Courtesy of ROVA
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH BRUCE ACKLEY OF ROVA
If you tackle
the stylings of Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Tim Berne, Fred Ho, and Fred
Frith, your name is ROVA. That is how ballsy, Bruce Ackley, Jon Raskin,
Larry Ochs, and Steve Adams are. Everyone compares them with the World
Saxophone Quartet, but ROVA is more resourceful on many levels. I love
them both, but ROVA kicks ass. I just wish they would record more and
perform more around my shitty neck of the woods. I spoke with Bruce Ackley
(one of the originals) by phone from his home in the Bay Area, unedited
and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
BRUCE ACKLEY: I grew up in Detroit and I started playing the saxophone
in 1970. I had been in art school and had become friends with a group
of painters, who were also musicians who improvised and one of them loaned
me a saxophone because I had really been interested in it and I started
playing it and they said for me to come back in a month and let's play
together. So that led to the formation of the first trio and so forth.
It was '70, '71, I was playing in the trio. We were doing strictly free
improvisation because basically, I could hardly play. Then I moved to
the Bay Area and I continued studying and practicing and playing in various
groups in the Bay Area through the Seventies.
FJ: Why avant-garde?
BRUCE ACKLEY: Well, I think coming from a background in art, Fred, painting
and photography, in art school, there was
a split between those people that felt like you had to learn how to draw
before you could paint. You had to learn how to draw and you had to do
something realistic before you could do anything abstract and those that
felt that that didn't have anything to do with it and if you wanted to
do something in a particular way, that is what you had to practice. It
wasn't like you practice something else and then you graduate to doing
abstract work. If you had a notion to do something that is what you worked
on. That philosophy worked very well when I moved over to playing music.
I realized that there were those musicians who felt like you had to really
learn how to play legit before you could play anything abstract or free
or open or more personal, expressive, whatever and then those people who
felt that if that's what you wanted to do that's where you should start.
So then, I did do that, but I ended up working my way back. I have worked
on very rudimentary things all my life (laughing) as being a musician.
I was practicing scales. At the same time, I was saying, "Well, you don't
have to practice scales." It was just like painting and painting abstractly,
I was still drawing because I liked it, not because I felt like I had
to do it. I practiced also jazz and bebop as much as I could during the
Seventies at the same time. I never had any interest in performing it.
I wanted to perform something that mattered more to me, which was one
of improvisation and composition.
FJ: How did ROVA (Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, and Andrew Voigt) come to pass?
BRUCE ACKLEY: I met Larry in '73 and we started playing together then,
kind of informally and then, he was living in
Mendocino at the time, in Northern California in the country in a house
that his partner lived, who is now his wife, with her brother and some
friends. They had a studio up there and I used to go up and play with
Larry up there. And I met Jon in '75 through a girlfriend of mine. She
took me to hear Jon play and she said, "You've got to hear this guy. He
is incredible." So I met him and he said he was putting together a big
piece with an orchestra for a festival called the San Francisco First
Annual Free Music Festival, where all the people that were interested
in improvised and more experimental forms performed. There were seven
or eight groups in one night and Jon's was the finale, where he had a
really large group and I played in that. And then that became a group
called Continuum and then as a collective, we opened a performance space
called the Blue Dolphin and several groups came out of that and ROVA formed
during that period. So 1977 was when we first got together and started
rehearsing. The first concert was February of '78.
FJ: ROVA, obviously the first letter of your last names.
BRUCE ACKLEY: At that time, right.
FJ: The instrumentation of four saxophones was nothing if not alternative.
BRUCE ACKLEY: When I was in Detroit playing, the group that I was playing
with was an all wind group. We all doubled on other things, but basically,
I didn't play that well on anything, but we had access to a lot of instruments.
We made sound collages using the different instruments, but the basic
instrumentation of that trio was trumpet and two saxophones. And then,
during the Seventies, out in the Bay Area, I formed a group with trumpet
and two saxophones as well. And I think if you think about Ornette Coleman
saying that we don't really need a piano because we're not working within
a consistent harmonic sequence and the bass player, in that case, Charlie
Haden can hear where I am going and he can figure it out, so we are playing
a blues based music and it has a lot of openings and he knows the basic
options, a lot of ways to go. Well, we were kind of thinking along those
lines, Fred. We felt that we could play it. We played enough together
that we didn't really need a drummer. We didn't need a bass player. We
didn't need a piano player. We could just be winds playing. And the other
thing was that there were very few drummers and bass players around that
were interested in doing a more open-ended music. Most of them were involved
with doing jazz and there was a real divide between those players wanting
to play jazz and those players who wanted to play, I hesitate to say free
because it isn't free, but more alternatively structured music. So anyway,
part of it was by default and part of it was after having heard Anthony
Braxton, his saxophone quartet piece, New York (Fall 1974) that came out
on Arista. There is a saxophone quartet piece on there that is fantastic.
And we heard that and we had also heard Steve Lacy's Saxophone Special
(Emanem), which is a saxophone quartet and Derek Bailey and Michel Waisvisz.
