In my never-ending quest to find jazz groups of atypical instrumentation and configuration, it never occurred to me that one possibility might be a quartet where four people play the same kind if instrument. Which may be why — despite recording three dozen albums — I’m only just now hearing about the aptly-named ROVA Saxophone Quartet, courtesy of their new album, The Circumference Of Reason (CD, digital). But if Reason is any indication of what they’ve been up the past 24 years, I have a lot of questing into their back catalog to do.
For those who are also unfamiliar with the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, the foursome formed in San Francisco, and originally featured Jon Raskin on baritone sax, Larry Ochs on tenor sax, Andrew Voigt on alto, soprano, and sopranino sax, and Bruce Ackley on soprano and tenor sax. And while Voigt split in 1998, and was replaced by Steve Adams on alto and sopranino sax, starting with their 1990 album Long On Logic, the group kept their moniker, rather than start calling themselves ROAA in much the same way Van Halen never changed their name to Van Hagar.
As for The Circumference Of Reason, it was recorded on June 22nd and September 23rd of 2018 and July 1st of 2019 at New, Improved Recording, in Oakland, California. Clocking in around 52 minutes total, the album consists of six often lengthy tracks that were improvised, rehearsed, and even performed live on several occasions between 2011 and 2016 before finally being recorded for this disc.
And yes, it is quite saxy.
It’s also rather ear-opening if you’re only familiar with only one or two or even three kinds of saxophones. (Let me guess: tenor, soprano, and alto?) Hearing the four members of this quartet harmonize, and with different kinds of saxes, as they do on this album’s title track, you can really hear the subtle but still pronounced differences in their various instruments, one that are clearly more related than, say, a sax and a trumpet, but still distinctive in their own ways.
More importantly, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet’s music also works without sounding like it’s missing something. Say, the rhythm of a drummer or bass player, or the piano stylings of, uh, a piano player.
But the point of The Circumference Of Reason is not academic, or instructive; the members of ROVA Saxophone Quartet recorded these tunes to give you something to listen to. And in that, they succeeded.
Well, if you like your acoustic jazz structured freely. And rather horny.
Take the opener of The Circumference Of Reason, “Extrapolation Of The Inevitable.” On it, Raskin, Ochs, Ackley, and Adams are often in sync, but also unafraid to contradict each other, or run counter to what someone else is doing. And while nothing gets super noisy or free form, there are times when it qualifies as what I like to call “free jazz adjacent.”
Things on The Circumference Of Reason get decidedly more conventional (relatively speaking) and decidedly moodier for the second track, “NC 17, Version 1.” On it, the guys often take turns, or provide some background atmosphere against which one of their compadres can add some slow and low saxing. As someone who likes his jazz moody and atmospheric, this is the highlight of Reason.
It’s a pattern the ROVA Saxophone Quartet continue on The Circumference Of Reason‘s other highlight, the album’s title track. Again, but even more so, the pattern is for one player to use his sax to create a background, while another member uses the foreground for coloring. Though unlike “NC 17, Version 1,” “The Circumference Of Reason” does have them teaming up in the foreground more often.
This approach also continues, sort of, for the fourth track of The Circumference Of Reason: “Xenophobia.” While it does have moments when only one or two of the ROVA Saxophone Quartet are playing, and is at times atmospheric, the song also gets more upbeat and lively. It also has a number of times when all four play together in harmony, bits where at least three of them are in sync while the fourth does some solo improvisation, and even times when the four are intentionally out of step and getting a bit noisy.
The Circumference Of Reason then gets rather chaotic for “NC17, Version 2,” which is decidedly louder, more aggressive, and more free form than “Version 1.” So much so that it approaches the pure free jazz approach of Ornette Coleman and late-era John Coltrane. But there are also times during this lengthy track (13:02, for those keeping score) that the foursome go for a more atmospheric and layered approach.
It’s this same approach that the ROVA Saxophone Quartet also use on The Circumference Of Reason‘s sixth and final track, “The Enumeration (For Glenn Spearman).” While it starts out sedate and moody, the track becomes fully free about half-way through, only to go back to being more atmospheric as the song comes to an end.
Ultimately. the ROVA Saxophone Quartet’s The Circumference Of Reason more than shows you can have four musicians all play sister instruments without it turning into a mutual masturbation session (one has only to watch an all-guitar jam session to see what I’m talking about). While some of it works better than others — no surprise: I would’ve preferred it all to be moody and atmospheric — on the whole, this is an album that’s as engaging as it is interesting…especially if you’ve never listened to anything like it before.