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Live Reviews

Earshot Aural Snapshots: 2006 Earshot Jazz Festival, Seattle, October 27-30

By Published: December 15, 2006

"Let's hope 'they' don't make having this much fun illegal." —Bill Barton

2006 Earshot Jazz Festival
Seattle, WA
October 27-30

Toshiko Akiyoshi
Seattle Asian Art Museum
Friday, October 27

It's a shame that economics and logistics decreed the demise of The Toshiko Akiyoski-Lew Tabackin Big Band a few years back, but Toshiko's fans around the world can take solace in her higher profile as a solo artist. This solo piano concert began with her composition "The Village," based on a Japanese folk song. The elements of her ethnic heritage blended with jazz traditions as impressively in this solo interpretation as in the large ensemble arrangement of the piece, the rolling rhythm and memorable melody front and center.

Speaking to the audience, she shared personal reminiscences, including a story about landing in Boston at 1:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning in the early 1950s and immediately going to Storyville to hear Bud Powell play. Dedicating the next two performances to him, her own "Remembering Bud" opened and closed rubato—a bittersweet recollection, redolent with echoes of both his musical genius and his troubled life. Next, Powell's "Tempus Fugit" was taken at a torrid pace that never lagged, full of supersonic right hand runs à la Bud and a cagey quote from "A Night in Tunisia."

An emotionally affecting rendition of "Deep River" fused branches of post-bop piano language with elemental spiritual roots, Akiyoshi's powerful left hand much more prevalent—as one might expect—in a solo format than in her ensemble playing, including some delightful Monk-ish dissonance sprinkled in with the generous Powell servings.

Toshiko then spoke of the challenges of her big band's 1981 European tour, traveling mostly by bus, and being unable to get anything decent to eat because "...in Europe it's just breakfast, lunch and dinner and nothing in between." This disclosure set up her composition dedicated to finally getting some good food, "Feast in Milano." It's one of her most striking melodies, set to a suitably joyful loping rhythm. Her improvisation stretched and abstracted the rhythm to the limit midway through the song.

Another bop classic, "Con Alma" from Dizzy Gillespie's book, received a multi-faceted treatment, beginning and ending somewhat pensively, then moving to an extended segment of surging intensity as the centerpiece.

"Just One of Those Things," taken at a whirlwind tempo, emphatically confirmed the observation made in the New York Times that Akiyoshi is "one of the finest living bebop pianists." After hearing this performance and the balance of the concert, I'd venture the opinion they could have dispensed with the first two words in that phrase and left off the "s" at the end.

A justly deserved standing ovation brought Toshiko back to the stage to introduce her composition "Hiroshima." Inspired by a Buddhist monk, this "tune of hope" was premiered in 2001 at The Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima and later that year played in remembrance of 9/11 in New York City. A deeply moving piece, probably more than one audience member shed a tear or two before it was over. I was reminded of Anthony Braxton's statement: "The challenge of creative music has never been more important than in periods of profound unrest and realignment."

Cecil Taylor: All the Notes
Film by Christopher Felver
Northwest Film Forum
Saturday, October 28

I arrived early for this screening to insure getting a good seat. My visions of a line snaking around the block like a Star Wars or Harry Potter premiere turned out to be wishful thinking, however: not even a score of folks attended the Saturday 9:00 p.m. showing. Ah well, perhaps in a just and ideal world...

Felver's film is an interesting portrait of the iconoclastic Taylor that generally avoids the talking heads syndrome that mars so many music documentaries. Granted, there are rather dry pontifications from Amiri Baraka, who comes across as curiously bloodless, nothing like his incendiary poetry. Elvin Jones contributes some of the more insightful observations in his interview segments.

The real meat of All the Notes is the music—allowed to speak for itself in most cases—and the lengthy segments of Taylor talking about music, bridges, art and life. A quintessential New Yorker, he's captured at work and at play in his Brooklyn home, in a succession of taxicabs, as an audience member and backstage at a Mal Waldron club gig, and teaching in his unique way. There are a couple of extremely effective uses of split-screen, the most striking juxtaposing two Taylor monologues that contrast then dovetail, perhaps analogous to his information- packed, multi-layered piano playing. This is a "must see" for Taylor fans.

