Interview with Rova Member Bruce Ackley from, which appeared October 11, 2002

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."

FJ: 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 songbook?

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?

BRUCE 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.

FJ: That must weigh heavily on you.

BRUCE 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.

FJ: Is that the state of the industry now, that if you have anything original to contribute, you are on the outside looking in?

BRUCE 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.

FJ: ROVA playing John Coltrane's Ascension is a seminal recording.

BRUCE ACKLEY: Wow, thanks. Well, that is good to hear because I wonder how stuff like that resonates.

FJ: Coltrane is a god in my house and so I was extremely skeptical. That must have been the prevailing sentiment, did that concern you?

BRUCE 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.

FJ: Why don't you perform it every year?

BRUCE 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.

FJ: What is more demanding, being a musician or being a father?

BRUCE ACKLEY: 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.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and left his CNN anchor position to be CEO of Email Him.