Sunday, April 10, 2016
This post can serve as a momentary place maker for the transition from winter into spring. Let’s see…
In January, bassist Stephan Crump’s “Rhombal” was in the recording studio. Stephan Crump, bass and compositions; Adam O'Farrill, trumpet; Ellery Eskelin, tenor saxophone; Tyshawn Sorey, drums. The results of this session, “Brothers”, will be released in a couple of months. Next NYC appearance by the group will be on April 22nd at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village. Here’s video from a live performance by the group, Stephan’s composition "Loose Bay”.
In February I had the chance to reconnect with bassist Christian Weber and drummer Michael Griener and follow up on a project that we began in Zürich in 2011. This group had a very particular sound from the very first time we played together. Partly it’s to do with the fact that Christian plays the bass without an amplifier and that Michael played a set of drums that were a bit smaller than the standard sizes used in most groups. This allowed me a bit more freedom to explore some other timbral possibilities on my instrument. We also performed at the Willisau Festival in Switzerland later that same year which you can see a video clip of here. We played exclusively improvised concerts at that time but in hanging out together we discovered a mutual love of early jazz. I kept that in mind over the years hoping that we might address that musically at some point. As it happened, Christian recently spent six months in New York City which allowed us the luxury of getting together regularly to play some of this early material and think about how we might incorporate it into our sets. Michael came to NYC for a few weeks in February and so we rehearsed extensively, did a concert in town and went into the recording studio soon after in order to document our work together. Included are renditions of Jelly Roll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp”, a Fat’s Waller composition and a couple of early jazz standards. These are alternated with free improvisations so as to highlight aspects of both approaches to the music from a somewhat different perspective. We hope this project will be released by year’s end. The group will be performing in Europe in November of 2016.
Looking ahead at the performance schedule, I’ll be in Europe for two weeks in May with Jozef Dumoulin and the Red Hill Orchestra. That’s Jozef on Fender Rhodes piano & compositions, myself on tenor saxophone and Dan Weiss on drums. Really nice combination of textural elements and multi-directional rhythmic propulsion. Here is a track called "The Gate" from Jozef’s recording “Trust”. This is where we'll be in May 2016:
May 4th, De Werf, Brugge BELGIUM. May 5th, Le Bocal, Apt FRANCE. May 6th, Festival Koa, Montpellier FRANCE. May 8th, Le Périscope, Lyon FRANCE. May 9th, De Singer, Rijkevorsel BELGIUM. May 10th, Bravo, Brussels BELGIUM. May 11th, Le Petit Faucheux, Tours FRANCE. May 12, Jamboree, Barcelona SPAIN. May 13th, Valencia SPAIN. May 14th, Bogui Jazz Club, Madrid SPAIN. And for all of you folks in the Big Apple...May 25th, (le) poisson rouge, NYC
When not traveling I enjoy taking advantage of the many offerings of contemporary chamber music that are available in New York City. One of my very favorite ensembles is the Argento Chamber Ensemble. Very often after their concerts there is a question and answer period in which the audience can speak with the composers and performers. I always enjoy these although they do present some potential challenges to the participants. One such occurrence took place after the ensemble’s performance at the Brooklyn Library last month. The program featured works by Tristan Murail, Huck Hodge, Oliver Schneller, Bert Van Herck and Oliver Schneller. I had the impression that a significant portion of the audience may not have been accustomed to modern chamber music and some of the questions reflected that. This is an excellent opportunity for the ensemble to get feedback from listeners and for listeners to gain insight into the processes involved in creating this music. One of the great things about New York audiences is that you are liable to get some very forthright opinions, especially if folks feel challenged. I was encouraged by the feeling that while some may have struggled with what they were hearing, overall, seeing the musicians on stage and hearing a series of different pieces allowed for a more intuitive sense of what is going on. I’m a firm believer that we do not need to understand the music we hear on an intellectual level in order to “hear” it. Of course, some knowledge about the traditions involved and the intent of the composers may well enhance the experience. I could also point out that our knowledge of what we are hearing may also be a kind of filter than can actually diminish our perceptions of what we are hearing if we are not careful. Toward the end of this session, after about twenty minutes of discussion, a woman in the back stood up and shared her experiences of the concert in some of the most starkly negative terms I could imagine. It was not as if she was criticizing the proceedings, it was clear that she was sincere in what she was saying and how she felt. After describing the desolate and bleak landscape conjured by the sounds she heard she wrapped it all up by asking, imploring even, “where is the love?” That really got everyone’s attention. After a momentarily uncomfortable pause each person on the panel offered an equally sincere and compassionate take on what their personal experiences and intentions were with regard to music making. This got to the crux of everything really, in a way that we do not often encounter in public settings like this. The emphasis on intellectualization and technical terminology was set aside for a very heartfelt and affirming exploration of why we make music. In spite of any differences in approach between the panelists there was clearly a deep commonality shared among them. And it is this commonality that points to the essence of what makes music such a powerful force in our lives. It can go by many names but past the conditioned and superficial associations we may have with certain sounds, music generally speaks to something beyond or larger than our sense of self. Something we may not even fully understand. We may feel it quite strongly and yet how we respond to it can be varied and unpredictable, deeply positive or deeply negative or anywhere in between. But it is reaching us. So walking home