Essentially a classic chapel, this is a very nice place to hear acoustic music, and the finely worked out voicings in Rova's compositions were truly lustrous in this atmosphere. Locally, it seems a lot of their presentations have concentrated on large ensembles and guests the last few years, maybe a "keep it fresh" precaution in the market where they've maintained a same-instrument quartet for over a quarter century. It was great to catch just the quartet a few weeks ago at Yoshi's, and top it off with the foursome again last night. The writing and group mastery at improvising together on display obviated the need for added extravaganza. For longtime listeners, some things have evolved, and they continue to develop new material - so forget "seen 'em once, don't need to see 'em again", even if you don't particularly like saxophone.
Perhaps in preparation for touring, they're all only doubling - limiting their arsenal to two saxes apiece (I recall Steve on only alto last night). This didn't really impact the sonic palette as much as I thought it might. Their careful programming, and again, the care in the arrangements, keep the extremes and timbres well distributed. I think that carries over naturally to the improvised passages. They've also discovered the magic from America's best idiomatic use of the saxophone. By using two altos and two tenors, they're finally getting to tap the buttery dreaminess of the great big band era sax sections - not in rhythmic style, but in that lush sound, where abundant seconds can coexist, and envelop you mentally and physically. To do this right, you really have to plot which horn is playing which note - the exit holes for Bb and Eb of the same concert note can sound radically different. In the ambient atmosphere of the Trinity chapel, one passage had them alternating homo-rhythmically from a rich low cluster (mostly tones from the horn's bell) to a harmonically opposite high cluster (mostly from the horn's neck). On paper, and in the ear of the arranger, you do this to attain a certain color. The added feature (and one I'm not sure the composer foresaw), was that in this particular acoustic environment, the chords viscerally shot from floor to ceiling in a remarkable way.
What else is new? They've continued to add to their exploration of various graphic scores, which does manage to yield a different field of sound from their well developed catalog of hand cues, and the "Einstein's Tourniquet" of their totally free work. Most surprising from these stalwarts of non-idiomatic improv are more idiomatic pieces (though I seem to recall them doing a classic French Impressionist Sax Quartet in the late 70s). Paul Termos' "56 Beats" was a driving samba from an alternate planet, and Jon Raskin's "Juke Box" series is overtly idiomatic, though combining constituent elements in creative combinations. These may become crowd pleasers from their accessibility, but I think it has more to do with having to continue to meet the challenge of variety in a fixed format quartet. If you've heard Jon on jaw-harp, you understand his interests in music outside the solely European tradition. They're stirring in a different way, and you know these guys aren't going to start sporting dreadlocks any time soon. Dispelling any doubt about their fundamental mission, they also presented "The Knot Gallery", a piece written for them by John Butcher, the British master of extended saxophone techniques and concepts. This was challenging music for both the audience and group, and the latter's dedication to mastering it paid off for everyone. Also of note was Steve Adams' "Anomalous Ejecta" (from a map of Mars), a piece that nicely summed up a great many of Rova's attributes in a sonic tour de force few quartets of any instrumentation could even approach.