Four Chicagoans Stir Up Musical Turbulence in NYC: Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Ken Vandermark and Jack DeJohnette
“ Throughout, the music's personality seems to exist as a composite, rather than a battle of egos between Braxton and Thompson, who must surely be viewed as prime examples of composers who enjoy being in control. ”
April 16, 2009
The Irondale Center is a new arts space in the general locale of BAM (Brooklyn Academy Of Music) and represents the first stage in the Cultural District plan dreamed up by its president Harvey Lichtenstein. Indeed, at present, the quaint old Irondale hall has a similarly rugged aspect that is reminiscent of the Harvey Theater's unfinished chic. That particular BAM venue is itself in direct contrast to the classic opulence of the main Howard Gilman Opera House.
All styles are emerging in Brooklyn's Fort Greene area. A three-night stint by the Chicago saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton is a high-profile way to begin the season, at least in interstellar jazz terms. The concept is complex, even if its musical results can still be embraced within the limits of a single cranium. Braxton is reviving an old friendship with fellow composer Walter Thompson, who has been refining his soundpainting techniques for well over three decades. One aspect of Braxton's work is his Language Music System, so the two have decided to join forces, with Thompson using Braxton's pictorialised pieces as potential prompting material for his own spontaneous directions.
Soundpainting involves the conductor (Thompson would prefer "composer") employing a very precisely communicative set of hand signals, instructing the performers to work singly, in smaller groupings, or as a whole, controlling duration, intensity, nature, physical placement and just about every aspect of onstage action, although it seems much freedom is often allowed in regard to the actual content of the sounds within the given parameters. The season's output is advertised as "a new soundpainting composition," but in essence, every soundpainting event creates a fresh work, existing in evanescence, never to be repeated, unless, as in this case, there are a posse of camera-folk capturing every second of each performance.
Tireless and completist documentation of gigs is almost becoming the norm nowadays. It's tough keeping up with the wall of discs, downloads and real-life happenings, but now the DVD archiving is becoming commonplace. Certain hardcore Braxton acolytes were set to be disappointed by his deliberate immersion in the ensemble's bosom, becoming one of the ranks, and rarely delivering anything that could be deemed a "solo." This was to be expected, given the nature of the performance. Braxton is out front immediately, directing the left-hand side of the ensemble with Thompson's digit-vocabulary. The first of two works begins with the upturning of an hourglass, its sand-trickle dictating the piece's one-hour limit. There's no fear of tedium setting in, though. Braxton and Thompson's minds and hands are working with remarkable swiftness, making unhesitant decisions over the flow of the instantaneous compositions. Who can say whether the nature of each piece was discussed in any way beforehand?
The first employs the sonic characteristics of modern classical composition, relishing an almost completely acoustic delivery, but operating on what seems like a restricted dynamic range when compared to the evening's second piece. Braxton then takes a seat, submerging himself in the horn ranks. Aside from the five horn players, the Orchestra also features viola, cello, synthesiser, electric guitar, percussion and a pair of acoustic basses. The most strikingly unusual element within the ensemble is the presence of two actor/narrators and a dancer, augmented by members from the Irondale Ensemble. Here, improvised lines, stray thought-repetitions and compulsive babbling can be interwoven with the instrumental music, directed either as a distinct wing, or commingled with the general sonic attack.
Braxton returns to the front, engaging in another bout of soundpainting, working as one with Thompson rather than engaging in any tussling over dominance. The players react with lightning reflexes, and the music is operating in areas that can't otherwise be explored via pre-meditated composition or complete improvisation. Soundpainting lurks somewhere in solitary space. It's very much an ensemble music, with individual spotlighting almost completely absent. What matters is the whole. Engaging though the first piece is, the second soundpainting of the evening ascends to even greater heights.
A principal factor is the significant deployment of the "dramatic" content, with the actors sitting in a line, facing the audience, as if re-creating a bus ride. Their sculpted gabbling is an important sonic element, and the newness and freshness of this inclusion within the "usual" instrumental palette can't be ignored. The pianist Evan Mazunik decides to steal a faction of Irondale actors, leading them up to the old church's balcony, then stabbing out united vocal calls, initiating a third block of soundpainting activity from above. Braxton is playing Pied Piper with one of the dancers (or "subtle gesticulators" might be a better term). The music manages to be stern and playful in turn. The piece finishes naturally, slightly before the sands run out.
Throughout, the music's personality seems to exist as a composite, rather than a battle of egos between Braxton and Thompson, who must surely be viewed as prime examples of composers who enjoy being in control. The concluding conversation and audience chatback revealed that the pair have found a genuine balance and mutual respect in their collaboration.
Roscoe Mitchell & Pauline Oliveros
April 18, 2009
At first, the combination of Chicagoan reedsman Roscoe Mitchell and the Houstonite accordionist Pauline Oliveros might feel like an unlikely encounter between player-composers from different spheres. And indeed, this is the case. However, their opening duo piece for this Deep Listening benefit concert soon begins to illustrate some of the common sonic concentrations in their approaches. Oliveros has built up an entire alternative musical industry around her concept of deep listening, a practice that holds much in common with Mitchell's pan-global sensitivity to sounds, from full-lung roaring to fingertip-tinkling. Here, he's persuaded to probe a particular area of his palette, keeping to sparse percussive phrases, which Oliveros munches up into her laptop and disperses around the room's multi-speaker array, using her two foot-pedals and row of effects-buttons. Or, alternatively, this could be the work of the sound-desk team.
