IT'S USUALLY FALL when Seattle gets its rush of national jazz acts coming through town night after night during the Earshot Jazz Festival. But with


Three-Part Harmony

Earshot's lineup affords a rare look at three stages of jazz history.

IT'S USUALLY FALL when Seattle gets its rush of national jazz acts coming through town night after night during the Earshot Jazz Festival. But with spring this year comes a trifecta of gigs that Earshot has arranged: three ensembles in four nights, all of them falling together into a wavy historical line. At the beginning of the line—with his origins in the 1950s jazz scene—is soprano saxophone pioneer Steve Lacy and his trio; in the middle, with its footing in the burgeoning avant-garde scene of the late-1970s, is the acclaimed ROVA Saxophone Quartet; and at the 1990s end of the line is cellist Erik Friedlander—he of the Downtown New York scene and all its "Six Degrees of John Zorn" variants—with his new band, TOPAZ.

ROVA Saxophone Quartet

March 27 at 8

On the Boards, $10

Steve Lacy Trio

March 29 at 8

Jazz Alley, $12

Erik Friedlander's TOPAZ

March 30 at 8

On the Boards, $10

Though he's the youngest of the bandleaders on their way west, Friedlander might well speak for his erstwhile forebears: "Like Lacy and ROVA, I'm trying to make sense of the time in which I live, the talents and skills that I have, and what my inspirations are," he says from New York. The pivotal role Lacy's played for all these musicians is something to behold, especially considering the sopranist's still-formidable improvisational powers and the tack-sharp trio he's bringing to Seattle.

ROVA's soprano and tenor, Bruce Ackley, notes from his Bay Area home that when he and Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, and Andrew Voigt (later replaced by Steve Adams) formed the group, they "were taken with this notion of an egalitarian ensemble, a group without the sort of hierarchy that's prevalent in much western music. We thought that by eliminating the bass, drums, and particularly the piano, we could free all the participants to play without being controlled by the inherent rhythmic or harmonic structure. The notion of playing through 12-, 16-, and 32-bar structures, with Tin Pan Alley chord progressions, made no sense to us." And while ROVA has developed a performing style that veers from well-orchestrated, through-composed structures—like Terry Riley's Irish-tinged Chanting the Light of Foresight CD on New Albion Records—to all-out frantic free improvisation, the quartet has a core sound that's mellifluous, woven, at times crystalline and pointillistic, and altogether its own.

Like Friedlander, Ackley notes that in the 1970s, the group's members asked, "What did Tin Pan Alley have to do with the way we were experiencing the world?" And just as quickly as the sentence emerges, he notes without elaboration: "Then, along came Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton." Lacy and Braxton, with then-very-obscure British soprano player Lol Coxhill, were the first to play solo saxophone for entire concerts, to arrange all-sax ensembles (an early Braxton-led unit later became the World Saxophone Quartet), and to compose with an ear for a fusillade of saxophone sonorities. And those explorations, their forthright commitments to testing boundaries, opened a floodgate of new jazz that resided a world away from John Coltrane's and Albert Ayler's energy jazz, Cecil Taylor's densely scripted ensemble works, and even Ornette Coleman's ever-shifting harmolodics.

The quick-charted road ahead made it possible—even compulsory—for ensembles to explore nearly all combinations of instrumentation, something Friedlander has done in chunks. His Chimera maintained half a string quartet in himself and bassist Drew Gress, and half a sax quartet in altoist Andrew D'Angelo and tenorist Chris Speed (ex-Seattleites both). And then came TOPAZ. Friedlander describes the group as "working in the time-worn formula of rhythm section and horns up front but playing with the expectations, having melodies played by sax and bass accompanied by cello, for example."

THE GROUP IS FOUNDED on an odd mix, for sure. Friedlander's cello gleams in an environment where the only horn is Andy Laster's jumpy but resonantly executed alto sax. But the rhythm is crucial to TOPAZ. The mix of electric bassist Stomu Takeishi's spongy, plump lines and Stomu's brother Satoshi's eclectic percussion set-up is powerfully understated. "I had never written for electric bass," notes Friedlander. "And I started to think about all the music that I loved that used this sound. Listening again to '70s funk, Earth, Wind & Fire, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, and electric Miles Davis—not to mention the Bill Frisell Trio—gave me insight into how successful music worked with electric bass." And musically successful TOPAZ is, covering fields of influence handily, playing Miles Davis' underaccorded "Tout de Suite" and Eric Dolphy's right-accorded "Hat and Beard" and "Something Sweet, Something Tender." Friedlander's style is so distinct and so unself-conscious that he makes an excellent sheen across melodies and then executes with piercing clarity.

Twenty-two years into its bag, ROVA's still on a creative incline. It's kept its sights on egalitarianism, nowadays trading leadership during rehearsals among the group's members. "We take turns leading rehearsals," notes Ackley, "each of us taking a month to handle things the way we want to. Our combination of rehearsing, recording, and performing for all this time has made us a unit. It's been the most amazing and satisfying relationship, and one that keeps bearing incredible sounds." Their uniqueness has taken them across the globe more than once, resulting in more than one flawless CD recorded on tour in Russia and a litany of achievements that includes an anniversary celebration recording of Coltrane's monstrous "Ascension" (Black Saint) and an anniversary revisitation of Terry Riley's "In C" (New Albion), played with members of the Kronos String Quartet and myriad others. When they're in Seattle, Ackley (and tenorist Ochs) surmise they'll perform a typically wide-ranging batch: a Pauline Oliveros piece, one from Wadada Leo Smith, and collective compositions.

As for Lacy, the de facto jumping-off point that all these artists relate back to, he's coming with his estimable trio, including drummer John Betsch and bass virtuoso Jean-Jacques Avenel. Lacy's earliest, possibly wildest gesture was to hone in on Thelonious Monk's music in the 1950s, when Monk was an acknowledged master but also a slightly mad genius. Lacy's soprano sax focus was mad enough, and his Monk studies were spectacular, preparing him for a career in the inarguable jazz vanguard. So stay out three nights and see the vanguard in three phases, all of them brilliant.

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