It doesn’t always begin in the hive, with reeds buzzing in swarms like hornets riling up one another before jetting into wide-open spaces upon discovery of an exit. But it usually gets there at some point when Rova Saxophone Quartet is playing. It happens about midway through the nearly eight-minute “Arc Fuse,” the opening track on side A of The Receiving Surfaces; again about three- quarters into the subsequent 11-minute “Helicoid”; intermittently on side B’s seven-minute opener “Saddle Scroll Song”; and from just about the get-go on the 111⁄2-minute concert-concluding “Arc Fuse 2.” The hive is a marvelous place to lose oneself in the sonic swirl, provided that you find the stings of dissonance and the jostling, random rhythmic feel of free improvisation as satisfying as the lilting melodies and steady beats of more conventional music.
This limited edition LP—only 300 copies were pressed on 180-gram vinyl—was released on June 4, 2011, to celebrate the 33rd anniversary of Rova’s first concert on February 4, 1978. With more than three decades of exploration under its ample collective belt, Rova must continually push to develop new strategies and avoid repetition. Inviting longtime compatriot John Zorn to play with the Bay Area quartet at Yoshi’s in San Francisco in August 2010 proved a smart way to goose the proceedings to another level. (The ensemble’s extensive list of past collaborators includes Sam Rivers, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Fred Frith, Wadada Leo Smith, Satako Fujii, the Nels Cline Singers, Carla Kihlstedt, DJ Olive, and many more.)
The New York-based Zorn—the MacArthur genius and gadfly known for, among other things, his Masada compositions and ensembles, his Tzadik record label, and his nonprofit experimental-music performance space, The Stone—added alto sax to the Rova lineup of Larry Ochs (tenor), Steve Adams (alto and sopranino), Jon Raskin (baritone), and Bruce Ackley (soprano). The resulting Rova-Zorn quintet is a wonder to the ears. Superb miking and mixing clearly place each player, right to left, across a slightly narrower-than- a-nightclub soundstage. You can easily identify the sounds coming from every horn, each creating a boggling variety of blurps and toots and honks under astonishingly virtuosic finger and breath control. Again, thanks to the precise engineering, you can practically peer through the roughest textures when a reed is overblown and feel the tight blasts of air against your cheek when a note is popped.
There is something at once old- fashioned and futuristic about this music, as if it’s being pumped to life by a grand steampunk contraption out of The Wild Wild West. The players’ commitment to achieving oneness of intention, while insistently expressing their individuality, means constant transmogrification. At one point in “Arc Fuse 2” Raskin’s baritone sounds like an acoustic bass, and the other, higher-pitched saxophones, in their elegant found harmonies, approximate a string quartet. Then, the ensemble suspends itself like a mobile of revolving breaths.
There are just as many of these exquisite moments of calm, spacious beauty in this live performance as there are shrill squeals and dizzying vortices of ecstatic noise. And they all emerge from a hive mind that invites and repays open and alert listening.