after the concert with friends we discussed the issue and came away feeling that in fact asking “where is the love” does not mean that this audience member didn’t "get" the music. I think she did, and quite strongly, in spite of the fact that I did not relate to her reaction. And as we know, there is no correct reaction. It was affirming to have been witness to that conversation. I might also point out that there is sometimes a kind of trite attitude concerning the idea of provoking an audience into having a strong reaction and then associating some kind of merit to such work on the basis of that. Personally I find controversy and provocation to be highly overrated without something deeper underneath it. But a genuine challenge, one that does in fact come from love, is a rare thing to encounter and be open to. I commend that listener for bringing up the question. There was one final question after that one, actually more of a testimonial, on the part of a very elderly woman who was sitting in the front row. I could tell that she also was not a devotee of modern music but her response was highly energized and very positive toward what she had heard. She continued speaking for some minutes on the importance of this kind of forward looking activity in our culture and she related the experience to a number of topics although we could not always clearly understand what she was saying. But she was excited. After some time her husband put his hand on her back in order to signal that maybe she should finish but she kept right on going. At a certain point one of the staff from the library who was leading the event kindly stepped over to motion for the microphone but she just waved him away. All in all a wonderful affirmation that this music is not restricted to experts or aficionados. It speaks to anyone who will listen.
Every other year I do a week long teaching residency at my Alma Mater, Towson University in Baltimore. Each time, we’ve taken up a particular theme or investigation. The first year, I worked with the improvisation ensemble in developing a concert. The second year I brought a batch of my own compositions from over the years and adapted them to a student ensemble for their concert. The third year was devoted to the exploration of “swing” as a creative act in which the jazz ensemble presented a concert of early jazz works from Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. This year’s theme was chamber music containing improvisation and took place this past March. In discussing the idea with Dave Ballou (who runs the program at Towson) I described for him my idea about commissioning a chamber music composition in a modern classical idiom that would feature an improvising soloist. (This is something I’d already set in motion and have been working towards for a couple of years now and hopefully in 2017 we may have the results.) Dave, being a wonderful composer in addition to a great instrumentalist (check out Dave’s new “Solo Trumpet” recording) offered to write a piece for student ensemble (actually, recent alumni as it turned out) for us to tackle on this residency. I’ve been working with a so called “classical” set up on saxophone in my practice (Rascher mouthpiece, Vandoren reed and Buescher tenor, for my fellow saxophone geeks) and this was a great opportunity to give this idea some momentum. Without writing a "jazz meets classical" piece Dave’s sensitivities as a fellow improvisor made for a work that allowed great flexibility in my approach. Rather than working with highly restricted materials as prescribed by the composer (often the approach in chamber music that uses improvisation) I was allowed to have a compositional voice, meaning that my role might shift freely from being “inside” the ensemble to a more front a center “soloist” voice as I felt the need. For this performance I stuck rather close to the material at hand but I can easily see many more possibilities of approach in future performances. Maybe we’ll even get to record this. Until then, here is some audio from the concert. Recorded sound is not optimal but I think it’s worth offering. It is an eight movement composition for two violins, cello, bass, clarinet, bassoon, piano and tenor saxophone. The first is movement four. The second is an excerpt from movement one leading into movement six.
Reynaldo Reyes who taught at Towson from 1962 until just this year, passing away some months ago at the age of 82. Mr. Reyes accompanied me on my very first recital at Towson, in 1978. I wish I could recall the name of what we played but it was a rather thorny piece of modern classical music for saxophone and piano and he sight read it perfectly on the first rehearsal. He was known for doing that. A wonderful musician and teacher who will be dearly missed.
As part of my activities I’m asked to present a mid-week concert of my own music. Being that the the focus was on chamber music I thought it only appropriate to invite pianist Sylvie Courvoisier to perform in duo. We’ve been doing duo concerts (as well as trio concerts with Parisian cellist Vincent Courtois) since around 2000. This was our first concert in about a year or so and it was great to catch up musically and see what we had each been up to in the interim. Here’s an example, a bonus track “Number 19”, from our recording “Every So Often”.
Other activities during the week involved working with students on how to learn the song “Cherokee” (in which at one point while listening to student performances of this tune involving questionable note choices I had to point out “your ear would never let you do that!”), a series of private lessons on a range of issues (probably my favorite thing to do) and coaching the improvisation ensemble (in which we explored each musician's natural tendencies and discovered what things made them uncomfortable). Actually, being uncomfortable in these situations is not a bad thing. We used uncomfortability (not a real word but for sure a real feeling) as a way to address strengths and weaknesses. This became a way of fine tuning the entire ensemble's sensitivities so as to best allow each musician the opportunity to fully contribute to the music. Some players are more naturally supportive while others more naturally assertive. And of course you don’t want too many of one or the other. Both in being true to themselves and by having to carry the music at any time, often unexpectedly, showed us quite clearly that there is no place to hide, neither in being too passive nor in being too aggressive.
