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Playing by Ear 

Bruce Ackley and the art of listening

Wednesday, Sep 2 1998
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Soprano saxophonist Bruce Ackley honed his craft not by playing, but by listening. He's developed that skill for 21 years as a member of the celebrated Rova Saxophone Quartet, a collaboration that demands its members play close attention to each other to keep improvisation fresh and varied. His vast record collection, which dominates a whole room of his Upper Haight flat, shows that the 50-year-old Ackley has a world-class ear. Most of the thousands of titles are, predictably, jazz, but the collection also contains everything from Bach and Beethoven to Buck Owens & His Buckaroos, spiked with European and American folk and Gypsy music. "I have an ear for everything," he says.

Listening is such an important part of Ackley's life that when he finally released his first solo album -- on John Zorn's respected Avant label -- he called it The Hearing.

When Ackley performs these pieces live with his trio, Actual Size, he unassumingly and articulately introduces each composition. A year ago at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, he explained that when he and Rova partner Steve Adams wrote "Mr. Mood," Ackley was thinking of Billy Strayhorn, the late composer and Duke Ellington collaborator.

As Ackley blew into his horn he glanced at the crowd like a schoolteacher over the top of his glasses, which had slipped down the bridge of his nose. He suggested the melody to the bass and drums (George Cremaschi and Garth Powell) before taking off immediately on slow, sweet lines of thought, building them up like a fountain. Gradually it became apparent that Ackley was improvising freely, turning the sweet melody he'd just introduced inside out in a way so organic to its original structure that the audience hardly noticed at first. It was as though Ackley had disconnected himself from the source of the fountain, but had somehow managed to keep the water going up and up by some mysterious power.

When the fountain came down at last, Ackley splashed a jazz of notes everywhere, squawking and braying them through his horn, tightening his lips to spray out short brassy gasps. He flowed back into the original melody, the rhythm of which had miraculously been kept up by Cremaschi and Powell, and the song quietly came to a stop. Like Strayhorn's music, the tune was catchy yet complex, deceptively simple and soaring.

I met Ackley later that night. As we talked, I realized that his entire life is a reflection of the thoughtful, patient, finally astonishing way that he plays music. The way he listens.

When he's not playing with Rova or Actual Size, Ackley works two days a week at Amoeba Records in Berkeley. He prices used vinyl and invariably sets aside a stack of the records that seem interesting to him. "I've been collecting since I was a teen-ager, but this particular collection got started when Rova put out our first record, Cinema Rovate," he says, motioning to the enormous wall of crates in his home. "I don't know how many I have, but there are always more coming home with me."

Amoeba's not his only job; he has a computer gig that, with Amoeba, gives him a 40-hour work week. Nevertheless, Ackley tries to practice a few hours a day. He admits that his work responsibilities are sometimes frustrating. "[I]f I were younger maybe I would just pack it in and go play," he says, "but I started late."

Ackley grew up in the Detroit suburbs; he didn't begin learning the sax until he was 22. "When I was young, I sang," he remembers. "I sang in choirs and glee clubs; I was always interested in music. I did sing soprano until my voice changed, and then I still sang soprano in falsetto sometimes because I really liked it, and I always listened to doo-wop, the high falsettos, and I really loved that."

When he was 14, a friend played Ackley an album that had just come out called My Favorite Things, featuring John Coltrane on soprano sax. "I was floored, I was really, really floored," he says. "I didn't really pick up that thread in the music for another four or five years, but it definitely planted a seed."

It wasn't until an art school friend gave him a sax and invited him to a weekly informal jam session that Ackley began playing. Wary of the structure of art school and the difficulties he'd faced there, Ackley developed a practice technique that was deceptively simple, a philosophy that still informs his music today.

"I wanted to do in music whatever would make me want to continue doing it," he says. "So I didn't want to present myself with some kind of obstacle that would be discouraging at that point. I didn't want to do music I couldn't play, I just wanted to stay within my limitations. I just played free.

"I did start to practice, I did start to learn scales and chords, and it was fun. [But] when there was this implied way that you had to do something, like you had to learn how to play bebop or ... jazz or blues or funk -- I had no interest in that whatsoever." Ackley ruminates on this point for quite a while before concluding, "I think people learn what they have to learn to do what they have to do. And I think that still applies for me."