Dempster Diving

Town Hall

Sunday, October 29

The concept was an imaginative one for this 70th birthday homage to Seattle new music icon Stuart Dempster. Billed as A Sonic Extravaganza, it was indeed a sprawling multi- media matinee. I hesitate to call it a "performance" or a "concert": It was more an "Event," or a "Happening."

Sound sculptor, composer and inventor Trimpin provided the "Welcome"—heard over the building's sound system. The Sonic Extravaganza began in the Great Hall with a fanfare: a trombone choir playing "Happy Birthday" with strains of "When the Saints Go Marching In" mixed in. As they marched offstage and down the stairs, the site-specific presentations began. The ensemble Awesome was in the backstage area of the Great Hall; flutist Jeffrey Cohan played in the Northwest stairwell; Sheri Cohen and ROOM were in the Southwest stairwell; the Degenerate Art Ensemble mixed their distinctive performance-art brew in the downstairs kitchen; Susie Kozawa and Group were in the lobby; and the Tibetan Long Horns were Downstairs at Town Hall.

Audience members were free to wander about as they wished, sampling bits and pieces of various performances or planting themselves in one location if they so desired. I'd originally planned on the peripatetic approach but started downstairs with the Tibetan Long Horns and remained there, soon to discover that I was transfixed.

Although literally worlds away from the marathon, extended ritual music of Tibetan Buddhism, the long horns, shawms (ancient double reed instruments that are ancestors of the oboe), ritual drum and cymbals brought a palpable sense of sacred space to the utilitarian downstairs room. Led by Phursang Kelak Lama—a monk in the Kagyu lineage who now lives in a small monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal—the group also included Michael Monhart and Brian Pertl, who studied with Lama when he taught in the ethnomusicology department at the University of Washington.

Midway through their presentation, Dempster joined them. With Phursang Kelak Lama and Dempster on long horns, Monhart and Pertl on shawms, a powerful incantatory web of sound was woven. Like the Australian aboriginal didgeridoo, the Tibetan long horn relies solely on breath and embouchure to produce its primal resonance. The sheer physicality of the playing technique projects an earthy immediacy, an in-the-moment mindfulness of great power, rich in compassion and healing force. When two or more horns play in concord, the sonic waves reach out to embrace you, as in these meditative and transformational few minutes. Here's a bow to the musicians, the Buddha and the Buddha-nature awakened in those who listened.

A champagne toast to Dempster Downstairs at Town Hall was followed by the main part of the program upstairs in the Great Hall. After everyone had eventually filtered in and found seats, it became evident that it was a near-capacity crowd. Family, friends, fans, colleagues, students and former students turned out in force, paying tribute to a man who contributes immeasurably to the vitality and creativity of the Seattle music world and has done so for 40 years now.

A trombone choir—even larger than the one that provided the earlier fanfare— opened the program. I was reminded of an avant-garde version of Meredith Wilson's The Music Man: "...76 trombones led the big parade..." There weren't quite 76 of them—or, for that matter, a more numerologically manageable 70—but there were definitely a slew of sackbutts, a superabundance of sliphorns. From my seat I couldn't get an accurate count (not that it really matters) but I'd estimate between 15 and 20. Hearing that many trombonists play together certainly isn't an everyday occurrence, so it might as well have been four score or more.

An expanded contingent of The Didgeri Dudes next circumambulated through the audience playing plastic pipe didgeridoos, some fitted with lights at the bell controlled by the player. There was also one serpentine Rube Goldberg-ish device that looked like a trap in search of a sink. The superb acoustics in the Great Hall resonated winningly with this breath-and-chops surround-sound experience. The combination of whimsicality and spirituality, fanciful costumes and flashing lights fitted the season nicely with Halloween/ Samhain only two days away.

Contemplative juggler Thomas Arthur was next, accompanied by guitarist-composer Paul Ely Smith. A remarkable performer, Arthur's approach to the art is light years from the machismo flash and dazzle of circus jugglers. It's all about fluidity of motion and a seamless oneness with the music. The parallels seem to be modern dance or Tai Chi rather than acrobatics; this was particularly evident in the second portion, utilizing gracefully-manipulated, flexible wands.

