XFest 2010: Real Time Together
119 Gallery, Lowell, Mass.
February 26-28, 2010
Call it XFest. Curated by musician Walter Wright and held annually at his 119 Gallery in Lowell, Mass, the pace of it couldn't be closer or faster. Within its three days of rapid-fire sets, musicians who have never played together before and sometimes never met, somehow find common groundor scintillatingly conflicting ground.
Experts might argue that the best performances rise out of extensive, long term collaborations. In fact, this may even be true in a large sense. That's not the point of XFest. The pointwell, it's open-ended. The event is made exciting by its premise of spontaneity alone, leading to sterling conversation between sets and to future connections among the musicians.
Beyond that, XFest does indeed produce great music, and lots of it. Many already very good performers rise above themselves, challenged by newness. Discoveries in sound and sense abound. Everything in some way contributes toward a whole that works, beyond even the music, revitalizing a community and metropolis.
The whole that was XFest 2010 consisted in a series of sets in long strings, a half-hour apiece, one appearing on the heels of the next, with time for participants and audience to mingle. Each set featured a guest performer from out of town, accompanied by Boston-area musicians who for the most part also had not performed together, taking place on Friday evening, February 26, and Saturday afternoon and evening, with established groups playing on Sunday.
Friday evening, February 26
The first guest, trumpeter Gordon Allen of Montreal, Quebec, set the tone blowing creatively in a restricted register, as part of an offbeat quartet featuring Mitch Ahern on a homemade instrumenta 1950s era washing-machine door attached to a quasi-fret board with electronic controls attached to it. Ahern colored in an understated background for Allen. Josh Baker played a bicycle wheel, with various sticks. Claire Elizabeth Barratt achieved unique equipoise between executing ballet steps and wielding a cello. Both reinterpreted Allen's steady, airy lyricism with alternating outbreaks of percussion and sonority. The piece had an air of stillness, almost of timelessness, except that that very force of will giving it that feel ultimately pushed it toward an even more satisfying resolution.
Equally satisfying, the next quartet, featuring the stunning Audrey Chen on cello and Joshua Jefferson on alto saxwaxed by contrast raucous, funky and provocative. Karlheinz, on electronics and Set Bailin on drums rounded off the unit. They tended to pound the beat too hard but, to be fair, they laid down the groove to begin with. Chen duly overpowered them at one point with a kind of primal scream, which was a cue to Jefferson to mount a madly heroic attack on sax of his own. It is this type of drama that is often the most by turns gripping and amusing in the festival.
A trio with Lou Cohen on laptop, Karen Langlie on cello and electronics, and Mark Dwinell on monochord had an ethereal, kosmiche feel to it. As Cohen is highly versed in classical theory it is tempting to speculate on the development of the piece on a technical levelthough it is probably best just to take in the meditative, warm chill of such layer upon layer of drone breaking out one beneath the other.
Katt Hernandez is a master of microtonal music, having studied with Joe Maneri. In her duet with Max Lord on electronics, she started with an almost crying-like voice sound on her violin, segueing into some classical improvisation and then into a childlike, distorted folk melody. At times she would mime Lord's electronic static. Eventually, thoughand rightlyLord let her have the day and she broke out in what was by and large a solo of her glorious, free-for-all multi-directionality.
The great highlight of Friday night was the face-off between multi-reedists Ras Moshe and Steve Norton, with Dave Miller on drums. Moshe started out on flute with Norton on bass clarinet, calmly paying homage to Eric Dolphy, for whom those instruments were signature. Then Moshe picked up his tenor and unabashedly pounded out his grand Coltranisms, drawn from late-period laments and spirituals. Moshe is a true power player, in contrast to the diaphanous Norton, who had picked up soprano. It almost appeared that Moshe wasn't listening; then Norton started pushing more melodically charged sheets of sound of his own, and Moshe piped down and joined him in a pensive dialogue to end the number. It was like watching two mighty crosscurrents finally meeting in harmonious flow.