Rova strikes again, this time with nearly a full album of commissions by British composers, namely Lindsay Cooper, Barry Guy, and Fred Frith. There is one piece by Ochs to round out the set. The works by Lindsay Cooper -- who plays everything from saxophones to flutes to clarinets to the bassoon and who scores dances, theater works, and films -- are the most satisfying. Perhaps because she works in structured environments so often, her two compositions for Rova -- "Face in the Crowd" and "Can of Worms" -- are a natural fit. The open sense of harmony and closely held but intricately woven melodies -- there are two, one Eastern and one Western -- pasted onto a backdrop of a seam where Ellington meets Milhaud, are so gracefully performed that it's tough to want to go any further. If anything, "Face in the Crowd" is a mini-symphony for saxophone quartet with its mode and movement changes and restatement of themes. Barry Guy's contributions, both entitled "Witch Gong Game," engage Rova's improvisational strengths properly. The shorter version is a solo for Raskin's baritone set against four written lines for the group members, who exchange them back and forth like trading cards, all elementally altered -- often humorously. The longer version uses the game as an exercise in the exploration of tonality through the gradual building of overtones through micro and polytonal invention. Again, though it is much more somber in tone and much longer (26 minutes!) the word "game" in the title is a clue to decipher the work. Fred Frith's "Water Under the Bridge" was written for Rova but dedicated to reedist and composer Jimmy Giuffre. The work is based on a section of his work entitled "Freedom in Fragments." For anyone who still thinks of Frith as just a guitar improviser, take a listen to this. The most elegant and spacious piece on this album is a tightly composed work that allows for set spaces of improvisation in precise locations in the score, and calls for them in certain keys and modes. It swings as gently and warmly as anything Giuffre himself would write. And while much has been made of the works of the composers Rova commissioned, the true celebration is in the playing of Rova itself. Rova's dedication, mastery, and almost magical interplay make this one of the quartet's most sophisticated and enjoyable records, but also its most accessible. This is a brilliant recording by a truly gifted group.
by Thom Jurek
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