Composer David Mahler offered a "patriotic birthday with circular breathing," a waggish mouth "trombone" salute to the Sound Gatherer. His few minutes were sort of a cross between stand-up comedy and found poetry plus solo piano in a musingly minimalist mood: Victor Borge meets La Monte Young?

Cellist Loren Kiyoshi Dempster and pedal steel guitarist Joel Pickard were originally slated to play with Pauline Oliveros, who was unable to attend. Using two cellos—one a standard instrument, the other a curious-looking coffin-shaped electric hybrid—Dempster began with both of them lying on the stage on their backs, applying bows and fingers in ways both orthodox and unorthodox, sometimes using two bows simultaneously for some otherworldly sounds. Eventually he picked up the standard instrument for a lovely "legitimate" col arco segment.

Pickard coaxes spectral timbres and attractive noises from the pedal steel that defy categorization or convenient pigeonholing. To say his technique is "extended" would be an understatement. As a child I was fascinated by the Baroque-ish appearance of the pedal steel, and it's always puzzled me that more avant-garde musicians haven't utilized it. Pickard definitely proves that it can overcome its stereotyped niche in the cowboy-hats, spangled-suits world.

In 1999, flutist Paul Taub commissioned Stuart Dempster to compose a piece in celebration of Taub's 20th anniversary living and working in Seattle. Alternate Realities is aptly titled, a rhythmically-charged composition that demands enormous dexterity and forward momentum. Taub, a virtuoso, delivered a superb solo performance, brimming with vitality and joy. There were spots where it sounded as if he were playing two flutes simultaneously, even though it was, in fact, one. Later in the performance, he played bass flute, with its creamy and luxuriant timbre.

The Seattle Harmonic Voices were a magic act without smoke or mirrors. There are a number of traditions that utilize the human voice to produce harmonics, manipulating the fundamentals and overtones in intriguing ways, sympathetic vibrations that can make one voice sound like two (or more). Tuvan throat singing is probably the best-known example of this ancient and spellbinding technique. It can sound both primeval and futuristic.

Seattle Harmonic Voices, founded by director Stephen Fandrich in 1999, explore this fascinating world of acoustics legerdemain wide-eyed and open-eared. "In the midst of creating," Charlie Haden once said, "a person is raised to another level of consciousness that doesn't have that much to do with everyday thinking. It's as if you could imagine life before there were words."

The lengthy winding pathways of multi-layered wordless vocals eventually coalesced into a riveting backdrop that could also be interpreted as foreground for Fandrich's setting of the Phil Ochs protest classic "I Ain't Marching Anymore," as timely now as when it was written. This was a stunningly powerful performance and unquestionably one of the highlights in an afternoon jam-packed with powerful performances.

Profundity and whimsy coexisted quite nicely throughout the afternoon. Stuart Dempster is likely the only composer who has written a piece specifically for a trombonist riding a unicycle. Nathaniel Oxford was the trombocyclist. It turns out that when discussing the original idea for the composition it was decided that teaching a unicyclist to play trombone would probably be easier than vice versa, but serendipitously it was discovered that trombonist Oxford was already a one-wheel whiz.

Long-time Dempster collaborators William O. Smith and Greg Campbell next provided a colorful and ceaselessly creative few minutes of improvisational interplay. There was a music stand onstage in front of Smith, but it didn't hold any ink, just a couple of suspended aluminum-foil pie plates.

In addition to his innovative extended techniques on the clarinet itself Smith has experimented for many years with an assortment of unusual mutes: the pie plates not only alter the timbre of the horn but also add a percussive buzz/ rattle. Although Campbell is well known for incorporating racks of kitchen pot covers with his trap set, today he stuck strictly to the covers and an array of pots, a thrift-store orchestra of them. Played with bows, mallets, sticks, his fingers and hands (no wooden spoons or spatulas though, unless I missed it), they were a veritable Goodwill Gamelan. A great musician with big ears can get mellifluous sounds out of seemingly unlikely devices. Always effulgent, sometimes febrile and unfailingly imaginative, this was malleable music that pulsed with life: a thoroughly delightful set.

The day's diving concluded with a relatively brief but energetic set by Sunship. As one might gather from the group's name, the continuum of jazz slash avant-garde slash new music is their milieu. The program notes mentioned Sun Ra, John Coltrane, James "Blood" Ulmer and Nels Cline as reference points; I'd add Ornette Coleman's Prime Time and Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society to that list.

