ROVA’s Celebration of Butch Morris

ROVA: OrchestrovaNo Favorites! (for Butch Morris) (New World, 2016)

rova-noThe beauty of conduction, Lawrence “Butch” Morris’ method for conducted improvisation, is in the silences.

Anybody could conduct a large improvising group into a formless junkyard sound. (Maybe not anybody. I’ve tried it.) But a conduction moves in distinct syllables, bursts of activity from parts of the group that start and stop on command. The small silences between segments are your proof that something here as been created with precision and forethought.

No Favorites! isn’t an album of pure conduction, but it’s in the same spirit, using conduction, graphical scores, and text instructions to coax unified pieces out of 11 improvisers. It’s an exercise in community.

In fact, the album documents a June 2015 concert in honor of Morris, where the ROVA Saxophone Quartet teamed up with a foursome of strings (violin, viola, cello, bass), and — adding a nice electric jolt — three “rock” instruments (electric guitar, electric bass, drums). The three pieces, written by ROVA members, are meant to be played as a full program, preferably using the same combinations of instruments.

ROVA has posted the scores and instructions to all three pieces here. Reading them beforehand enriches the listening experience immensely.

The strengths of conduction are well displayed on “Nothing Stopped / But a Future,” the lone piece featuring Gino Robair as conductor. Under his direction, the band darts and weaves, cleanly flipping channels to each new phase. Robair builds it all to a satisfyingly drawn-out conclusion with big, dramatic tones and just enough discord to retain the improvised feeling, even during the composed phrases.

“Contours of the Glass Head,” spanning 27 minutes, moves more deliberately, with the band lingering over a each of eight segments. The score consists of short paragraphs of text, describing environments for the group to dwell in

Some of those instructions appear to play off of pre-notated segments. Here’s part of a segment titled “Cycler Duos,” described thusly: “Designated pairs play short, repeated rhythmic ideas, eventually leading to a duo of Larry Ochs on tenor with Jordan Glenn on drums.”

 
“Contours” is a conduction piece, but this time, everybody shares the conductor’s duties. Like “Nothing Stopped,” it builds up to a definite conclusion, an agreed-upon crescendo that builds gradually, then wraps up abruptly.

41merge
Source: ROVA
The instrumental groupings (strings/rock/ROVA) are crucial to “The Double Negative,” which starts with each group giving an opening statement, directed by graphical scores. You get whispery strings, a delicate sax quartet, and as an exclamation point, a guitar-bass-drums segment anchored by Jason Hoopes‘ rattling bass. The piece ends with the three groups merging in a glorious slow crash.

Overall, there’s so much to savor. I’ve mentioned Hoopes’ guitar sound. The strings add moods from pensive to angry to madcap, led by Christina Stanley‘s violin and Tara Flandreau‘s viola. I haven’t heard John Shiurba on electric guitar much lately, and his sonically destructive crunch is just the right sound to get some of these segments really going.

And of course, there’s ROVA, punching and dancing as individuals or as a cooperative. They’ve planted Morris’ fingerprints all over this music, and it’s a fitting tribute.

ROVA & Saxophone Special

Steve Lacy,
Source: emanemdisc.com.

ROVA Saxophone Quartet will pay homage to Steve Lacy with a performance of his album Saxophone Special on Wednesday Sept. 16 at the Center for New Music (55 Taylor St., San Francisco).

Lacy is the band’s collective hero and was also a friend. And for them, Saxophone Special stands out in Lacy’s catalogue because it’s a saxophone quartet album, recorded from a one-time concert with three other sax players, guitar, and synthesizer. The “three others” aren’t just others — they’re giants of the improvised music genre: Evan Parker, Steve Potts, and Trevor Watts.

Released by the Emanem label in 1976, Saxophone Special was one of the albums that “led to the formation of Rova in 1977-78,” according to the band’s press blurb.

The Sept. 16 concert, with Kyle Bruckmann on electronics and Henry Kaiser on electric guitar, serves as both an encore and a warm-up, because ROVA performed Saxophone Special once already, in July, and is scheduled to record its own version of the album next week.

