By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
Larry Ochs, the tenor saxophonist in the Rova Saxophone Quartet, says the group’s baritone man, Jon Raskin, once opined that the group should release an album called The Happy Few. “Because the few who do actually come [to see us] are really happy they came,” Ochs says. “We really should use that at some point.”
That comment might imply Rova is searching for an audience, but the Bay Area quartet has won admirers around the world over the past 42 adventurous years. That includes listeners in the Soviet Union, which Rova first toured in 1983, the first American new music ensemble to make such a journey. (Their travels were filmed for a PBS documentary at the time.) In addition to a wealth of original material, the group has embarked on ambitious projects like Electric Ascension, a reimagining of John Coltrane’s tumultuous “Ascension,” which Rova performed with a 13-piece group of A-list improvisers that included guitars and electronics along with horns.
Throughout it all, the quartet has developed its own sound, which is more than free jazz. “We play art music, not jazz. It’s absolutely jazz-influenced. Certainly, the kind of saxophone stuff we do is primarily from ’60s free jazz on up,” Ochs says, pausing mid-thought. “Well, we’re really into everybody.”
Although it might not draw arena-sized audiences, Ochs’ most recent visit to Pittsburgh offered proof positive that people will dig this music if they listen. He came to town in 2017 with drummer Gerald Cleaver and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline.
“There were a lot of young people there who came probably most likely because of who Nels is in his other life, as the Wilco lead guitarist, one of the Top 100 guitarists on Rolling Stone’s list,” Ochs says about the performance at Spirit Lodge. “They were blown away. I’m sure there were some who weren’t, but the overall situation, or feeling after the concert was over, was ecstatic. But you’ve got to get [people] in a room first. Once they’re there, most people are willing to find the sense in what you’re doing.”
The Rova Saxophone Quartet, which last visited Pittsburgh 25 years ago, came together in 1977. The original group consisted of Bruce Ackley (soprano), Andrew Voight (alto), Ochs (tenor) and Jon Raskin (baritone). Steve Adams replaced Voight in 1988. The World Saxophone Quartet had come together in New York just a few months earlier, but Rova had yet to hear of them. “We thought, ‘Wow these guys are doing it, that means we’re not going to seem so strange,’” Ochs says. “And it didn’t work out that way. We’re still strange, 42 years later.”
Before they even released their debut album, a cassette of a live performance landed on the desk of the director of the adventurous MOERS Festival in Germany. One of the people who heard it was saxophonist/composer Anthony Braxton, who pressed the festival to invite the band to perform in 1979. “At the point, we were like, ‘Oh, I guess we’re for real. Let’s dig into this,’” Ochs recalls.
Their approach to collective improvisation sets them apart from other horn-only groups. Ochs cites a composition “NC-17” as an example. Rather than a written score, it consists of five sets of directions, which any member of the band can direct during a performance, with choices ranging from rhythmic figures to multiphonics. Thus, one performance of it can sound vastly different from a previous one. “This is the kind of thing that keeps this band going. We keep getting challenged by pieces that really last a long time,” says Ochs.
And the happy few keep growing.