He is a Belgium electronics improviser. They were basically were a sax
quartet with some electronics. So those were two models and we thought,
"Wow, this is really interesting." About the time we got together, we
heard about the World Saxophone Quartet and they had not released a record,
but we had heard that they were together. "This is an interesting mode
and so let's try it out."
ROVA plays Lacy on the Black Saint release, Favorite Street.
BRUCE ACKLEY: Well, they are kind of like still life. They're really simple.
At that point, they were very simple sequences of intervals in banal rhythms
and we thought, "Well, we could orchestrate these." We could make these
really interesting by taking this simple, at that time, he was playing
one riff four times and then another riff four times and another riff
four times and back to the original riff four times and then improvise
and we loved his improvising, but we could develop this. We could orchestrate
them and make more interesting harmonies. We could not necessarily play
them sequentially like that. We could break them up in all kinds of ways
and so we did. Part of it was that we had met Steve and he said, "I would
really like to hear what my stuff sounds with a saxophone quartet." And
we talked about us doing his stuff and I think his interest was enough
to get us thinking about it.
FJ: Has Lacy heard the record?
BRUCE ACKLEY: Yeah, he has heard it. Apparently, at first, I think he
thought it was blasphemy (laughing). I didn't talk to him directly about
it because he is always so friendly and congenial regardless and so when
we saw him afterwards, he was like, he's kind of hard to read sometimes.
We said, "What did you think?" He said, "Yeah." We heard that he had some
trouble with it and that we had taken too many liberties switching things
around. We made it kind of a cubism. We kind of made it kaleidoscopic
rather then be like a sequence. Apparently, over time, he's really grown
to like it, but I think that is because he heard us play the pieces live
many times. Every time we went to Paris, he was there. It was uncanny.
Every time we went and played there, Steve was in the audience. That wouldn't
happen anymore because he's too busy, but during most of the Eighties,
that was the case.
FJ: When Steve Adams stepped into Andrew Voigt's vacant chair, did ROVA
skip a beat?
BRUCE ACKLEY: We were just talking about that the other night, Fred, because
Steve expressed the other night that in the beginning, he didn't know
how we felt about his contribution, how it was working out or whatever
that first couple of weeks. But we all thought it was fantastic, Jon Raskin,
in particular, who is kind of more of a, he's really a trained musician
and more of a stickler for pitch and time and precision, was so pleased
that the level of the musicianship of the whole group overall just went
up a notch with Steve coming on board. And then he immediately was contributing
compositions and ideas. He was much more of an equal partner than the
former member. But there was a change and it was different. The former
ROVA was a little bit more iconoclastic and a little more thorny and there
are some things I like about that, but all in all, this has been a big
improvement and Steve just walked right in and picked it up. That first
tour that Steve went on in '88, we had to get him right away because it
was an emergency situation. We were going on tour in September and Andrew
left in June or July and we had to scramble to get somebody. We interviewed
a few people, got Steve. Steve came here in August and we did some intense
rehearsing. We had to get together quintet pieces with Anthony Braxton
because we were doing five concerts with Braxton in Europe. We had to
do extended work by Terry Riley, who is a classical composer, who had
written a very difficult piece for us that we had to premiere in Europe
and I think it was something else, but there was a lot of music to get
together and Steve walked in and just got it together really fast.
FJ: ROVA has interpreted originals penned by Anthony Braxton, Henry Kaiser,
Fred Frith, Tim Berne, and Fred Ho, why tackle such advanced and often
times esoteric ideas? Wouldn't it be easier to just reinterpret the American
BRUCE ACKLEY: I think it goes to what we care about in music. We're not
doing anything that has been performed before, so all the compositions
that we get were written for us. I'll tell you, Fred, if Duke Ellington
was alive I would (laughing) be commissioning him. It is like before Frank
Zappa died, we tried to get a piece from him. We've tried to get a piece
from Ornette Coleman. If Miles Davis were alive, I mean, actually, Miles
Davis doesn't make any sense, but you know, I've been trying to talk to
the guys about doing Andrew Hill, but there is some dissension, not that
people don't like Andrew Hill, but they are concerned that he might not
know where we're coming from and might present us with a piece that doesn't
have anything to do with what we are about. In other words, it isn't an
opposition to doing things by kind of more established jazz composers
or what have you, but we want pieces that are written specifically for
ROVA because we are not into adapting. We don't do Mozart transcriptions
or whatever. Ellington's music is fantastic but he wrote his own music
for his band and that's why it sounds as good as it does. His work is
vision and that is what the band does and that's where ROVA's at. And
the idea of commissioning people at all is because we felt that the saxophone
quartet is a really good medium just like the string quartet for any composer
and if they have ideas, if they have a point of view than it would be
really interesting to express them in a saxophone quartet.
FJ: Having said that, is ROVA a repertory group?
BRUCE ACKLEY: I don't know what that means. I mean, I have heard that
expression, but I am not sure I understand it. But no, because in fact,
we are moving back into a period of doing more ROVA work. There is a sentiment
in the band and it is not universal, but it's strongly expressed that
we spend less time doing commissions for a while and it is time to get
back into ROVA matters. The other thing is we are kind of running out
of people. We're really. We're not sure who to turn to right now.
