For the benefit of our wider readership, Jon Raskin is the guy that’s put the ‘R’ in the ROVA saxophone quartet for the past 28 years. The exceptional longevity and originality of the venerated ensemble sometimes makes it hard to separate the group and the player. This solo performance, as part of Berkeley’s Trinity Chamber Concert Series, gave air to Jon, the individual. When I was inevitably reminded of ROVA at points, it was as gentle insights into his contributions, grand and subtle, to one of my all time favorite groups.
The concert series, now in it’s 31st year, is managed by flautist Diane Grubbe, and coordinated by Ryk Groetchen. One block off the UC campus, it’s presented in an airy, vaulted chapel on the grounds of the Trinity United Methodist Church. I enjoy the reverberant sound of music in chapels, though it can sink some instruments. Raskin stayed well in front of his echoes, but on faster pieces, they do become a presence in the music. This is not necessarily a bad thing for a wind soloist, and from the first piece, Jon got the measure of the room. His program consisted of compositions for improviser (by Anthony Braxton, Ben Goldberg and himself) interspersed with improvisations of the moment. It was also incredibly well paced in its moods and instrumentation.
He opened on baritone sax, the large horn you see him anchoring so much of ROVA’s work with, announcing that all of his improvised pieces throughout the evening would be linked as studies in time. I took his word for it and just listened, as melodious long toned waves of sound swept the room; in some wistful Locrian or Phrygian mode at times. I was immediately reminded of Ghandarva, a spacey Beaver & Krause record that had baritonist Gerry Mulligan playing the same way in Grace Cathedral around 1970. Raskin’s tone, of course, is much less burry, tighter, like a tenor, but this is a guy that can get as burry as a buzz saw, so I knew he was setting us up for the contrasts to come.
Switching to alto, which he’s also performed incredibly on over the years, he presented his own composition for improvisers that itself was a study in contrasts. Written for a trio of saxists Frank Gratowski, Phillip Greenlief and himself, it holds the players to accompany each other in distinctly different methods of playing, section by section. Jon played it as one of the three players. This was a great showcase for his immense vocabulary and instrumental control, as well as the self discipline to lay out a well ordered, coherent set of changes. Now he had presented more challenging material, but in a form most lay people could follow and be entertained by.
Third piece, back to baritone for an improvisation, and this time he pulled no punches, Starting jazzy and jaunty, he took on more crazed abandon and unleashed growls, ticks, sighs, blaps, and staccato slap tonguing in great dynamic array, at one point sounding like a drummer working out with brushes on a snare. He came pretty close to playing bass, melody and percussion all at once, but this was not to be a Charlie Hunter circus piece.
The very next thing Raskin did was to literally accompany himself, though. He had pre-recorded three short improvised pieces to improvise against live. Starting on the tiny, straight Eb sopranino sax, he intertwined and dovetailed with a disembodied twin. This was the best of the three, and it should be noted what absolute wind power the lower horns give a player on the sopranos. A duet for altos, and one for baritones followed, but the difference in the canned sound was too apparent not to bring a distracting karaoke aspect. The baritone piece was a good concept in subtle shading and rigorously performed, though. One solution would be to run the live horn through the same amplification rig.
As his break piece for intermission, and yet another mindful effort of programming, Jon revealed the fruits of what started as a hobby a few years ago. He did five astonishing short improvised pieces on jaw harps from his collection. Commonly called “Jew’s Harp” in our enlightened culture, they’re found all around the world, and as Jon pointed out, you get to deal with music in the terms of the earliest people to play. These specimens from Rajistan, Hungary, South China and Siberia all shared the aspect of a narrow metal tine plucked over the open mouth cavity, modulated most of the time by a focused column of air blown over the vibrating tine. It’s similar to Tuvan throat singing with the shaping of oral resonance and its play of overtones. The plucking gave a nice rhythmic lift to the evening, with occasional effects with the lips and air adding accents. It’s a truly weird and wonderful sound, sometimes voice-like, capable of articulating words, then again, eerily electronic. Jaded ears can do well by hearing how large some folk music of the world deals in sound.
It was at intermission that I began to realize what an ambitious undertaking two solo sets must be. I’m ready to go running from the stage after only 10 minutes. Clearly Raskin can count programming among his many skills. The distribution of methods and instrumentation maximized contrasts and minimized fatigue for both performer and audience.
The second set began with Jon’s Graphic Notation Suite, music for improvisers, “inspired by the graphic language of Wassily Kandinsky” according to the program notes. We were treated to “Lines Paths & Fields”, “Note Patterns and Lines”, and “Kandinsky Graphics”as audible music, but not shown the graphic scores. I think Raskin’s work in this area deserves further exploration, because he delivered such deliberate and focused accounts of what he was looking at. It may not be relevant for the listener to see it, and in fact, the composer might prefer that we don’t. The notation is written to get a result. The composer wants us to experience the result, not second guess the performer’s interpretation of the funny lines and squiggles. Playing his pliant alto on all three, Raskin sold it with his studied intent. As in purely improvised pieces, the mere presence of intention goes a long way to making it compelling and convincing.
The next two pieces were compositions for improvisation by two reed players. He introduced “40(0)” by Anthony Braxton (an acknowledged influence and someone he’s recorded with), mentioning first hearing it 25 years ago in North Berkeley at a club called Mapenzi. Truly an incredible spot, Mapenzi was actually on Adeline between where the Jazzhouse was and Alcatraz, and yes, I was there. Jon did it on sopranino, his enjoyment of playing the piece clear in his sprightly, rollicking treatment. Once again I pondered the nature of just how much is really written in a piece of this nature, and had to accept the clearly coherent result as a moot point. Following was Ben Goldberg’s lovely piece “Evaporate”, rendered on alto. This was a moody rumination among disparate intervals, and strategically an emotional bookend to the bittersweet of the piece opening the concert.
Raskin closed not with the programmed improvisation, but with Ornette Coleman’s down home hoedown “Ramblin’” done on sopranino and dedicated to the late Steve Lacy. His baritone sized wind engine easily filled out the bottom of the tiny horn, making a convincing portrait of the iconoclastic icon of the larger Bb soprano. I really appreciated how he found ways to play Ornette’s tune with Lacy’s methods, another great idea I’ve never thought of. After nailing Lacy so well, I was actually relieved when Jon’s left hand got hung up momentarily in the tricky out head. Everything else in the preceding two hours had been executed flawlessly, which can raise some doubts about the humanity of your subject. It being Ornette (after all), performance variations of this sort do not stop the show, and Raskin went on to completely blow right through the horn and out into the cosmos for his coda, visiting circular breathing sheets-of-sound from another soprano icon, to end on a very bright, high note.
This was the real deal, folks. Anyone attempting a tour de force should look no further for where the bar is set. Jon Raskin’s solo performance was incredibly well prepared, well thought out, and well delivered. Find out more about the series at: