Earshot Aural Snapshots: 2006 Earshot Jazz Festival, Seattle, October 27-30
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 cellosone a standard instrument, the other a curious-looking coffin-shaped electric hybridDempster 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.