FJ: Why doesn't ROVA record more?
BRUCE ACKLEY: Well, I think Jon Raskin has a better count of this, but
I think we have about eight records worth of material, but we don't have
anywhere to put it.
FJ: Is that the hindrance?
ACKLEY: Right now, it is. Yeah. We have a fantastic record of music that
is already recorded and edited and put together, sequences. It is a long
composition by Fred Frith in twenty-two sections called Freedom in Fragments.
It is a beautiful piece and it is very short pieces that is totally suitable
for airplay. There is a Rag piece. There's a blues. There's a couple of
ballads. There are some more kind of noise pieces. There is improvised
sections. But it is a really wonderful sequence of pieces that adds up
to a terrific whole that would be a really good CD on ECM. I'm convinced
of it. But nobody's interested, ECM, Nonesuch. I don't even know who is
out there at this point. But it could be mainstream. Nobody wants to touch
it because it is ROVA, not that they've heard it. It is just that ROVA's
tagged as being an inaccessible, avant-garde, or saxophone quartets are
over. I don't know what people's attitude is, but this is terrific music
and we can't find a home for it and that is one of several albums worth.
We have a lot of pieces. We have some commissioned pieces that aren't
recorded. We have some ROVA compositions. We have some improvised structures.
We have a lot of material.
That must weigh heavily on you.
ACKLEY: We try not to get discouraged. We really love the music and we
have got a lot of music out. We've released a lot of stuff and we haven't
lost hope. We continue to have good tours and good audiences and quality
recordings. To me, Fred, it is more important to put out really quality
recordings than to just like throw everything out there.
Is that the state of the industry now, that if you have anything original
to contribute, you are on the outside looking in?
ACKLEY: I think so. I think we're in a very conservative time right now
in general. I think that people are kind of pulled back and that is universal.
People are very nervous about taking chances, risks that have to do with
social issues as well as political and cultural and I think the United
States is sort of in the vanguard of going backwards. I think jazz reflects
that. I think jazz has become a classical music. I think it is stuck.
I think it is too bad. There is really good musicians out there. There
is probably lots of interesting things going on, but for my money, there
is too many neglected great musicians. I'm not talking about ROVA. There
are really some great people that are out there that are doing much more.
You look at it, Fred, somebody like Fred Anderson. Why isn't he on a major
label? And he is one of hundreds. It is a sick situation. Steve Lacy,
he played here two years ago in a place called the Sweat Shop. It was
a storefront in a dive part of San Francisco with junkies out in front,
no heat, just a toilet of a place. And it was no big deal. He came in
and played a solo concert to a packed house. People paid about ten bucks
to get in and it was great. It is a combination of problems. There are
very few artists like Steve Lacy that will do that, to maintain the music
for its own sake and then on the other hand, the industry itself is in
bad shape because it is not giving enough support to these artists in
general. I think there should be more of the attitude that Steve has that
I am just going to do this because this is my life and this is what I
care about and it doesn't make any difference whether it is supported
or not. This is what I have to do.
ROVA playing John Coltrane's Ascension is a seminal recording.
ACKLEY: Wow, thanks. Well, that is good to hear because I wonder how stuff
like that resonates.
Coltrane is a god in my house and so I was extremely skeptical. That must
have been the prevailing sentiment, did that concern you?
ACKLEY: No, and the reason is that I don't think there are that many people
that really know that record well enough or that piece well enough to
have a clear understanding and if they do, they wouldn't have any problem
with ROVA doing it. But I think that I left like my relationship with
that record goes back so far and it was so significant when I first started
playing. I had already known that record inside out. That was a big reason
why I wanted to play. Every one of those solos on there were models for
me in terms of my way to go. I can still remember Marion Brown's motif,
Shepp's motifs, and of course, Coltrane, and John Tchicai. Each one of
them, I studied really closely and had an intimate knowledge with. I didn't
feel worried about what other people would think. I think that there probably
are some dissenters too, but that's OK. I think we did what we could do.
As Glenn Spearman said, "This is like our Handel's Messiah. We should
do this every year." We had that attitude about it. He said that we were
going to go out there and do it. This is a sacred piece of music that
it is just as much ours as it is anybody else's. It doesn't belong to
anybody. We're going to celebrate.
Why don't you perform it every year?
ACKLEY: That's a good question, Fred. We talk about it every year, but
I don't think we can really afford the time and energy it takes to mount
it. And then Glenn Spearman's gone. I think if Glenn were alive, maybe
we would. Glenn loved it. I don't think it's over. I think we would be
willing to do it over again. And there has been talk on and off.
What is more demanding, being a musician or being a father?
Right now, it is being a musician. It is hard to get to it. It is hard
to get to everything. I love being a father and I love being a musician
and I am trying to do both and sometimes it is hard because I've got three
kids. It is coming along.
is the Editor-In-Chief and left his CNN anchor position to be CEO of Space.com.