Saxophone Special is out of print — both the orignal LP and Emanem’s expanded CD version. Close to its orbit, however, is the newly reissued ROVA album Favorite Street, a 1984 collection of Lacy tunes. Here’s a link to that album on eMusic.

Sax Special Card_08.2015

Fred Ho Memorial Concert, Sunday in Oakland

The world had better damn well miss Fred Ho. Radical, revolutionary, bandleader, writer, philosophizer — he was a brash, larger-than-life character, the type who doesn’t come into jazz’s orbit much any more. He championed the baritone sax specifically for its loud, unyielding sound.

His fight with colorectal cancer, which ended early this year, drew generous platitudes from the media, not for the tragedy of the story but for his inspirational energy and determination. He released CDs and was awarded a Harvard Arts Medal, and he managed to get one final master work onto the stage.

The ROVA Saxophone Quartet commissioned a work from Ho, back when. “Beyond Columbus and Capitalism” appeared on The Works (Volume 2) in 1996, and they’ll be revisiting it for a concert Sunday afternoon at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

The piece plays like a big-band suite, with those same tight horn harmonies and some aggressive swinging rhythms. Like most of Ho’s work, it’s a fun ride — and it includes a burly, unaccompanied solo for the baritone sax, of course.

For more about Ho, check out his Big Red Media web site (which automatically launches a music player, so be forewarned); an early 2014 NPR interview; a detailed, pre-cancer, 2005 interview for Harvard Magazine, and his elegant obituary in The New York Times.

Here’s the info about the concert, cut-and-pasted from ROVA’s mailer.

STRUGGLE FOR A NEW WORLD: Fred Ho Memorial

Sunday, September 7, 2:00 – 4:30 PM

Oakland Asian Cultural Center
9th Street #290
Oakland 94607

The memorial will feature performance by many of the forward-thinking artists touched by Fred Hos significant cultural contribution. Rova will perform Hos 1992 composition, Beyond Columbus and Capitalism, a work commissioned by Rova through The Meet the Composer / Readers Digest Commissioning Program.

Other performers include: Ben Barson, Royal Hartigan, Mark Izu, Jon Jang, Masaru Koga, Genny Lim, Hafez Modirzadeh, John Carlos Perea, Akira Tana, Marty Wehner, Francis Wong, Brenda Wong Aoki, with speaker/emcees: Diane Fujino and Matef Harmachis.

Favorite Street: Steve Lacy Remembered

ROVAIt’s hard to believe Steve Lacy passed away 10 years ago this week. Doesn’t seem that long ago.

For many musicians in the Bay Area, Lacy was a contemporary, a peer, a mentor, a correspondent, and even a fan. They knew him and admired his work, and his passing at the age of 70 was like a color dropping from the spectrum.

So when the members of ROVA Saxophone Quartet arranged a commemorative concert, it also served as a 10-year wake and a community catharsis. Held at the Community Music Center in San Francisco, back on June 6, the show was a celebration of Lacy’s music, a chance to share memories, and a repainting of Favorite Street, ROVA’s 1984 album of Lacy compositions. (The CD is even back in print, part of a re-emergence of the Black Saint record label, although ROVA noted it might be hard to find in stores.)

Steve Lacy and Don Cherry: EvidenceI wanted to see the show not just for the music, but to learn a little more about Lacy and his influence.

Bruce Ackley did a lot of the talking for ROVA, explaining how Lacy’s influence had crept into their musical lives. ROVA members would attend many a Lacy show — and he would attend theirs in turn. (Lacy, a native New Yorker, spent most of his career in Paris and was a frequent Bay Area visitor. ROVA probably encountered him in both places.)

Ben Goldberg talked about the album Evidence, which he and ROVA both mentioned as a key influence. It’s got Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, but more importantly, it came out in 1961, when Lacy wasn’t as well known. His records weren’t numerous and were hard to come by. Evidence was a portal into a new sound world and a revelation, to hear the musicians tell it.