There were many discussions during the week and after each concert there was a question and answer period in which students and members of the listening public could discuss the performances. As in the case of the question and answer session that I referred to above, there were folks in attendance that were not all that familiar with the kind of music being presented. I was told by someone in the audience that as the improvisation ensemble started playing a couple sitting behind them was heard to be discussing “what kind of music is this” and “maybe the second half will have some Charlie Parker jazz”. They stuck around and seemed to enjoy Dave Ballou’s chamber music piece even though that would certainly not qualify as “Charlie Parker jazz”. After the duo concert with Sylvie I sensed during the discussion that perhaps this was a challenging concert for some folks. We do our very best to “tell a story” in our improvisations, to play structurally and compositionally. But I had to ask “did anyone completely loose the thread of the music?” Fortunately one person raised their hand and said as much. This lead to a fruitful discussion about how to communicate in music and what is being communicated. Personally I cannot second guess what I think will work in any given situation and so it reminded me (again) to trust the music completely. And so I come away from this experience encouraged and asking myself, is there really a separation between listener and music? It certainly doesn’t seem that way, no matter the myriad responses that we all have in any given situation. Whether you thought it was good or bad, liked it or not, reached you or didn’t, all that seems less important than the knowledge that there is always something more.
I enjoy these residencies more with each one that I do. Pianist Bill Murray (founder of the Bill and Helen Murray Jazz Residency) deserves our deep appreciation for setting this all in motion. Plus everyone at Towson including Dave Ballou and Jim McFalls. And each and every student and alumni who took part. It was rewarding on so many levels. Thank you.
There was also one off-campus event that I want to mention. On Tuesday of that week I got to sub for Dave Ballou on his regular gig at Bertha’s with the Mike Kuhl Trio (Mike on drums along with Jeff Reed on bass). Bertha’s has been around for I don’t know how long. It’s situated in Fell’s Point in Baltimore, close to the harbor just east of downtown. When I was living in Baltimore (I left in 1981) this area was a bit deserted at night and seemed to carry the heavy feeling of lost seafaring days along the old docks and bars that lined the low buildings and cobbled streets. It’s more brightly lit these days and a center of nightlife but you can still get a sense of the ghosts of Fell’s Point, maybe even that of Edgar Allen Poe himself. It’s great to see that some of these old joints have not changed all that much from what I remembered. Dark inside, old instruments hanging from the rafters, vintage furnishings. And speaking of vintage, in visiting the men’s room you’re confronted with the largest and possibly oldest urinal still in use in America. Or at least that was my impression. Rising up from the floor to the height of a grown man it’s like an enormous white porcelain coffin stood on it’s end. Interacting with history is what that felt like.
Playing at Bertha’s was a ton of fun. I also got to see my friend and fellow tenor saxophonist from my Towson University days, Brad Collins. We played together in Hank Levy’s ensemble and had not seen each other in thirty five years! Brad plays around Baltimore a lot so check him out. This was a straight up jazz gig, calling tunes as we went, of the kind I did frequently all around Baltimore at one time. In fact, somewhere in the second set it occurred to me that I used to play John Coltrane’s “Some Other Blues” on every single jazz gig I ever did in town. My good friend and fellow tenor player Tom McCormick taught it to me back in the day. So I called the tune and as we played I could feel just what it was like playing places like Bertha’s in the late ‘70s. Tom and I had another good friend and tenorist named Mike Carrick who was older than us and instilled much in the way of the Baltimore tradition to our approach at that time. Mike would say to me, “yea man, you got that Baltimore honkin’ thing!” That made me feel good. So I couldn’t help but let loose with Mike in mind. Mike passed a few years ago but his spirit is still strong among those who remember him.
As I’m writing this, after being back home for a couple of weeks, I received some very sad news about the passing of another musician who was in Baltimore at that time, bassist and composer Terry Plumeri who was also a formative influence on us younger musicians. I played a number of times with Terry, once in a trio with drummer Harold White (who had also played in Horace Silver’s band) and another memorable occasion at a Fell’s Point jazz club called The Bandstand, which was my first real opportunity in town to lead a group for a weekend at a club that also headlined New York artists. Terry had recorded in the early ‘70s making an LP called “He Who Lives in Many Places” with Herbie Hancock, John Abercrombie and Eric Gravatt. Terry also toured for some years with Roberta Flack. After leaving Baltimore Terry composed for film and symphony orchestras around the world. His signature sound on the bass was his arco playing. This is a photo of Terry as I remember him from those days. Here is a video of Terry in recent years doing a solo contrabass piece called “The Caves of Peacock Springs”. While we have access to no end of recordings and documentation of this musical tradition I’m convinced that it is the spirit of musicians playing together, learning from each other and sharing their lives with each other that makes this a living tradition. Each one who passes has had an effect on those around them, and that is the real spirit of what keeps this alive. Never take that for granted, not even for a moment. Thanks Terry.