Interview with Cadence Magazine 2001
CADENCE: I would like to ask you about The Bay, a record you (Rova Saxophone Quartet) made with Italian percussionist Andrea Centazzo. How did you come to do that record? Was it a chance you met, on the West Coast, a percussionist coming from so far away?
JON RASKIN: It was a happy chance that we met Centazzo and his wife when they were touring the U.S. Centazzo had set up a tour in the U.S. which was funded by a grant of some kind. We had heard a few recordings of his and knew of his work with the improvisation scene in Europe. Greg Goodman had a performance space in his house called the "Woody Woodman's Finger Palace" and Centazzo performed two nights. During the day he played with local improvisers, in which we participated. Centazzo suggested that we record some quintet improvisations for his label. We were quite happy that Woody let us use the "The Finger Palace" for the session. It was a pleasant surprise to see it resurface in the CD format.
CAD: You have made a record for the Italian label Fore.
J.R.: We don't have any plans with releasing the Fore recording. It was marginally released the first time and I'm not sure what's going on with the Fore catalog at this time. There has been some interest in some early Metalanguage LPs, The Science Set in particular. We'll see what the future brings.
CAD: In Invisible Frame you quoted the beautiful verses by poet St. John Perse.
J.R.: Rova has always looked outside of music for inspirations and ideas. Visual Arts, Science, Literature have all been used as generative sources. We were influenced by many of the "Language Poets" who were doing very interesting things with the form, narrative displacements and time frames in poetry. I remember Bruce (Ackley) writing to Steve Lacy early on and getting a reply encouraging him basically to look at all art and listen to every kind of music. We strive for a defined focus on our output but a very diverse input.
CAD: Andrew Voigt writes on the sleeve notes of Invisible Frame about his teacher and mentor, Roscoe Mitchell.
J.R.: The dedication to Roscoe Mitchell, who Andrew studied with, pays tribute to some of the devices in Roscoe's music: pocketed melodies and sound/texture devices that frame and energize negative space or "silence." If you're dealing with post bop saxophone you have to acknowledge Roscoe Mitchell, and his approach was a big influence on me. I would also add that Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, and other AACM artists were and are an inspiration for ways of creating music. They showed that you could create significant art outside of New York and the mainstream Jazz world.
CAD: Is there some work by Roscoe Mitchell which was of special importance for you?
J.R.: Roscoe Mitchell? I guess the music that influenced me the most of his were his solo concerts at Mapenzi in Berkeley, California in the '70s. This was a small venue, a nice classy bar that had enough room for a solo or duo and maybe 50 people. Besides Roscoe, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Anthony Braxton all performed there which, for a young saxophonist, was like a master class on how to play a saxophone. Roscoe's approach to building music with the deconstruction of the sound of the sax opened my ears to a whole new sound world.
CAD: The music you played on The Crowd for HatArt was inspired by Elias Canetti. Could you explain how his writings influenced your music on that record?
J.R.: The influence of The Crowd by Elias Canetti on our work at the time was structural. Much of our work at the time was exploring improvisation structures or how a structure with open parameters would generate music and allow for individuals' own musical language and explorations to be an integral part of the process. We had encountered a problem of certain types of processes creating what we called "rocks in a box" which means that the group sound was the same even though the participants were changing the music they were creating. One of our responses to this was to create structures in which we made the overall sound as the first concern. We then devised approaches with improvisation that accomplished this. We had a joke at the time telling people that we composed music because we didn't have time to improvise it. How Canetti's work fits into this, besides being a brilliant essay on power, was how he organized the book. Much of the work was terminologies which he then explained with examples. These definitions described power on the micro and macro levels and were like a key explaining the hidden workings of the human world. The terms were poetic, generative and variable and they fit well with the kinds of music we were creating. The recording The Crowd on HatArt was the final result of that line of inquiry for us.
CAD: You have played in the former Soviet Union. Can you tell me your impression of that?
J.R.: We toured twice in the Soviet Union, once in 1983 and again in 1989. We recorded Saxophone Diplomacy in Russia, Latvia, and Romania on the HatArt label during the first tour. We returned in 1989 and recorded This Time We Are Both in Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the New Albion label. The 1983 tour was at the end of the Brezhnev era and came about because of an invitation by Alexander Kan in 1981 to perform for the Leningrad Contemporary Music Club, who had voted us as the top Jazz group. When we received the invitation we had no idea on what level this proposal should be taken. We discussed the invitation with Leo Fagin, who was working at the BBC, and realized that there was an audience for our music, and quite well organized albeit in extreme conditions, and worked to put together a tour. It was incredible -- we met musicians, artists, poets, a whole cultural world that was at a very high level and yet completely unknown to us. And yet they were very familiar with our music and Western culture in general. For instance, we hadn't been in the country for a day when someone asked us the identities of the Residents. It was a strange juxtaposition of having all this "freedom" and knowing very little about the Soviet Union and for all these people with a very narrow window to the West knowing so much. There wasn't any photo copying available and only the most primitive tape decks; recordings were passed around or duplicated until they were unrecognizable. You had to be passionate and resourceful to play improvised music. Ideas in Motion videotaped the tour and a documentary was made called Saxophone Diplomacy.
CAD: How did you judge the music you heard there?