Ben Goldberg: The Door, The Hat, The Chair, The FactYears later, Goldberg received the news of Lacy’s death just days before a previously booked studio date. That album — which would become The Door, the Hat, the Chair, the Fact — was meant to be an homage, songs Goldberg assembled upon hearing Lacy had cancer. It turned into an emotional therapy session, as the whole community was rocked by Lacy’s passing. One track is a brief, classically styled song, “Cortege,” where the lyrics are the text of a fax Lacy sent Goldberg. The concluding line is a casual comment by Lacy that becomes poetic in its new context: “I am hardly here these days.”

Darren Johnston, Doug Stewart, Kjell Nordeson, Aram Shelton

The Concert

The first act was a variation of the quartet Cylinder, with bassist Doug Stewart sitting in for the traveling Lisa Mezzacappa. They started with a thundering take on “Trickles,” a fast-moving free-jazz rendition propelled by Kjell Nordesson’s drums and percussion. Aram Shelton (sax) and Darren Johnston (trumpet) took the lead voices, spelling out Lacy’s melodies — which have always struck me as simple and playful, but bent with a foreign accent of a country only Lacy’s mind could inhabit — and spiraling into solos inspired by the music. Johnston, in particular, seemed to be working the Monk-like strategy of using the melody to overtly build a solo (Monk being a fascination of Lacy’s, of course).

Michael Coleman and Ben Goldberg, ready for their close-upWhere the Cylinder group presented Lacy in a jazz context, the duo of Michael Coleman (piano) and Ben Goldberg (clarinet) showed off a more classical-oriented side, more akin to a recital-plus-improvisation. It turns out they were, in fact, playing Lacy’s etudes, a book of intentionally difficult exercises called Hocus Pocus. For much of the set, Coleman and Goldberg played the melodies in unison, the piano following the same fractally linear paths as the clarinet. Coleman expertly darted and dodged his way through, sometimes tripping up but always able to jump back in within a couple of sixteenth notes; it was all very impressive.

On a few occasions, Coleman had arranged chords to go along with the themes, adding unexpected and dramatic effects. “Herky Jerky” took on a deep ocean-waves color; it didn’t remind me of McCoy Tyner but it was that same monumental spirit. “Hustles,” dedicated to Niccolo Paganini, got a brief passage of insane circus music (at least, I’m pretty sure it was the Paganini piece and not the one dedicated to Karl Wallenda).

Bruce Ackley and Jon Raskin of ROVADuring ROVA’s set, I found myself suddenly paying attention to rhythms. This might have been because they opened with the funky bassline of “The Throes,” with Jon Raskin chugging away at the baritone sax. Several pieces also broke the group into a 2×2 format, with duets playing counterbalancing themes — again, tickling the ear’s sense of rhythm. While they played the songs from Favorite Street, some of them got new interpretations. (I know that not because I’m a brilliant Lacy-ologist, but because Steve Adams contributed some arrangements, and he wasn’t in ROVA in 1984.) It was a joyous set that ended with a new arrangement of “Cliches,” a track that’s not on the album.

It was a concert, a remembrance, and an education. I’m glad I was able to be there.

Flanked by Drummers

1. Just because you think of something doesn’t mean you should blog it.

2. Oh, what the heck.

There is no reason to expect two bands to sound the same just because they use the same instrumentation. Rock music makes that obvious. The raw materials that go into steel girders can also be used to produce silverware.

Even so, I recently found myself contrasting the John Lurie National Orchestra with the Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core. Both groups consist of one saxophone and two drummers — with the drummers being essential to the sound. But the two bands travel towards different destinations.

Lurie’s album, Men With Sticks, consists of three improvisations. I came across this one when it was released in 1993, and while I’d become a fan of the Lounge Lizards, I was scared off by the 36-minute span of the opening track, “If I Sleep the Plane Will Crash.” Loved the title, feared the scope. About a decade later, I snatched up the album and enjoyed it immensely.

Calvin Weston and Billy Martin, two huge names in adventurous mainstream jazz, flank Lurie’s sax. Their drums meld into one determined, driving groove, full of tiny details and subrhythms, while Lurie flutters and buzzes on his sax. It’s one big, joyous jam, and it doesn’t slow down for quite some time.

