Live review: ROVA Saxophone Quartet at the Blue Whale, May 14.


You might not think of San Francisco avanteers the ROVA Saxophone Quartet as toe-tappin' music, but every time I looked at my foot, it was clipping along. Then I took a peek at tenor wiz Larry Ochs' sandal, and his toe was twitching in perfect rhythm too.

The metronomy says something about a drumless ensemble that makes its indifference to swing almost a point of pride. Far from a freefest, ROVA's music is rigorously composed and fixed in what the gents call "graphically notated scores," which we could scope out between sets; they turned out to be beautiful colored bands of linearity sharing an aesthetic with abstract artists such as Klee and Kandinsky, from whom ROVA derives some of its inspiration.

Damn, were these vets tight. Cuing changes with hand signals, they switched like a machine from harmony to counterpoint to unison, and when they sustained one note together, it was exactly as if one instrument were playing it, without a trace of pitch variance. (An especially good trick considering the renown for imprecision that Adolphe Sax's horn family holds.)

Well, they've been doing it for 33 and a third years, except for the academically bespectacled altoist SteVe Adams, who had to serve as the group's V after Andrew Voigt left in 1988.

Live, ROVA massages an audience in ways its records never could. Casual boho Jon Raskin's baritone, especially, set chests a-vibrating with rich low riffs as the others fluttered about; Bruce Ackley, in jeans and tennies, directed traffic from stage left, using his soprano as a conductor's wand. The sounds ranged from modernistic chamber workouts to klezmer fugues to robot barnyard assaults, with forays into multiphonic honkery blowing up gritty tornados.

The respectable/respectful crowd, many of them musicians, sat rapt and applauded with vigah, enjoying the atmosphere of this moderne Little Tokyo bar, which in the last year-plus has become L.A.'s Place to Hit for fresh jazz sounds.

You could say it rocked.