Umbria Jazz: Days 4-6, July 13-15, 2009
With the squeak-toy as rhythmic foundation, the players onstage began reciting a spoken incantation of tribute to Chicago avant-garde musician Fred Anderson, "The Prairie Prophet." As they recited, the remainder of the ensemble took their seats, beginning the chant from the beginning so that the final effect was of a "round"; the vocalists filed in singing their part, so that they were behind even those with whom they'd started. Ultimately all explained that Fred Anderson's band was a turning point, preparing Chicago musicians for "transitions east on Planet E"a phrase that every section of the round repeated several times.
The ensemble started into what might have been one long, multi-sectional piece, or several pieces; there was little breathing room. Ewarts conducted them into a drone, with subtle manipulations on baritone sax (Mwata Bowden) and trombone (George Lewis), out of which Khabeer Ernest Dawkins' alto ultimately arose as if out of a fog. Solos by Daugherty and trumpeter Ben Gay followed, and when all went silent trumpeter Leon Q. Allen held up a noisemaking toy and pushed its buttons at random. Nicole Mitchell then played a graceful, long-note flute solo with the vocalists "oohing" behind, and a primal rhythmsomewhere between a hippie jam and a gospel revivalerupted, with many musicians clapping along. Ewarts even danced. Finally, to conclude the piece and the concert, Ewarts set about a half-dozen tops spinning on the floor at upstage-left. The floor was apparently miked, since the sound of their spinning and toppling soon filled the hall.
While the takeaway from the previous show was exhaustion, this one left the feeling of having seen something profound and euphoric. The last two concerts are eagerly awaited.
Giancarlo Belfiore for Umbria Jazz