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Avant-garde quartet finds sax sells

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The ROVA Saxaphone Quartet, Bush Auditorium, Rollins College, February 21, 1998

There is a twilight zone between improvisation and notation. This hazy area where jazz and classical music meet -- and anarchy seems to reign supreme -- is the domain of folks like the ROVA Saxophone Quartet.

Compositions may start off in unison, only to fragment into bits and shards of tunes as the players goad each other into working the edges of musicality and testing the tensile strength of form. It is probably a far cry from the sort of thing Adolphe Saxe had in mind when he created the saxophone in the mid-1800s.

ROVA has been a going concern since late 1977, when the future members were requested to play a festival gig. Along with the World Saxophone Quartet, ROVA is often credited with initiating the a cappella jazz sax en-semble concept. Larry Ochs, the spokesman, booking agent and executive director for the group, has other ideas.

"It was probably [Steve] Lacy's Emanem LP, ‘Saxophone Special,' that most encouraged or spawned the sax quartet idea," says Ochs. He also identifies Anthony Braxton's "New York (Fall 1974)" album as a seminal influence.

After talking with David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet in 1984, ROVA decided to become a non-profit organization. "We wanted to get some funds in order to help get us over an artistic hump," says Ochs. "It was clear that if we were going to continue this wacko configuration, we had to start including other musicians so as to get some inspiration and fresh ideas to help spur us along."

Aided by their new tax status, ROVA started to stretch their abilities within an increasingly wider range of collaborations. They created a series of concerts in their hometown of San Francisco that brought Russia's Ganelin Trio and avant-gardist John Zorn to audiences who had never seen or heard anything like them before. In addition, they were now able to commission pieces by like-minded new-music honchos such as Robin Holcomb, Leo Smith and Alvin Curran.

Ochs warns that audiences should expect the unexpected from a ROVA performance. "You just didn't know you'd want to hear it before you got there. And when you leave, you'll find that you're disappointed if you don't hear it again at the next concert you go to. We wake people up."


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