Friday, October 25, 2019

Rova Saxophone Quartet's show in Pittsburgh

Steve Adams

Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin

Larry Ochs
The Rova Saxophone Quartet returned to Pittsburgh for the first time in 25 years on Sunday, October 20. Pittsburghers had chances to see tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs in the time between, with drummer Gerald Cleaver and guitarist Nels Cline (2017) and with the trio What We Live sometime in the late '90s. But this visit was long overdue.

The Quartet's set in the basement of the First Unitarian Church did not disappoint. Each of the players can produce a wealth of sounds from their instruments, going from chamber group clarity to celebratory squonk in the time it takes to breathe. After 42 years with only one lineup change (which came about a decade into the group's existence), they have a rapport that can be felt as they move through even the loosest material.

The rapport came into play during a group piece titled "NC-17." When I talked to Ochs for a story in Pittsburgh Current, he explained that the composition is based on a set of instructions or directions for each player. Any member of the group can cue a change during the performance, sending the players down a subset of directions or suggestions. The results can vary with each performance. Ochs did a lot of the cuing that night, with soprano saxophonist Bruce Ackley and baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin beginning the piece before the latter began a duet with Steve Adams, who switched from alto to sopranino. Raskin later got a wild gurgling noise out of his horn. After it built to a climax, Steve Adams commented that even they seemed to be impressed with the shape "NC-17" had just taken.

Another personal favorite that night came with Raskin's "Valley Winter Cloud." It began wild and free, with all four players at different musical angles. Eventually it settled into a baritone melody that could be considered a ballad, with Ackley answering Raskin's lead.

Throughout the night, Ackley's technique slayed the audience, producing a growl that isn't normally associated with the soprano sax but needs to be heard more often. Adams, who wrote a number of the set's tunes, also displayed a killer tone that had grit and razor-sharp clarity. Ochs as well had moments where his sound was vocal and raw. I took earplugs to the show, so my hearing wouldn't be further damaged by four-part altissimo shrieks. Turns out I had nothing to dread.

The evening began with a set by saxophonist Ben Opie and guitarist Josh Wulff. Opie utilized tenor, soprano and alto throughout thir improvisations, really interlocking with Wulff when he played alto. Wulff created some rich textures and leads, occasionally giving the music shape via loops while at other times he kept it free flowing with a blend of pedal effects and rich leads. The guitarist can be seen around town in the prog-jazz/rock trio Smash Your Wagon with Dave Throckmorton, but those two have also raised a ruckus with Opie in their Sound/Unsound project as well.


srr said...

Was size crowd did ROVA draw?

shanleymusic said...

Sorry I didn't see your comment until now. It was fairly small, maybe around 40 people, maybe a little more. Small but attentive.