ROVA’s Russian Return

ROVA plays tonight (Feb. 19) in Marin County, at The Dance Palace Community Center in Point Reyes. Then they’re touring the northeast.

ROVA Saxophone QuartetPlanetary (SoLyd, 2010)

Planetary is a nice slice of classic ROVA, in my imprecise idea of what “classic” means. While it’s great seeing or hearing the band doing full-on improvisation with graphical scores, or appearing in augmented form with electronics (see the upcoming 33-1/3 concert or The Celestial Septet), there’s always something to be said for the straight lineup of four acoustic saxophones and some robust composing.

The other reason why “classic” comes to mind is because Planetary, released on a Russian label, extends ROVA’s connection to what used to be the Soviet Union.

In 1983, before the Iron Curtain fell, out-there jazz was outlawed — which, of course, created a thriving underground scene. ROVA accepted an invitation to make a clandestine tour through Russia, Latvia, and Romania. It sounds like it was tremendous fun, and they were treated like underground rock stars. The results came out on the CD, Saxophone Diplomacy (Hat Hut, 1991).

ROVA would return in 1989 for a formally welcomed tour — bigger venues and probably bigger audiences, but not the same enthusiasm, according to liner notes on the CD, This Time We Are Both (New Albion, 1991).

In addition to those recordings, there’s a marvelous double CD called San Francisco Holidays (Leo, 1992) by the Ganelin Trio, a Soviet group that Leo had been championing. It documents the Ganelins’ 1986 trip out west, including a couple of short performances with the trio and ROVA combined.

Planetary itself has no direct ties to Russia, other than the SoLyd label. The recordings, from 2003 and 2009, were made in the East Bay rather than Eastern Europe. But it’s still a nice excuse to revisit the whole Soviet story.

The album consists of two tracks by Larry Ochs (ROVA’s “O”) and two by Steve Adams (nominally, the “V”). As you’d expect, the songs combine aggressive group work with more thoughtful moments, the latter often in the form of untethered playing by subsets of the quartet.

Ochs is good at writing really chipper themes for the quartet (a fave of mine is “Torque,” from This Time We Are Both). His track, “Planetary,” does take you on a 17-minute journey, but don’t expect something reverentially cosmic. A catchy opening theme is followed by a suite of solos, including what I think are long stretches of Ochs unaccompanied — gruff and blustery in an almost comical way for one long stretch; later, calm and colorfully kinetic. It ends with a gravely shrill march, maybe a nod to Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War.”

Ochs’ other composition, “S,” starts by playing around with overlapping sax lines for a tumbling, perpetual-motion sensation. Later themes get more swingy, providing backdrop for individual members’ solos.

Adams’ tracks include the breathy, wandering “Parallel Construction #1” and its perkier companion, “Parallel Construction #2.” They take similar themes and carve different pathways with them — “#1” has a wide-open feel and a chamber-music lilt, while “#2” gets more dense and frenzied. Adams also contributes a peppy, upbeat track called “Flip Trap.”

The track that’s easy to overlook, because it’s quiet, is Adams’ “Glass Head Concretion.” It creeps along, starting with careful foreshadowing and light tension, working its way through some ostinato themes and composed passages that are actually quite catchy, if you don’t let them drift past unnoticed. It’s full of long tones and agile but whispered soloing — a great, close listen if you’re in a quiet environment.

The “SoLyd” link up top connects you to the distributor Forced Exposure. You can also purchase the CD directly from ROVA.

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