|Is this music jazz? Not if you're one of the increasing number of people for whom jazz has come to mean the sound of no surprise. But the case for the affirmative could begin with the fresh and frequently breathtaking uses to which ROVA puts such familiar elements of the jazz language as the riffs and high harmonics that begin Steve Adams's "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" Like much of the most stimulating music of the last two decades, including ROVA's own previous efforts, the music here seeks to bring composition and improvisation into greater balance than has traditionally been the case in jazz, and in so doing, to redefine the role of the soloist within the ensemble. On the one hand, "Swang," "Swapmeet! Swapmeet!," and "Streak"Ñ this album's "sport" piecesÑare, according to Larry Ochs, "put together the way a lot of rock pieces are, with one of us bringing in a riff and all of then improvising on that riff and adding other lines on top of it." On the other hand, Jon Raskin's "Pinnacle" is through-composed, except for the composer's grave and supple baritone intro. But just as the sure interplay among the four horns prevents the pieces that are essentially group improvisations from degenerating into self-indulgent babble, it also assures "Pinnacle" of a spontaneity that prevents the piece from sounding intellectually preordained.
It should be noted here that Adams's tough-minded tribute to John Cage was recorded a few months prior to Cage's death, and that Ochs jokingly describes "The Floater" as "a piece of mine that's been floating around since 1987, waiting to be recorded," although the title probably owes more to the way his tenor floats in and out of its dialogue with the other horns. It is, says Ochs, a piece that takes on a different character each time ROVA plays it, but it would be difficult to imagine a performance better than the one it's given here, the virtues of which include Ochs's brooding a capella, Raskin's unerring sense of line, and Adams and Ackley's lovely unisons and spirals.
Is it jazz? For the sake of jazz, let's hope so.
-- Francis Davis