Saxophonist Michael Monhart and guitarist Brian Heaney (who were colleagues in Stinkhorn); drummer David Revelli, electric bassist Andrew Luthringer and the Sound Gatherer himself on trombone, conch shells, didgeridoo and "little instruments" comprise the group. As Dempster said in his introduction, "...it's the 11th or 12th inning but we're still tied...let's get untied."

And get untied they did, not to mention unwound. There's a hortatory surging directness to their music. The second segment had an excellent tenor saxophone solo from Monhart, followed by Dempster playing the conch shell most engagingly. Heaney's solo led to a bass/drums segue back to the theme. Then Dempster started circulating through the crowd with his didg, spreading atavistic vibrations, a cyclic connection between the Dreamtime and the here-and-now.

Eventually he returned to the trombone and continued moving through the audience as he played, taking full advantage of the Great Hall's wonderful acoustics, culminating in a glowingly romantic full chorus of "My Funny Valentine" directed (I believe) to his wife. His nonpareil tone and spot-on intonation sang most eloquently of love and life. This touching vignette provided a fitting denouement for this generous "Happening," this long afternoon filled with music, sound, color, light, spirit, soul and humor.

Ritual Trio with Billy Bang
On the Boards
Sunday, October 29

Multi-instrumentalist Kahil El'Zabar's Ritual Trio has one foot in a gutbucket and the other on a cloud. It's a group that knows you can shake your booty without disengaging your brain. They can lay down an infectious groove without getting stuck in a rut. Their knack for layering adventurous solos on top of monstrous head-bobbing rhythms is unmatched. It can be argued that "great" jazz always builds on the bedrock of the blues. Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future (to borrow the AEC's phrase) also utilizes traditions from the entire African diaspora as its foundation.

Urban Bush People opened the concert with El'Zabar playing his hugely resonant handmade "earth drum" and ankle bells, his soulful vocal spurred on by rhythmically ingenious pizzicato violin from special guest Billy Bang and the testifying baritone saxophone of Hamiet Bluiett.

Bluiett replaced the ailing Ari Brown, the trio's regular saxophonist. "Hey, all you urban bush people, don't get stuck in a rut... don't let these conservative times mess up your mind... runnin' in the streets, made of concrete... no love... talking heads all over the place... don't get stuck in these boring ruts." It didn't take long for Bang and Bluiett to warm up, and their solos were positively volcanic, Bluiett's wailing falsetto-register interjections spurring Bang on during the violinist's vigorous spot.

El'Zabar switched to the trap set for Bang's "Spirits Entering." The spirits definitely entered, and they were rambunctious spirits indeed. Bang's violin solo was an incendiary gallop through free-bop and beyond, intensely focused yet wildly exploratory. Bluiett utilized the baritone's full range in his solo, from gut-shaking low register wallops to the whistling banshee ultra-high register sheets of sound of which he's such a master.

Bassist Yosef Ben Israel brought us back to earth with his turn in the spotlight, his plangent, fat, richly rounded sound and feet-firmly-planted sense of tempo and rhythm(s) unshakeable and centered. El'Zabar's unaccompanied drum solo built excitement without losing the pulse; one could always hear the piece's form through the elaborate embroideries and complex cross-rhythms.

El'Zabar spoke of his AACM mentor, Malachi Favors Maghostut, to introduce "Oof," which began with El'Zabar's thumb piano accompanied only by his ankle bells. After he set the tempo, bass, then violin, then baritone entered in turn. There was a massively bluesy baritone solo, the latter portion unaccompanied, that pushed the outer limits without leaving the roadhouse.

Bang's manic violin solo included some beautifully controlled use of the ricochet bowing technique, which segued to a superb bass solo, El'Zabar's ankle bells getting softer and softer as it progressed, and—with the dynamic level backed off several notches—an incredibly transformational thumb piano solo. The spiritual depth and rhythmic power of El'Zabar's playing here was dazzling; he built the dynamics back up gradually as the solo progressed, and then brought them down—way down—for the very soft ending.

In over 30 years of attending concerts there are only a handful in memory, reaching right down to the energy seat of emotion, that are on a level with these few minutes. "I'm interested in energy," bassist Buell Neidlinger once said, "I love the feeling of being in a room and playing music with guys that are making energy instead of just sound."

