Thursday, November 10, 2005

ROVA / Casimir Liberski - 08/11/2005, Brussels

[Note: this entry was written on the 9th]

The PP Café started an odd festival last night. Casimir Liberski's solo concert was free, ROVA's cost 9 euros, tomorrow the pattern repeats and for the next few days, all concerts are free. Also, there was very little publicity: the festival wasn't even listed on their website until very recently. That and the higher-than-usual price (9 euros instead of 5) may explain the pitiful turnout for ROVA. The room wasn't even half-full (even the optimistic version sounds glum). In the not-so-distant past they were turning people away from the Liebman/Eskelin Quartet and the Grimes/Crispell/Cyrille concert was packed, so it's not about the music's difficulty.

I'd been seeing pianist Casimir Liberski's name in the concert listings a lot in the last year or so and reports touted him as a 17 year old prodigy. He certainly does play well and makes interesting repertoire choices: excellent renditions of "Lonely Woman" and "I Mean You," a Don Cherry African folk tune, a fragmented Edith Piaf song (of which only the "Quand il me prend dans ses bras" part subsisted). Not everything came off equally well - the Cherry tune, essentially one scale over a vamp, sounded amateurish and limited rather than fun and dancey - but I was encouraged when, having started "Blue Monk," when inspiration flagged he didn't hesitate to segue into a stream of songs I didn't know or couldn't remember in a Jarrett-like folksy style. "I Mean You" was swinging, bluesy, full-bodied and took some liberties so as to break up the flow. Interestingly, Casimir has also scored the film Bunker Paradise, directed by his father Stefan (who is, apparently, fairly well-known in Belgium).

ROVA is hard to do justice to in words, as its music is like nothing I've heard elsewhere, apart from the first time I saw them and the CD of their's I have. This singularity not because ROVA is a saxophone quartet: it's fairly common to make conventional music with (or despite) unconventional instrumentation. Maybe the official blurb says enough:

"Positioning themselves at music's most dynamic nexus, Rova has become an important leader in the movement of genre-bending music that has its roots in post-bop free jazz, avant-rock, and 20th century new music as well as traditional and popular styles of Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States. With its potent mix of stellar musicianship and compositional creativity, Rova explores the synthesis of composition and collective improvisation."

Yeah, it's a bit dry, but that's more or less it. Collectively, they play the entire spectrum of jazz saxophone sounds: Jon Raskin might croon some near-verbatim Hawkins/Young/Mulligan over wind-rustling-in-the-trees accompaniment, Bruce Ackley can similarly seduce with vintage film noir tenor saxophone virile ballad-playing or blow Balkan-influenced soprano fury, but Larry Ochs will unleash full-throated free jazz skronk and Steve Adams might just play one of the most incredible jazz/free/post solos you've ever heard.

The overall impression is one of absolute balance. The compositions are equal partners with the improvisations, with the individual musicians and with another distinctive element, the hand signals that reshape the music on the fly. The ensemble might sail easy, flowing waters for one piece, then plunge down treacherous rapids where everything happens at once and rocks jut out at awkward angles the next. Mingus, theater, Don Van Vliet, contemporary music, precisely constructed cacophony and space exploration form a cohesive whole that is at once rigourous and supple, demanding and cajoling. Amongst the weirder moments was Scott Adams's "Anomalous Ejectae," inspired by maps of Mars showing the paths of the robots currently on its surface and whose score resembled a collection of experiment results printouts.