Eventually, Lurie sits out, and you suddenly realize just how much is going on under the surface of that beat. Lots of tiny changes and polyrhythms get spat out from the drums.

This album gives me the same impression I got with Pat Metheny’s Zero Tolerance for Silence, namely, that the first track is the project, and the rest of the album is like a B-side. Two shorter tracks round out the album, and while they do tread new ground — one starts with a quieter, relaxed attitude, for example — you get the feeling that the statement has already been made.

Sax and Drumming Core has a different purpose altogether. (Which I knew going into this exercise, and maybe that’s coloring my listening. I’ve seen this band at least twice and heard all three of their albums — and reviewed the most recent one, Stone Shift, here.)

Sax and Drumming Core is highly improvised, but it plays off of Ochs’ compositions. The band also covers a lot of ground — fast versus loud versus quiet versus slow. Men with Sticks feels like an idea put down on record. Sax and Drumming Core is more calculated, a band assembled for the creation of a body of work.

Drummers Scott Amendola and Donald Robinson are held apart, each drum in one speaker, to highlight the contrasts in their styles, and the visual experience of watching them work separately was a crucial part of their live sets.

Their first album, The Neon Truth (Black Saint, 2002), opens with “Wrong Right Wrong,” a spiky piece where the melody is intentionally off-putting; it’s aggressive and ugly, in a good way. The drums stab out at their own will, behaving as separated but symbiotic entities, composers in their own right.

They’re given a grand showcase in “Finn Crosses Mars,” an energetic, 11-minute piece that includes a spirited drum duet, nice and loud. I also love the subtle space created in “Xanic Rides Again,” where Ochs burbles relatively calmly, surrounded by ethereal cymbals played like gongs, or by the careful patter of drum brushes, applied sparely.

I guess the final analysis is that I hadn’t listened to either of these albums in a while and wanted to hear them again. I like them both. Lurie’s National Orchestra makes for simpler listening; it demands less concentration, although concentration certainly gets rewarded as you peer into the Weston/Martin groove. But Sax and Drumming Core feels to me like a richer brew, full of fresh challenges.

(For more: read the anecdote about someone calling the cops on Sax and Drumming Core.)

ROVA’s Ascension

“Ascension” has become a signature piece for the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, or at least a favored experiment-in-progress. They’ve performed the album-length Coltrane epic at least seven times, usually under the auspices of “OrkestROVA,” where the quartet gets augmented with other great musicians. They’ve recorded it twice, once in acoustic form (on Black Saint, 1998) and later — with Nels Cline and others on hand — in a searing reading called “Electric Ascension” (on Atavistic, 2005).

They’d like to document the next performance of “Electric Ascension” on video, and there’s a Kickstarter fund underway to help with the substantial costs.

The performance, at September’s Guelph Jazz Festival (an hour west of Toronto), will feature a stellar crew of current and former Bay Area musicians, most (if not all) of whom have played a ROVA “Ascension” before. Special guests augmenting the band will include cornetist Rob Mazurek and drummer Hamid Drake. The “electric” part will be provided by Nels Cline (guitar), Fred Frith (bass), and Ikue Mori and Chris Brown (electronics).

That performance will happen regardless. The Kickstarter money would fund a highly professional filming of the concert, capturing this epic work in its entirety, with a visual scope to go along with the audio documents of the past. As ROVA’s Kickstarter pitch puts it, “a five-camera, high quality video of Electric Ascension, performed in its entirety, will be an unprecedented musical document.”

There’s more: The concert footage would punctuate Cleaning the Mirror, a documentary about the evolution of “Electric Ascension.” The film, four years in the making, follows the musicians as they develop “Electric Ascension” and explore their relationships with Coltrane’s music and this epic piece.

http://www.jambase.com/Articles/3497/ROVA%27S-S%C3%89ANCE-WITH-JOHN-COLTRANEThe original Ascension is probably familiar to anybody who’s curious enough to find this blog. The idea is deceptively simple: a majestic theme, played by the band, followed by a succession of solos, with composed or pre-arranged material appearing between solos.

