on his sopranino for the rest of the set. The almost icy composure with which they performed made it difficult to tell whether or not some of the musical interludes (the bleating soprano, the clucking chickens, the squawking free-for-all tantrum) where intentionally humorous and the firm hand gestures they used to signal to other members of the quartet were unambiguous enough to satisfy a semaphore instructor.Moments of evocative, almost pastoral lyricism and exotic tonally ambiguous drones where broken up by infectious stop-start scurrying and meaty Latin-influenced riffs.

Even the most structurally complex compositions seemed to betray an internal twisted logic that made them surprisingly digestible on first hearing.The longevity of the group might be partially explained by the fact that, despite the precision of the arrangements, each player maintains his own clear voice. Jon Raskin’s harsh and declamatory alto spars particularly well with Bruce Ackley’s nasal, Coltrane-influenced soprano. The fleet-fingered Bruce Ackley slithers over his cumbersome baritone with extraordinary clarity and dexterity while Larry Ochs drops mysterious hints on his sinuous tenor.

Any attempts to present the much-maligned saxophone as a respectable concert hall instrument are laudable, but I wondered as I left the club whether it’s possible to get an authentic feeling for the blues or the music of South America through academic study alone, or whether it might still be necessary sometimes to “live the life.” The drug-addled, whisky-soaked, soul-bearer stereotype lives on.

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