When I asked Larry Ochs, one of the founders of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, how they decided what repertoire to play during the Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concert on January 26, he told me they chose pieces they played during the previous week that didn’t require much rehearsal.
Founded in 1977 in the Bay Area, where they still reside, ROVA had just completed a weeklong residency at The Stone (John Zorn’s small, but influential Lower East side music room.) While in New York, ROVA, plus eight all stars, also gave a monumental performance of John Coltrane’s “Ascension” at Le Poisson Rouge.
The capacity crowd at 121 Club in Eastworks, Easthampton, Massachusetts was treated to two transcendent sets of knotty virtuosity, played with wit and panache. The written parts were intricate and executed without so much as a bead of sweat, although on the car ride home the musicians immediately launched into a self-critique of missed cues and opportunities. The improvised sections were equally evocative, distinguished from the written material by a series of various homemade hand signals that dictated the flow.
Shareholder John Sinton (father of the wonderful baritone saxophonist/bass clarinetist Josh Sinton) described ROVA’s music as “thick”. Indeed the harmonies and textures were layered in surprising, and at times unsettling ways. Shareholder Frank Ward, who was sitting in the front row, talked about the “cleansing” experience of being so close to that much sound. Shareholder Tony Stavely’s reaction: “Quacking conversations among demented ducks and harmonious honking of glad geese. Not the whole story.”
Writer and poet Byron Coley was in the house, as was Hal March, who has run the valuable Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamstown, for many years. There were a number of saxophonists present, including Dave Barrett, now a Great Barrington resident, but a friend of the band since his San Francisco days with the Splatter Trio, and Valley stalwarts Jason Robinson and Carl Clements, who had brought a handful of unsuspecting Amherst College students. John Voci, now Program Director of NEPR, who was part of the technical crew when ROVA made an historic trip to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, showed up. As did Bex Taylor of the Jazz a la Mode family. Cliff Peterson made the trip from Albany; Ronald Lyles, Richard Williams and Chris Carville came from various Connecticut points. Alex Lemski was representing Boston.
The opportunity to hear ROVA in western Massachusetts was special; their only other appearance was a 2011 UMass Magic Triangle Series performance of the Celestial Septet: ROVA + the Nels Cline Singers. The scarce chance to hear today’s premiere working saxophone quartet brought over 100 people to Will Bundy’s bustling venue.
In Space is the Place, John Szwed’s wonderful biography of Sun Ra, the author reminds us that musicians in the 1960s, “moved pitch away from the convention of playing in or out of ‘tune’, and made tonality a conscious choice, just as time keeping or swing were turned into resources to be drawn on, rather than laws to be obeyed.” But even as the sound swirled, at least one of the saxophonists provided a rhythmic backbone, playing a vamp or repeated figure that gave shape to the music. And sometimes not.