Rova Saxophone Quartet Celebrates 25th Anniversary


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Picture 1977: Jimmy Carter is sworn in as President of the United States. A bitter winter and a heating-oil shortage move President Carter to proclaim energy crises “the moral equivalent of war.” Millions of TV viewers nationwide tune in to Roots (whose stellar cast, incidentally, includes a well-known football-player-turned-actor, O.J. Simpson). Rocky wins the Academy Award for “Best Picture.” Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors takes the Grammy for “Best Album.” And, well beneath the radar of the pop charts, a ground-breaking saxophone quartet forms in San Francisco.

A lot has changed since then. But the Rova Saxophone Quartet (“Rova” for short) remains one of the world’s leaders in improvised music, creating remarkable, adventurous art and inspiring generations of fans and fellow musicians. February 2003 marks the 25th Anniversary of Rova’s very first public performance—at Mills College in Oakland on February 4, 1978. A silver anniversary is rare enough in a marriage these days; in a band, it’s almost unheard-of. But Rova has achieved not only a feat of longevity, but of ceaseless innovation, logging a wealth of artistic milestones to recognize and celebrate.

Musically, that early Mills performance laid the groundwork for the spirit of collaboration and experimentation that would become Rova’s hallmark. From the beginning, Rova has performed works by individual quartet members, as well as group compositions and works commissioned from other trail-blazing composers. Rova’s efforts to further the sax quartet repertoire have been recognized repeatedly by Meet the Composer; in fact, with 20 commission awards, Rova is the most frequent award recipient in that prestigious program’s history. On June 8, 2002, Meet the Composer presented a two-day festival in Minneapolis of live music and discourse titled WORKS. Rova presented four of its Meet the Composer-commissioned pieces at this event—a fitting springboard for the ensemble’s 25th anniversary season. (Please see page two for details regarding the 2002-03 anniversary season).

Over the past quarter-century, the Rova Saxophone Quartet (Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Steve Adams*, and Bruce Ackley) has developed an international reputation. The members are recognized as pioneers in the fields of experimental and improvised music. With influences ranging from jazz and contemporary classical/new music to the traditional musics of Africa, Asia, and Europe, Rova’s music is improvisational without being free-form, and composed without being predictable. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area and known around the world, Rova has more than two-dozen recordings to its credit.

The Village Voice praised Rova for a sound “like Thelonious Monk crossed with Bartók,” and Britain’s The Wire wrote, “The quartet seems to have achieved a remarkable thing. They have combined the expressive richness of the jazz saxophone with the structural precision of the European string quartet.”

~See reverse side~ The Penguin Guide to Jazz has hailed Rova’s “teeming cosmos of saxophone sounds," and Down Beat magazine wrote, “Rova is not only the hardest-working saxophone quartet in blow business, they are also the finest.”

Early in its history, Rova began writing new material, touring, and recording (releasing its first album, Cinema Rovaté, on Ochs' Metalanguage label). The band played both at the Vancouver New Music Society (1978) and the Moers International Festival of New Jazz in Germany (1979). Over the next few years, Rova performed widely throughout North America and Europe and in 1983 became the first American new music group to tour the Soviet Union. A documentary video of the tour, Saxophone Diplomacy, aired on PBS stations throughout the U.S. in 1984. Rova returned to the USSR in November 1989 and subsequently released a live CD from the tour, This Time We Are Both (New Albion Records). Between those visits, in 1986, Rova (which had incorporated as a nonprofit organization the previous year presented a San Francisco performance by the Ganelin Trio, the first Soviet jazz group to appear in the U.S. The trio performed with Rova at its first Pre-Echoes series of collaborative events, which would later include concerts with Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Terry Riley, and other leading composer/improvisers.

Founding member Jon Raskin considers the group’s most important milestone to be their first tour of the Soviet Union: “We became more than a band and realized that the music we were making had a larger audience than we knew about. It laid the groundwork for our later becoming a nonprofit organization, and presenting a collaborative concert series—the first being the Pre-Echoes series.” Co-founder Bruce Ackley said, “For me, the most important milestone has been becoming a nonprofit, being a presenter and a commissioning group. It’s one thing to be a group, but it’s another to have a broad group of people from around the world whom you commission.” Steve Adams added, “It’s a remarkable and unusual thing for a group of people to dedicate themselves to working together so seriously for such a long time.” Founding member Larry Ochs noted, “I think one thing that really gratifies all of us is to have created our own language for structured improvisation, and then to find that the language is not only applicable to making music with larger ensembles, and employing musicians not initially familiar with Rova's way of working, but also of great interest to students and younger professional musicians who are looking for ways to stimulate their own creativity.”

*Founding member Andrew Voigt left Rova in August 1988 and was replaced by Steve Adams.


In addition to the direct mentoring of improvising musicians through performance collaborations, Rova draws much-needed critical and popular attention to improvised music in the Bay Area — including the events presented by Rova:Arts (the non-profit umbrella organization of the Rova Saxophone Quartet) — through its international reputation for artistic excellence and innovation. As Bay Area-based guitarist/composer John Schott said of Rova in the pages of SF Weekly, “They’ve played together 20-plus years, they rehearse constantly and ferociously, they tour and record prolifically, they go out of their way to encourage and create opportunities for up-and-comers, and they are just so damn good at what they do. Who wouldn’t want to be involved with that?” In a similar vein, Bay Area improvising bassist Damon Smith told the San Francisco Bay Guardian, “They confirm that this is serious music… by presenting high-profile performances with international guests in concert halls, while working year-round in regular venues with the rest of us.”