Ackley says he was enormously influenced by "the whole New York school: Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor. And the Chicago school: the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and Sun Ra. So that was where I was headed." This direction brought him to San Francisco in 1971, just a year after he started playing the horn, where he thought he'd meet "more like-minded people."

He didn't right away, and admits disappointment. That first year, his horn was stolen. Then, when he got it back, he had to sell it for lack of money. After several years in S.F., however, he formed a group called Sound Clinic, which consisted of two saxes and one trumpet, and was playing around town. One night at a club on Divisadero Street he met Jon Raskin, who was playing in a reggae band at the time. The two of them hit it off and Raskin invited Ackley to play in a large ensemble piece he was putting together for the first annual Free Music Festival at the Farm on Potrero Hill.

"He was always turning me on to great recordings, from jazz to world music to classical to bagpipes to Pakistan qawwali music from the '50s," says Raskin of Ackley back then. "Bruce has got big ears and he was always striving to master his favorite players and take it somewhere else."

From there the two began hosting improvised music and performances at the Blue Dolphin, a club on Sanchez and 17th streets, at which local players as well as musicians passing through town could get together and jam. Out of this collaborative scene grew Rova.

The experience of hearing Rova for the first time is often disturbing. Four saxophones -- with each member switching between everything from baritone to soprano -- no rhythm section, playing free jazz with little or no melodic structure.

At a recent performance at Venue 9 for Ackley's 50th birthday party, Rova introduced a "comprovisation" structure -- partly composed and partly improvised -- called "Radar." They stood as always in a loose semicircle, and without warning all four of them set their horns screaming. The sound brought to mind the surging and plunging whir of cicadas in the evening, honking traffics of noise punctuated by sudden melodies. They played like four men at a dance constantly cutting in on each other, but with the utmost politeness. They communicated with secret hand signals, which the others acknowledged without looking up from the opiate of their horns, formed duets and dropped out for solos, and by a constant effort of listening remained in contact with each other, always seeming to deliberately change directions when anything predictable crept in.

Raskin explains the signals in "Radar" by saying, "Besides solos and groupings they signal games, strategies, sonic areas. They range from fairly simple, like 'Play what I'm playing' to some that can be memory cues or several different events happening at one time. After 20 years there is a lot of instinct happening when we play as well."

Yet to hear Ackley on his new album, in particular, one might never suspect that he's a member of the notoriously avant-garde Rova. The Hearing -- which comes out this week -- is full of short, melodic tunes with tight arrangements that lodge themselves pleasantly in the brain and stay there for days, especially his version of Duck Baker's "Clear Blue Sky" and Ackley's own composition "1, 2, Radical 3."

"I do feel a certain amount of distance from the jazz world in general," Ackley says. "In terms of how I listen, I'll go from blues to a pop singer to country to classical to world music to jazz -- my attitude on each piece is different, so in order to fit 10 different flavors on one CD they had to be concise. I would like the music to be as immediate and direct as pop music."

His bandmates in Actual Size appreciate this approach. "Within Actual Size," says Cremaschi, "me and Garth both thought it was going to be a mostly free band. But then when [Ackley] showed us the pieces it became even better than that, because the pieces were so strong. They allow us to go into specific areas of music, but we're still improvising a lot."

Drummer Powell adds, "His rhythmic ideas, sense of space, sense of dynamic contrast, comes from not just Rova, but his appreciation of music of the last 50 years from Europe."

Ackley is indeed a world-class listener with "big ears," but despite his vast and eclectic record collection, what distinguishes him is his good taste. Sometimes when he is playing a record at his apartment, in the midst of talking with a guest in the kitchen his eyes will gradually glaze over and the guest will stop talking, noticing that Ackley is grinning at him and pointing in the air indicating the music. "Isn't that great?" he'll say, and he'll hold the guest's eyes with his own and grin even wider. And keep listening.

Actual Size and the Bill Horvitz Trio play the Sweat Shop, 1943 Mission at 16th Street, on Saturday, Sept. 12, at 7:30 p.m. Rova is hosting New Music on the Mountain Sunday, Sept. 13, at the Mountain Theater on Mount Tam with guests Wadada Leo Smith, Bert Turetzky, Vinny Golia Trio, and others at 2 p.m.

About The Author

David Cook

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