Intermission

El'Zabar began the second set unaccompanied, playing end-blown wooden flute. The piece was a feature for vocals and flute, "...warm and gentle, spiritually divine." A threnody for Malachi Favors Maghostut, it was pacific, hypnotic, and dolorous at times yet uplifting. "A music so pure, like no other you'll find...ancient to the future," sang El'Zabar. "...a rare being of the highest mind...MAL-a-chi FA-vors..."

Moving to the trap set, El'Zabar kicked off "Contrary Motion," another smoking free- bop romp. The interplay between Bang and Bluiett on this barnburner was ineffable if not incredible. Let's hope "they" don't make having this much fun illegal.

It was back to earth, drum and ankle bells, for the concert closer. "I think that good times are ahead," said El'Zabar, "Sam Cooke said 'A Change Is Gonna Come.'" There was more pizzicato violin and Bluiett shaking oleaginous overtones from his horn in a wild ride of a solo as this soul train highballed ahead. "If you believe in the spirit...If you believe with your heart and soul." The musicians encouraged us to clap along, and the ride ended with a "good times ahead" chant done in call-and-response with the audience, the band wending their way backstage.

The rhythmic clapping morphed into ecstatic extended applause. There are standing ovations and there are Standing Ovations; this was the latter, boldface in a big way. The encore had El'Zabar back on thumb piano and Bluiett staying primarily in the baritone's lower register in a house-rocking rave-up. There was an extraordinary hocketing thumb piano segment of fervent intensity before El'Zabar brought the dynamics back down, and then the four musicians interacted like an African drum choir, Bang tapping the strings with his bow, Ben Israel tapping the bass strings with his left hand and Bluiett keying with his left hand without blowing air through the horn.

Standing Ovation number two brought El'Zabar back for a funny, rhythmically ingenious, spirit-deep solo voice scat-de-dat tour de force accompanied by the audience. "Humanity is like the cloth, and your music, your words, are like the needle and thread that you use to bring people together," as Salif Keita from Mali said.

Andrew Hill Quintet
The Triple Door
Monday, October 30 (7:00 p.m. show)

If the Ritual Trio show was a full-course soul-food dinner, this one was a tantalizing appetizer. With trumpeter Charles Tolliver, Marty Ehrlich on alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson, sui generis pianist-composer Hill remains one of the most intriguing conceptualizers in the music.

The second piece played had a very lyrical piano intro and a slow ballad feel, with a bass line moving in a second, faster contrary motion. Eventually the drums layered in yet another contrary motion. There was a pithy alto saxophone solo and a white-hot trumpet solo, Tolliver making superb use of the multiple rhythmic layers of Hill's composition in a crisp, clean, crystal clear torrent of interesting ideas brought to fruition. Hill's solo was methodical, slow to develop, dark and gently dissonant. He has a truly unique sound and style all his own; once you've heard his playing and compositions, you'll never mistake him for anyone else.

The third (and final!) piece had something of an Asian feeling to the melody. It reminded me of a darker, duskier "Sunshowers" (a Kenny Barron tune). Tolliver took another excellent solo. A major force in the 1970s, the trumpeter was pretty much flying under the radar through most of the 1980s and 1990s, and it's good to see him back in a relatively high-profile gig; he's one of the finest players of his generation.

Polite applause and no encore ended this approximately hour-long set. I wasn't able to hang out for two hours waiting for the ten o'clock set. As a long-time Andrew Hill fan, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed.

Earshot should consider booking more concerts into On the Boards and Town Hall in my opinion. Don't get me wrong. The Triple Door has fine acoustics, a pleasant atmosphere and friendly, unobtrusive service. But one set of three long pieces seems a tad stingy. And hearing the folks behind me carry on a conversation during the set like they were sitting at their kitchen table isn't my idea of respect for the musicians. I'd be interested in the musicians' take on their experience.

In Arthur Taylor's Notes and Tones, Tolliver responded to a question about whether he prefers concerts or clubs as follows: "Well, I much prefer concerts today, because people come knowing that they've got to pay attention. They're going to a concert, they're going to be seated and they are there to listen to what's going on..."



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