In the Spark episode “The Art of Improvisation,” we meet the members of Rova Saxophone Quartet as they prepare for a unique 25th anniversary concert at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Beginning with an introduction to improvised music, witness the behind-the-scenes rehearsal process of Rova and their international musical guests as they work on a series of musical pieces inspired by soprano saxophone legend Steve Lacy.
The Rova Saxophone Quartet was founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in October 1977 by Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Andrew Voigt and Bruce Ackley. The ensemble performed its first concert at the third annual Free Music Festival at Mills College in Oakland in 1978. The group is inspired by a broad range of musicians, including Charles Ives, Edgard Varese, Olivier Messiaen and John Cage to John Coltrane, Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy and Ornette Coleman. Rova began writing new material, touring, recording and collaborating with like-minded colleagues such as guitarist Henry Kaiser and Italian percussionist Andrea Centazzo.
Early in its history, Rova performed both at the Vancouver New Music Society (1978) and the Moers International Festival of New Jazz in Germany (1979). Over the next few years Rova performed widely throughout North America and Europe, and in 1983 it became the first new music group from the US to tour the Soviet Union. “Saxophone Diplomacy,” a documentary video of the Rova USSR tour aired on PBS. Rova returned to the USSR again in November 1989 and released a CD titled “This Time We Are Both.” In 1986, in between visits to the USSR, Rova hosted the Ganelin Trio, the first Soviet jazz group to appear in the US. The trio performed with the Rova Saxophone Quartet at its first Pre-Echoes series of collaborative events, which would later include concerts with Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Terry Riley and others.
Founding member Andrew Voigt left Rova in August 1988 and was replaced by Steve Adams, formerly with the Boston-based Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet. In addition, members of the quartet have been commissioned to write music for Rova by both Meet the Composer/Commissioning Music USA and Chamber Music America, which has commissioned 20 works from Rova over the years.
In 1999, Rova began presenting two annual events in the San Francisco Bay Area: New Music on the Mountain and Rovate. New Music on the Mountain presents several acts outdoors at Mount Tamalpais every September. Rovate presents special collaborations between Rova and such guest artists as Sam Rivers, Wadada Leo Smith, Gerry Hemingway, Satoko Fujii and Nels Cline as well as commissioning up-and-coming local composers to write new music for Rova.