J.R.: One of the joys of touring is to meet and play with other musicians and we were fortunate to have this opportunity with Sergey Kuryokhin and members of the Ganelin Trio. In 1986 the Ganelin toured the U.S. and we presented them in San Francisco. The music from that night is on Leo Record's recording San Francisco Holidays and besides the wonderful music by the trio are two free improvisations with Rova. We went back in 1989, which was on the cusp of the end of the Soviet Union. This time we returned with a 23-member entourage of musicians, friends, family, writers, artists, poets, and photographers. This time it was a more equal exchange of ideas and work. The overall climate was more open and yet there was general pessimism in Russia versus a surge of hope in the Baltic States. We played in sold-out performances at really fantastic 19th century concert halls in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the 12th Annual Jazz Festival in Leningrad, the Palace of Culture in Moscow and ended up in the wild Jazz Festival in Kazan where the music never stopped.
CAD: You have recorded quite a lot in Europe, for Moers Music, and Sound Aspects Records. At that time you recorded with Anthony Braxton. How was it to play as a sax quintet?
J.R.: We have had a long and creative relationship with Anthony. Besides being an inspiration as saxophonist and composer, he was responsible for us performing at the Moers Festival. In the mid-eighties we had a chance to perform quintet music, some of which was written by Anthony and some by Rova. The BROVA tour we did in Europe was some of the best and most fun music that I've ever played and really took Rova to a higher level of music. I think that you need to try to go beyond what you think is possible to grow and this was one of those moments. Several years later Anthony asked me if I would like to record some Lennie Tristano numbers, which of course was an offer I couldn't refuse. Eight (+3) Tristano Compositions 1989 for Warne Marsh was recorded in 1989 in Hollywood for the HatArt Label. That was some hard music which was made easier by the wonderful work of Cecil McBee, Dred Scott, and Andrew Cyrille. Anthony wanted to play the tempos even faster than the originals.
CAD: You have recorded the three Works for Black Saint. Could you tell us more about that music?
J.R.: The Works documents the commissions that Rova has been fortunate to receive. The idea behind the commissions was to find improvising composers who would write for improvisers. We got a wide variety of music and it really challenged us as musicians to learn them. Each recording also contains a major work by a quartet member. Volume One has a wonderful composition by John Carter called "Colors," "Suite for a Better World" by Jack DeJohnette, and "When the Nation Was Sound" by Larry Ochs. Volume Two has "The Visible Man" by Tim Berne, "Beyond Columbus and Capitalism" and "Appearances Aren't Always What They Seem" by Jon Raskin. Volume Three contains "Laredo" by Robin Holcomb, "Quartet #1" by Muhal Richard Abrams and "The Gene Pool" by Steve Adams.
CAD: Is there some special composition you preferred in the Works?
J.R.: I like all of them but "Colors" by John Carter is special to me because it was the only work by John that was performed by a group that he wasn't a part of. I also like the way that he floated tempos and tonalities against each other and weaved improvisation into his writing.
CAD: Is there something in the compositions and in the works by Julius Hemphill which is of interest for your music?
J.R.: I loved Julius Hemphill's sound on the sax and his compositions. His tone had so much vibrancy and how he worked that in with his melodic ideas was an inspiration. His approach to composition was in the continuum of the African-American tradition of respecting the past and adding in the present and by the development of an individual voice. The influence of that tradition on my music is profound, especially that of finding an individual voice that works with the collective voice. How I conceive of composition is very different than Julius Hemphill. My approach is more from the American Avant: Charles Ives, John Cage, Henry Cowell. We have different concerns and how we approach the narrative of the music.
CAD: Is there now more interest for your music in USA?
J.R.: There seems to be a growing audience for new improvised music in the U.S. There are now several established festivals that give a forum to the music and several artists have started independent labels that are putting out quality products. The Canadians have two major festivals, one in Vancouver and the other in Victoriaville that have brought over European improvising musicians and they have started to perform in venues in the U.S. as well. They are small so they can't afford airfare but the audience has been showing up. We have had more success at touring in the U.S. as well. Record sales seem to be connected to performance. The distribution and promotion by labels is a problem. Small labels can't afford to do it and larger labels don't record the music, or, ignore it if they do.
CAD: Have you noted which side of the ocean has more success in selling records, for instance after concerts?
J.R.: We've had good success on both sides of the ocean selling CDs after concerts. It's hard to tell which performance will be a good one for sales. It is very unpredictable.
CAD: How is your relationship with the small labels which promote your music?
J.R.: We first put out our music on a label called Metalanguage, which was started by Larry Ochs, Henry Kaiser, and Greg Goodman. It proved a difficult way to go because of the difficulties of distribution. It takes so much time and is a business in its own right. We've had much better luck with small labels that are interested in the kind of music we make. Black Saint, Victo, New Albion, HatArt and Rastascan have all responded positively to the projects we propose. We usually have 5 to 10 different possibilities for a recording at any one time from already recorded material to older works and brand new works that need to be recorded. We sound out the different labels and see what new projects might appeal to them. We are always on the lookout for a new company that might be interested in what we do.
CAD: After Andrew Voigt left Rova, Steve Adams took his place. How has this change influenced your music?
J.R.: Steve has a deeper jazz background and a great sense of time which helped with the more rhythmic areas. He has a different approach to composition as well, which has had its influence as well. It was an interesting process to rediscover some of our musical approaches by having Steve learn them. He was often surprised on what was improvised and what was written in our work and often had new ideas for us to think about.
CAD: Is there some work of yours you listen to and which wakes up some emotions for some particular reason?
J.R.: Usually the piece I'm currently working on. That's what keeps me going. .