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Into the Maelstrom 

The Rova Saxophone Quartet once again honors the freewheeling spirit of Bay Area jazz improvisers

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999

The Rova Saxophone Quartet has been performing for 22 years, ever since organizers of Oakland's now-defunct Free Jazz Festival asked Bruce Ackley to put together an ensemble to play there in 1977. Together, they developed a secret language of sounds and silences, an ability to listen and respond in any given situation, to launch suddenly from the most intricately composed music into flights of free improvisation.

Sam Rivers, meanwhile, has been experimenting in jazz for over 50 years, ever since he heard Dizzy Gillespie wailing on a 78rpm record while he was stationed in California during World War II. Though he was already well on his way to becoming a virtuoso on several instruments, that sound sent Rivers on a lifelong pursuit of musical challenge and originality; his determination not to play like anyone else has made him one of the most revered avant-garde musicians alive today.

The result, in both cases, is music that sounds too meticulous to be improvised, yet too spontaneous to be composed. But it's taken three years to get Rivers and Rova together at Rova's own Rovate improvisers festival. This weekend at ODC Theater, forming a group called OrkestRova -- made up of Rivers, Rova, and an array of free jazz musicians -- they'll play a piece of music Rivers wrote for the occasion titled "Maelstrom."

"I never really think of him as an old guy from the '60s. I think of him as a new guy doing new things," say local contrabass player Damon Smith, of Sam Rivers. At 75 years old, it's hard to think of anything Rivers hasn't done in the world of modern music. Few musicians would be welcome at both San Francisco's Other Minds Experimental Music Festival, as Rivers was this past spring, and at Oakland's more straight-ahead showcase, Yoshi's, as he was last year. Both times, Rivers drew enthusiastic crowds.

In addition to those notable gigs, Rivers has been a featured soloist with the San Francisco Symphony, and just perusing the list of performers he's played with -- a list that includes Miles Davis, B.B. King, T. Bone Walker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Wilson Pickett -- shows the incredible range Rivers has displayed over his long career. His own albums as a bandleader, including Fuchsia Swing Song, Involution, and the big-band free-jazz album Crystals, outline his development from post-bebop player to avant-garde co-founder (with Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and others), creating a bridge between those musicians and the wave of experimental artists who came to the fore in the '70s, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Roscoe Mitchell, and Anthony Braxton -- and eventually Rova.

Rivers has been a musician practically since he's been able to walk: "My first instrument was the violin, 3 years old, then changed to the piano, then I got in high school and I had to change [due to marching band]; I took up the soprano saxophone. By the time I got to college, I was a musician." That versatility is another hallmark of Rivers' career -- he's considered a virtuoso on tenor and soprano saxophone, piano, and flute.

During World War II, Rivers volunteered for the Navy, and pondered playing in its band while stationed in Vallejo, but says he wanted to do more than perform for officers. Just before getting out, Rivers remembers sitting in the barracks listening to a Billy Eckstine record. "They were playing the blues," he says, "and then all of a sudden this trumpet comes in: BULEEWOH BULEEWOH BULEEWOO -- BUPEEDOO. What?" he says, laughing. "I said, 'Damn!' " Rivers gathered all the musicians he knew on the base to play the record for them. "I said, 'Listen to this guy going crazy on the trumpet,' and everyone came down. Nobody knew who it was. Later I found out it was Dizzy Gillespie. Didn't know who it was. Man, it just wiped me out." Much later, in 1987, Rivers would begin a four-year stint playing with Gillespie's quintet; at the time, he called his brother in Boston to ask him if he'd heard this crazy trumpet player. After being told of Gillespie's exploits on the East Coast, along with "this alto player -- Bird -- and a cat named Max Roach," Rivers got his brother to send him some records.

By 1947, Rivers was studying at the Boston Conservatory of Music, and while there he played with a large group led by trumpeter Herb Pomeroy. So began a daring and varied career that saw him tour with Miles Davis in Japan in 1964 (documented on Miles in Tokyo), lead five Blue Note sessions during the '60s, and help found the New York loft scene with his wife, Bea, during the '70s. Through it all, Rivers adamantly pursued an original sound. "I listened to everyone I could hear to make sure I didn't sound like them," he says in the liner notes to Involution. "I wasn't taking any chances; I wanted to be sure I didn't sound like anyone else."