The improvised music scene shifts and changes all the time, and Rova can take credit for inspiring the scene to develop artistically. “The Bay Area has always been a generative place for change in the arts,”

said Raskin. “The idea of improvised music as we think of it today had its start in the early sixties, and it seems that each decade brings a new generation and perspective to its creation. It seems broader today with a greater diversity of elements, instruments and sources. The use of ‘noise’ that seemed radical when Rova started is commonplace in popular music now. There also seems to be more diversity of approaches—from mixing composition and improvisation, as Rova does, to the use of computers and studio gear in the creation of improvised music.”

One thing is certain: Rova’s music and the events presented by Rova:Arts stimulate the improvised music scene and bring groundbreaking music to wider audiences. Some of the artists who have collaborated with the quartet throughout its twenty-five year history include: John Zorn, Sam Rivers, Henry Kaiser, The Ganelin Trio, Richard Teitelbaum, Terry Riley, The Kronos Quartet, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and Seiichi Tanaka and San Francisco Taiko Dojo. Many of Rova:Arts’concerts have also premiered new works and featured guest-artist performances by exceptional Bay Area-based artists. Rova has served as mentors to many emerging artists by giving them the opportunity to experiment and perform world premieres, or to collaborate with pioneers in the field. They include groups such as the Tin Hat Trio, Dave Douglas’ Tiny Bell Trio, and musicians Miya Masaoka and John Schott to name a few.


The Rova Saxophone Quartet will celebrate its 25th Anniversary Season in two Bay Area concert programs presented by Rova:Arts at the state-of-the-art Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum in San Francisco. Building on relationships established during Rova’s first-ever tour of Japan in 1999, each of the 25th Anniversary Season concerts will showcase the quartet in collaboration with premier Japanese composer/improvisers. The schedule for the season is as follows:

Rovaté 2002 — October 11-12, 2002, 8 p.m.,Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, S.F.

Rova’s 2002-2003 Anniversary season kicks off with its annual Rovaté concert program on October 11 through 12, 2002 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum with the collaboration of Japanese-American pianist/composer Satoko Fujii and trumpet virtuoso Natsuki Tamura. In the words of The New York Times , “Satoko Fujii negotiates the path between Cecil Taylor's hyper-kinetic dissonance and more meditative styles of piano players like Randy Weston and Abdullah Ibrahim... Fujii transforms jazz into something architectural, full of designed shapes that jut and jab at the silence of an enclosed space.” Fujii has been commissioned by Rova:Arts to write a new work for saxophone quartet for this concert. In addition, she and Rova’s Steve Adams will both write pieces for an extended Orkestrova ensemble, also commissioned by Rova:Arts. The expanded Orkestrova ensemble features Ms. Fujii, Natsuki Tamura , one of Japan’s best trumpeters, and elite improvisers from the Bay Area. A duet of pieces by Ms. Fujii for herself on piano and San Francisco artist Carla Kihlstedt (of the nationally celebrated Tin Hat Trio) on violin will also be featured.

Rova’s 25th Anniversary Shows: February 7-8, 2003 —Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, S.F. Rova will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its first public performance in February 1978 with a salute to two of its most important jazz influences: saxophonist/composers John Coltrane and Steve Lacy. Rova:Arts will invite Japanese guitarist and turntable/electronics improviser Otomo Yoshihide, Los Angeles guitar wizard Nels Cline, visionary multi-instrumentalist Fred Frith, and other national and Bay

Area-based improvisers to join the quartet in performances of two major improvisational works: Coltrane’s Ascension and Lacy’s Saxophone Special. The concerts will also include commemorative performances of works from throughout Rova’s 25-year repertoire.

Ascension was first produced by Coltrane in 1965; Rova recorded the piece in 1965 with the same instrumentation as Coltrane used. But thus time: a 21st century arrangement seems appropriate. The complete line-up for Ascension:- 2003 >> Rova (Ochs, Ackley, Adams and Raskin): saxophones // Nels Cline: el. Gtr // Carla Kihlstedt and Jenny Scheinman: violins // Otomo Yoshihide: turntables and electronics // Chris Brown: electronics // Ikue Mori: sampler and drum machines // Fred Frith: el. Bass // Hamid Drake: drums… Steve Lacy produced Saxophone Special live in London in 1973 with 3 other saxists plus el. gtr (Derek Bailey) and electronics (Michael Waisvisz). For SaxophoneSpecial: in 2003: Rova plus Cline, Mori and Yoshihide.


Incorporated in 1985, Rova:Arts, the non-profit umbrella organization of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, is devoted to extending the leading edge of musical expression and related artistic disciplines. Inspired and informed by the work of the Rova Saxophone Quartet, Rova:Arts administers the ensemble’s activities, presents work by other forward-looking artists, commissions new works by established and emerging composers, and furthers the public’s understanding of adventurous art through education and outreach. Currently, the organization presents two annual concert events - Rovaté and New Music on the Mountain - which attract a diverse audience from throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to presentation, Rova:Arts' achievements include the commissioning of more than 30 new works for saxophone quartet from artists as aesthetically diverse as minimalist composers Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, avant-garde composers Fred Frith and Anthony Braxton, experimental rock musician Lindsay Cooper, and jazz luminaries Jack DeJohnette and John Carter.

For further readings on Rova, please visit www.rova.org

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