Totally Spinning

(Black Saint)

"Ornette Coleman's Permanent Revolution": this was the expression that, with his usual acumen, and in order to underline the most important features in the work of a musician who's been so often discussed, but just as often misunderstood, Francis Davis used as the title for a critical profile that appeared more than twenty years ago. Coleman's innovations in music having been a "revolution", but a revolution that was destined to remain "permanent" (and that today really appears bound to stay this way forever), i.e., never to be absorbed by the mainstream (the same thing being obviously true of musicians travelling on a parallel path, such as Albert Ayler and Cecil Taylor); the mainstream having proved to be perfectly able to accommodate melodies coming from different cultures, hip-hop rhythms, and even the by now unavoidable presence of a dj - but unwilling to question the usual musical hierarchies, the same old logic underlying all musical development.

If this was the fate awaiting Coleman's music, it's not too difficult to imagine the one that was in store for Rova, a saxophone quartet which had its start almost thirty years ago. The literal antecedents have always been quite easy to see: both from 1974, Steve Lacy's Saxophone Special and the composition for four saxophones featured on an (at the time much talked-about) album by Anthony Braxton bearing the title New York, Fall 1974; on a literal note, I'll also have to remind the reader of the version for four saxophones of Nonaah which appears on the album of the same name by Roscoe Michell which was released in 1977. But it was immediately obvious that Rova's background was a lot bigger than that, featuring all sort of stuff from Evan Parker to Braxton and Mitchell, from Lacy, Derek Bailey and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago to - literally - the whole history of jazz, which was not so explicitly mentioned, but just taken for granted. (That they are always ready to critically revisit what came before is demonstrated by the two versions of John Coltranes's Ascension the group have released: one recorded in 1995, thirty years after the original, and released by Black Saint in 1997; and a quite different version recorded in 2003 and released two years later on Atavistic as Electric Ascension under the name Rova::Orchestrova.) And since it's logical procedures we're talking about, and not "styles", we can add the names of Cage, Xenakis and Feldman.

The (material) existence of Rova (by the way: the group's name derives from the initials of the surnames of the four original members) is a real miracle. A miracle that Rova themselves have made possible by going no-profit, which has made it possible for them to promote concerts of like-minded musicians and to commission artists such as Lindsay Cooper, Barry Guy, Fred Frith, John Carter, Tim Berne, Muhal  Richard Abrams and Robin Holcomb (here readers can check the three volume series on Black Saint called The Works). The group's discography is quite large, its quality - taking for granted the fact of the group's intentions changing somewhat over time - being on the average very good, the available records being listed in the booklet to Totally Spinning (it was much to my horror that I discovered I had never heard about the release of Resistance, released on Victo about three years ago).

Just about released, Totally Spinning features eight tracks that according to the cover were all recorded in 1996. Which sounded quite bizarre to me: why keep the material unreleased for all this time? It was thanks to a mutual friend that I happened to ask this question to Larry Ochs (the "O" in Rova), who answered thus: "Actually there is a date missing on the notes, which is quite a shame. Only two tracks were recorded in 1996: Stiction and Totally Spinning. The rest were recorded in 2000. Except for the short piece by Fred Frith, and that was recorded at the time we recorded Freedom in Fragments for Tzadik. The 1996 recordings were made at the same time as the music we released on Resistance on Victo. When we recorded in 2000 we built the CD around Totally Spinning and Stiction, since we already had those pieces in the can, and we then added the Frith piece later when we were editing the CD together. The "delay" in release was first our doing. But still, Black Saint had everything by 2002."

It's only because I really fear being chased by a bunch of angry buyers that I hesitate to define Totally Spinning as Rova's "commercial album". Very clearly recorded, it offers a variety of climates that could make it a perfect introduction to the music of the group. Their usual nice traits are present here: nice instrumental mix, vivacious colours, ever-changing musical roles, lotsa styles. There's also a lot of solo space for Jon Raskin's baritone, my favourite instrumental voice in the quartet. Three pieces by Steve Adams, which to me sound as being quite near to what is commonly referred to as "jazz"; two quite complex pieces by Raskin; a track by Fred Frith; two (quite different) versions of Radar, Radar being the name of a "structured improvisation" which sounds totally different every time. (It's all clearly discussed in a page called Food for Thought on the group's website,

First track is Raskin's Let's Go Totally Spinning: a swinging riff, a theme that one can really whistle, a nice baritone solo which explores the different sides of the instrument's range, then it's back to the riff, the temperature goes "cool" for an elegant ending, which takes us back to the riff, "vivace con moto". Then we have Stiction, the first of the three contributions by Adams: at first it reminded me of Mingus, then of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago in their "Mingus mode"; again, the baritone starts the piece, the a swinging theme for alto, then soprano and sopranino in unison mode; baritone again, then tenor and alto; a very animated different section follows!, then it's back to the theme. Radar 11/19/01 is all hushed tones, with long notes and arpeggios alternating; towards the end we have an agile melody, which the other winds harmonize quite well. Cuernavaca Starlight For Charles Mingus is another nice one by Adams: again, the baritone opens the track, then a breathy arpeggio from the other winds, then a theme and a quite lyrical solo - the baritone again - over an ever-changing background.

Then comes Kick It by Frith, which for this writer is the only weak track on the album: these "Balkan" arias are basically the same ones we already know starting from Gravity, and the track uses its 3' 40" to say not very much (maybe it could work well as a soundtrack). It has a "structural" function, since it appears to divide the CD in two; but after two or three listening sessions, upon hearing the same "titititi-tira" again, I chose to put all the tracks in "memory" mode, save for this one.

Again by Raskin, It's A Journey, Not A Destination is the longest track: more than 15'; a "stormy" beginning, then Bruce Ackley's solo soprano; the baritone starts an almost-baroque-sounding aria; duets follow: first baritone/alto (Adams), then baritone/tenor (Ochs);  then a "terrifying" baritone solo, a swinging theme, then the "baroque" melody again (echoes of Roscoe Mitchell?). Adams is the writer of Preshrunk: a swinging opening section that makes the presence of drums totally superfluous, then a series of fragments which sound like Monk being filtered through a Lacyan prism; surprising developments follow, but results are always quite easy to read. Lotsa space for Raskin's baritone and Ochs's tenor for the closing track: Radar, Version 731.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2006 | Sept. 24, 2006