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Live Reviews

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

By Published: December 15, 2006

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, "'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.

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