Very few major players have survived the first flourishing of free jazz, much less pushed it in any productive direction, but the Rova Sax Quartet are about to celebrate their 30th year together. One reason that the Bay Area ensemble have never been at a loss for new, workable ideas is that they’ve never lost sight of the form that enables freedom. Talking by phone about their upcoming show for Vanderbilt’s Great Performances series, Steve Adams—who joined Rova in 1989, marking the only change in their original lineup—spoke of the group’s ongoing experimentation with compositional forms, sources and improvisational tactics. Saturday’s program, he said, will reflect their current interests in multicultural hybrids and alternative ways to let structured writing and free interpretation intermingle.
Four pieces by Rova’s Jon Raskin, for example, are part of his “Juke Box” series, so titled because the works pungently invoke the music of daily life. Drawn from all over the world, these short “hits” give audiences a glimpse of how the group absorb and refract various ethnic and international strains of popular music. According to Adams, “Juke Box Afro Balkan” layers African tonalities over Balkan rhythms, but like everything else the ensemble perform, it speaks through Rova’s language. For this translation to work, there’s more to it than having the rhythms anchored in the baritone sax or the other saxes simply covering the tonal range of instruments in different families. To listen to Rova is to sense unending permutations of collaborative form and improvisation, whether they be indebted to free jazz, post-classical revisionism, art-rock or the communal folk music of the world. They can be cacophonous or choir-like, interweaving broad strokes in counterpoint or unsettling audience expectations as they reconfigure the expected roles of harmonic and melodic instrumentation.
Adams’ two contributions to the concert speak to his interests in shaking up the habitual ways that the ensemble’s members communicate with one another. “Parallel Construction #1,” he said, could easily have been scored for a post-classical string ensemble, but would only have come off sounding too “classical.” In Rova’s hands, the piece demands that the written melody be kept in focus while allowing improvisational input from all group members via hand signals and other visual cues. In “Anomalous Ejecta,” Adams relies on a score consisting of pictures, ad hoc symbols and color patches to prompt open but structured interpretation. It’s exactly this sense of renovated musical language—“games and strategies,” as another improvisational matrix of the group is called—that makes Rova’s performances playfully unpredictable yet bound to an intricate, provocative plan.
The Rova Sax Quartet will perform on March 25 at Turner Hall in the Blair School of Music. They will also offer a preview of their concert at 6 p.m. Friday at Zeitgeist Gallery, 1819 21st Ave. S.