Rivers' sound is fiery, complex, and always highly inventive. Which makes it difficult to compare him to any of his contemporaries -- especially considering the number of instruments he plays -- though with regards to his horn sound, Joe Henderson comes closest in tonal quality, while in terms of its austerity and thoughtfulness, Rivers' style has been compared to Lester Young's. But perhaps most interesting is the way Rivers composes music; for the breadth of his sense of instrumentation and sheer prolific output, no one save Duke Ellington compares.

"First of all, I'm a melodic writer, so I write melodies," he says of the music he wrote for Rovate. "I think of every musician as his own individual, with his own voice as part of the whole. Each individual, a real democracy -- you know what I mean?" He adds: "This is an orchestra that accompanies itself. I have the freedom to do all these different colors under the solos, to enhance the solos, I mean to stimulate them -- this is what it's all about when you write for virtuosos."

The four musicians who make up Rova -- Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, and Bruce Ackley -- have been every bit as persistent as Rivers in their pursuit of original sounds.

Inspired to structure their improvisations by composers like Braxton and Mitchell, early pioneers of the saxophone ensemble, Rova is now listed in the Rough Guide to Jazz as "arguably the most exciting of the saxophone quartets to emerge in the format's late-'70s boom." Music from that early period, rich in improvised melodies textured smoothly above intricate, supple harmonies, is excellently documented on 1985's Saxophone Diplomacy, a live recording (with original member Andrew Voigt) of the historic tour the group made of the Soviet Union in 1983 at the height -- or nadir -- of Reagan's "Evil Empire" days.

That tour sparked a collaborative thrust that has shaped Rova's music ever since. In 1984 the group established itself as a nonprofit organization, which allowed it to apply for grant money to fund the many fruitful collaborations it's embarked upon with musicians such as Anthony Braxton, Fred Ho, John Zorn, and the Kronos Quartet. Highlights of Rova's more recent output include its live recording of Ascension with a large ensemble, released in 1997 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of that important free-jazz piece by John Coltrane, and 1998's Bingo, made up mostly of guest compositions that play like short surrealist films in the mind's eye.

The Rovate festival, and Rova's collaboration with Rivers, is a natural continuation of this collaborative spirit -- in this case, one that took a long time to come about. "We had a chance to perform some quintet improvisations [with Rivers] at a festival in Seattle a few years ago," says Raskin. Rivers and the band "hit it off" according to Ackley, and as Rova continued touring they met again in Orlando, where Rivers and his wife now live, and discussed a collaborative project. "We began to realize Sam is a prolific composer and that he had extensive compositions for big band," says Raskin. "He has a large ensemble in Florida that performs these works, but this is too expensive to tour with. We thought the big-band music would be the best choice to present because of the wealth of great players in the Bay Area."

That wealth was on display at last year's Rovate festival, which featured local improv artists such as Wadada Leo Smith, John Schott, George Cremaschi, and Lisle Ellis performing in ensembles with Rova members like Ochs' What We Live and Ackley's Actual Size. There was also Schott's large ensemble piece with Rova member Steve Adams, Carla Kihlstedt of Tin Hat Trio and Charming Hostess, and Gino Robair, among others. The two-night festival had an overall sense of experimentation and fun, as Rova members switched between different groups as fluidly as they switch instruments during performances by their own quartet.

This year, local talent will make up the bulk of the large ensemble, consisting of six saxes, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, bass, and drums. Rivers is bringing his own rhythm section, Doug Mathews and Anthony Cole, but otherwise the roster will consist of Rova and Bay Area improv artists.

"The main challenges are logistical," says Raskin of the big-band format. "Getting everyone together to rehearse and play." And while the large-ensemble Rivers music will obviously be the centerpiece of the festival, Ochs stresses that local musicians are also featured in the rest of the program, in which Rova premieres three new compositions commissioned from Bay Area kotoist Miya Masaoka ("Music for Mouths"), guitarist Schott ("Second Thoughts"), and clarinetist Ben Goldberg ("Three Habits").

Says Schott of Rova: "They've played together 20-plus years, they rehearse constantly and ferociously, they tour and record prolifically, they go out of their way to encourage and create opportunities for up-and-comers, and they are just so damn good at what they do.

"Who wouldn't want to be involved with that?"

Rova Saxophone Quartet presents Rovate 2: An Improvisers Festival Friday and Saturday, June 25 and 26, at 7:30 p.m. at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St. (at Shotwell), S.F. Tickets are $15 per night, $12 students and seniors. Call 863-9834.

About The Author

David Cook


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