Mitchell is also here to receive the third annual Golden Ear award for not being deaf to music's finer sensualities, with the quirkily amusing David Felton cracking non-stop loosening-up jokes, helping the audience relax into a receptive mode for complete immersion. Oliveros returns to lead her Deep Listening Band, the long-running partnership with trombonist Stuart Dempster and pianist David Gamper. All three players are making use of the Expanded Instrument System used by Oliveros in the first set, facilitating maximum control over minimalist gestures. Here, the music is less pointillist, more concerned with layered stasis and sustained drone, particularly when sounds become echoed, repeated and a-washed. Dempster also plays the didjeridu, circulating amongst the audience as he directs his tube to all points, adding another dispersed sound-source to complement the trans-speaker gliding. The experience is necessarily built around thoughtful consideration of slowly evolving details, as opposed to any stirring dynamism.
That action appears to arrive during the after-party, as DJ Oliveros teams up with DJ Olive, the latter delving into the more bangin' sections of his record collection. Oliveros turns out to be quite a reasonable turntablist, scratching in slow motion as she drags out vocal sounds from the deep grooves. It's quite amusing to witness a floor full of disco dancers during a deep listening event, proving that there are many possible ways to flex the eardrums.
The Ab Baars Trio & Ken Vandermark
April 19, 2009
Dead on 7pm, the Chicagoan reedsman Ken Vandermark is itching to get started. He's onstage before The Ab Baars Trio, invited as their special guest, and here to continue the work begun on 2007's album collaboration. Newly released is its sequel, Goofy June Bug. This is part of a lengthy US tour, particularly so for a visiting European combo. The Dutchmen step up, and the foursome begin a sequence of pieces that will include reflections on the musical influences of Von Freeman, Stravinsky, Gesualdo and Roswell Rudd. Baars and Vandermark work through all the possible combinations of tenor saxophones and clarinets, finding sympathy in their predilection for a controlled examination of the highest possible registers, always under a steely grip. Even seasoned free music adventurers might wince at the sheer citrus tingle of their keen notes, dotted, cutting, savage and expertly targeted.
They also play within some kind of traditional jazz framework. Drummer Martin Van Duynhoven and bassist Wilbert De Joode might be said to be harshly lacking in reverberational qualities, but they're operating as a partially perverted rhythm section, sometimes suggesting a skeletal bebop, but using the language of freedom. Baars and Vandermark's Rudd homage offers an extreme virtuoso tenor display, a percussive dialogue that demands quick thought and instant responses, ranging from curt blurts to extended micro-dashes. Both hornmen also break out into throaty post-bop, post-free solos at unexpected points, before snapping back to the upper register needling.
The humor that's come to be expected from Dutch players is present in a more arid form, less obvious than usual. Much of the music comes across as stern and cerebral, cool and spiky, but there's also a woody heart to be found, if the audience squints as closely as Baars demands.
Jack DeJohnette/John Patitucci/Danilo Pérez
The Blue Note
April 19, 2009
Here's the final set of the final night of this trio's six-day residency, and they just don't want to leave the stage, delivering one of The Blue Note's maximum-length sets as they just about hit the 90-minute mark. There are no flaggings, and the music moves through many, many moods, constructing a cumulative mass that's almost like that of an extended suite, an exploration of jazz at its most ethnically-shaded. Having said this, any particular country's folkloric pattern is rarely specifically evident as a source: this trio prefers a pan-African, pan-Latin, pan-Asian vocabulary that becomes a part of their own improvising personalities, creating a specific group sound.
They're celebrating the release of Music We Are, the new album on the Chicago-born Jack DeJohnette's own label, Golden Beams, and they're in deep ecstasy, winning a special award for particularly close eye contact and sensitive receptivity. It's best for the audience to keep a close watch on these three, as DeJohnette is brushing his just-out-of sight electro-pads, widening the percussive palette, and the Panamanian Danilo Pérez has his back turned, hunching over something to the side of his piano that sounds just like a set of tablas, but must surely be his synthesiser keyboard. Meanwhile, John Patitucci is swapping between upright acoustic and his wide-necked six-string electric bass, according to the misty-dreaming or humid-funking needs of each number. There are varying degrees of flamboyance: Pérez in a constant state of childlike excitement, as he hits another loquacious run on the keys, DeJohnette the calmest, with Patitucci inhabiting the middle ground, as a rubberised funkline creator, with a bobbing head to match. The range is phenomenal, cutting from raging fusion to temple-like meditation. DeJohnette thunders around his skins and cymbals with ear-shaking power, but a few minutes later, both band and hushed audience are communing in one of the most peaceful stretches of concentration ever witnessed in a jazz club.
Trombonist Steve Turre is sitting at the table in front of your scribe, and he looks like he's entering into a deeply trance-like state.