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ROVA Saxophone Quartet: Keeping It Fresh For 45 Years

On Tuesday, Oct. 4, a quartet that has been one of the world’s most restlessly creative and genre-defying ensembles since its founding in San Francisco in the 1970s will return to Cleveland for the first time in nearly 35 years.

No, it’s not the Kronos Quartet, which played here in 2006 and 2013. Tuesday’s New Ghosts concert at Bop Stop will present the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, a musical aggregation that has been as influential, catalytic and inventive as its more celebrated Bay-area string-playing contemporaries.

ROVA, formed by Jon Raskin (baritone), Larry Ochs (tenor), Andrew Voigt (alto) and Bruce Ackley (soprano) is most at home in the borderlands where composition and improvisation, contemporary classical and jazz and free improvisation all mingle and combine (the name is an acronym drawn from the surnames of the four members). Remarkably for an ensemble that has resisted the categorization that marketing demands, the quartet’s personnel has remained unchanged since Steve Adams replaced Voigt 33 years ago.

So, how do they do it?

ROVA tour 2022“We all have the same passion for trying to extend the music,” Adams said on a video call from his home in the Oakland hills. ”We’re always in this mode of, OK, what’s next? What haven’t we done yet? How can we improve on this idea, or find something new to do with this idea? So, it still feels fresh all these years later. And we get along as people.”

They get along with others, too. Collaborations with guitarists, drummers, dance and theater companies, other saxophonists and string players, including Kronos, pepper the quartet’s catalogue raisonné. Such projects can be artistically stimulating and provide a steady stream of fresh concepts to interest presenters. Still, Adams said, “It’s always our preference to play as a quartet if possible.”

And why not when you have a repertoire as varied and comprehensive as the one ROVA has built over 40 years? It’s a body of work that includes tribute projects to figures such as saxophonists John Coltrane and Steve Lacy, theater works, commissioned pieces and compositions by all four of the quartet’s members.

The latter are showcased on ROVA’s latest release, The Circumference of Reason (ESP-Disk’, 2021), which features an arrangement by Ochs of a composition by the late San Francisco saxophonist Glenn Spearman, three compositions by Adams and two versions of “NC-17.”

“’NC-17’ has a little bit of notation involved in it,” Adams said. “It’s a series of structures that can go all kinds of places, but in a way that does not sound like just another free improvisation. I think that’s more where we are these days. If I’m going to be honest, we’re all on Medicare now. So, some of the pure-energy, blow-your-guts-out-for-five-minutes stuff, we don’t get to that as often as we used to. We still have plenty of interest in energy and sound, but it’s calmed down a little.”

Calmed down, perhaps, but not slowed down. In addition to the tour of Canada and the Midwest that will take the quartet to eight cities in nine days, ROVA’s members all involved in projects outside the band.

Adams is one of the musicians on Los Angeles wind godfather Vinny Golia’s “Even to this day,” a three-movement work the first movement of which is more than 10 hours long. After Before, a collection of Adams’ solo electronic pieces, and Hanes/Adams, an electronic duo with Bay Area drummer John Hanes, are available on Bandcamp.

For the tour, ROVA has assembled an active book of four to six sets material to choose from. “We’ll choose from it every night,” Adams said. “Then it’s like, OK, let’s figure out a way to do that.”

Just like they’ve done for 45 years.


ROVA Saxophone Quartet, October 4, 8 p.m., at Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. Presented by New Ghosts. $20 available here. The concert will not be livestreamed.

CORRECTION: A cynical rule of life in the modern media world would have it that a fact should never get in the way of a clever turn of phrase. An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that ROVA had never played Cleveland. I made this assertion based on an interview last week with ROVA member Steve Adams, who joined the quartet ten years after its founding and could definitively say that he had never played here as part of ROVA. He wasn’t wrong. The concert in question took place in October 1987, the year before Adams joined, and was brought to light by WRUW’s Jim Szabo after a search of documents from the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society. This is sloppy journalism, for sure, and I regret the error. I had reasons to wonder if ROVA had appeared in Cleveland in the ten years before Adams joined the group, but how could I, who moved here three years ago, fact check this? Now I know: call Jim Szabo.

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