It’s not just a 50-minute blowout. In past ROVA shows, a band leader used hand cues to indicate which pre-written segment would emerge next, and to trigger a soloing section or a large-group attack. (Coltrane apparently used hand cues as well, according to the liner notes to the Black Saint album.) The music is big, aggressive and mighty, but it adheres to a plan. The concert audience gets a taste of that plan, and now a video audience would be able to as well.

(There’s also the fact that the band playing “Ascension” has to be big. As I’d remarked before, the song takes on a different vibe when played by a smaller group.)

I don’t think it’s out of character with Coltrane’s late period to consider “Ascension” to be a live quest for a truth. It’s a spirit rally, a “seance,” as one review put it. That’s what makes the piece worth revisiting, and it’s what makes the process worth documenting.

Plenty of worthy concerts, CDs, and tours are seeking funds on Kickstarter. This film is a little different — more ambitious, more historic. Let’s help make it happen.

Upcoming Shows: 6/3/11 and Onward

Lots going on in Bay Area music circles for the next several days.  In chronological order, starting with tonight:

* Mission Eye and Ear — The latest in Lisa Mezzacappa‘s ongoing series of film/music collaborations, featuring short films with live-performed soundtracks. Tonight’s installment includes music by Darren Johnston, Aaron Novik, and Matt Ingalls. There’s a little more information in this article about Mezzacappa’s own band. At Artists Television Access (992 Valencia Street @21st, San Francisco), Friday June 3, 8:00 p.m.

* ROVA + DJ Olive + DJ P-Love — As mentioned here, it’s the 33-1/3rd anniversary of ROVA’s first concert, and they’re celebrating with an SFJazz-sponsored, one-time concert.  At Swedish American Hall (2174 Market St., San Francisco; same place as Cafe Du Nord), Saturday June 4, 8:00 p.m.

* sfSound — The modern-classical troupe performs a daytime set inspired by the Legion of Honor’s exhibit, “Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Bochgrave.” Compositions will be interspersed with group improvisations. The program mentions some early-music influence, but don’t count on hearing harpsichords and recorders. Concert is free with museum admission. At the Legion of Honor Museum (100 34th St., San Francisco), Sunday June 5, 12:00 noon.

* ROOM: Longer BurningPamela Z‘s ROOM series of shows has spotlighted individual instruments from time to time. Now it’s the violas’ turn. Hank Dutt (Kronos Quartet), Charlton Lee (Del Sol String Quartet), and Jhno (better known to me for electronics work) will perform solo and together and with Pamela Z. The program’s title comes from the classic portfolio of viola jokes that classical players know.  At Royce Gallery (2901 Mariposa St., San Francisco), Sunday June 5, 8:00 p.m.

* Michael Formanek Quartet — Part of a West-coast tour with the band from The Rub and Spare Change:  Formanek (bass), Tim Berne (sax), Craig Taborn (keys), and Gerald Cleaver (drums). Previously noted here. A rare chance to see these guys in California. At Yoshi’s Oakland (501 Embarcadero West, Jack London Square, Oakland), Monday June 6, 8:00 p.m.

UPDATE:  The L.A. Times has a review of Formanek’s June 1 performance at the Blue Whale.

* Jazz at the Make-Out Room — First-Monday jazz returns to this friendly Mission District bar. I think they’d had to move elsewhere for a month or two, so hopefully, the bar has welcomed them back. (This is another series that was being organized by Lisa Mezzacappa.) This installment includes the Steve Adams Trio (Adams being from ROVA), Doug Stuart’s Catfish, and the latest edition of Jim Ryan’s Forward Energy.  Adams did a Trio album a while back, eventually released on Clean Feed; Forward Energy is an improv-jazz group that’s been Ryan’s vehicle for a couple of decades at least. Because it’s at a bar, there’s a good chance they’ll start late — meaning it might be possible to catch both Formanek and this show. BART could do the Bay-crossing for you. At the Make-Out Room (3225 22nd St., San Francisco), Monday June 6, 8:00 p.m.