Fire in the Valley Festival Unitarian House Amherst, MA October 16, 1999
Fire in the Valley is a compressed intensive on creativity that crams a huge array of innovative talent into the space of one day of exhaustive performances. Held in the college town of Amherst in western Massachusetts, the festival has grown in its four years to a point where it draws the cognoscenti from all across the USA. Five superb acts were again presented this year as producer Michael Ehlers gathered the right mix of artistry to reward the knowledgeable crowd with numerous highs and a remarkable absence of lows.
Lisle Ellis, bass; Marco Eneidi, alto; Donald Robinson, drums; Niko Eneidi, trumpet.
Ellis and his regular trio began with a round robin of improvisation. Eneidi, Robinson, and Ellis took turns generating highly spirited solos. Ellis worked the full range of the bass in frantic style, Robinson exhibited an expression of tender pain as he delicately set the atonal rhythm stage, and Eneidi was alternately mournful or volatile in exploring outer space on alto. Robinson initially concentrated on brushes and padded sticks and built the tension to boiling point as his aggressiveness became more obvious. Watching Ellis is a delight. He dexterously manipulates the bass, displaying lightning-fast fingering while sculpting intricate lines in keeping with his spontaneous freeform nature. The band was most dynamic in the collective improvising gear when each listened and responded to the happenings to develop an aura of glorious cacophony. A surprise addition was trumpeter Niko Eneidi. The 13-year old son of Marco played a short, broken line solo of sputtered sound to the accompaniment of Ellis and Robinson and then his father. He is following his dad's example quite nicely. This exhilarating set was a dynamic prelude to the entire day's fare.
Test: Tom Bruno, drums; Daniel Carter, trumpet, reeds; Matt Heyner, bass; Sabir Mateen, reeds.
Sheer energy is the product of Test. Sitting center stage, Bruno had everyone's adrenaline flowing while priming Carter and Mateen for ignition. The two hornmen began as a trumpet / clarinet duo, creating a quieter mystique with somewhat cerebral blowing in the John Carter / Bobby Bradford tradition. Then they began switching to their many other instruments and the mood changed accordingly as they bounced improvised thoughts off each other. With Mateen on alto clarinet, flute, or a double wooden flute, the power source seemed centered on Carter, but as Mateen upgraded to tenor and alto, the intensity shifted and exploded in a display of mutual musical ferocity. The set effectively built from quiet tones to euphoric high-tension group improvisation. An eruption of volcanic ash streamed downhill from Carter's tenor and was met in kind from Mateen. Meanwhile, Bruno and Heyner were going wire to wire with non-stop propulsion. Test took the audience on a wild ride of volatile excitement that never abateed once it shifted into high gear. They played with power and keep the throttle open until the end.
Alan Silva, bass; Oluyemi Thomas, reeds, small percussion.
A very intimate duet of contained intensity resulted from the union of Silva and Thomas. Silva intently and almost exclusively concentrated on arco playing while Thomas explored involved patterns of atonality on the bass clarinet. Thomas also was absolutely exquisite blowing flute, musette, and c melody alto in addition to clanging a number of small rhythm mood setters. His playing had a hypnotic effect of the audience that was emphasized by the mood set by Silva's bowing. Reverent tranquility descended with music that contained a highly spiritual quality. Spiritualism truly did abound as the afternoon sun set and the room descended deeper and deeper into darkness that sustained the mystique inherent in the playing. Thomas encouraged the séance with finger bells and tiny gongs while Silva continued in bowed fashion as though offering a solemn prayer. The program concluded with Silva switching to pizzicato style, but this did not disrupt the ghosts present in the now fully darkened room and stage. Although the tones were hushed, the beauty of the performance permeated the environment and entranced the audience.
Many Rings Quartet: Joe Morris, guitar; Karen Borca, bassoon; Rob Brown, alto; Andrea Parkins, accordion.
The very unusual instrumentation of guitar, bassoon, accordion, and alto produced music just as unusual. Never getting violent, the quartet moved linearly with improvised spontaneity and subdued dynamics. Morris was extremely creative as he coaxed a stream of intricately crafted lines from his guitar while Borca established the bass line with low-toned randomness from the less-forceful bassoon. Parkins maintained a steady pattern of non-patterned squeezes as she wildly mashed the accordion folds. Brown soared above the scene in low orbit. Their effort was a true collective with each contributing to the complex collage being blended through their playing. Only when Brown broke away from the pack did the dynamics switch to near aggressiveness. While far from serene, the quartet's output contained a steady flow of coiled interplay that maintained the temperature within their specified range. The set avoided extremes of intensity but provided a consistent challenge with each player adding substantially to the elaborate intercommunication.
Alan Silva, keyboard; Marshall Allen, reeds; William Parker, bass.
Silva's synthesized sounds spun around Allen's shrills and Parker's drone to produce a set of eerie music that was at odds with convention. Allen shrieked wildly with rapid fire blowing to the space-age tones generated by Silva's electronic toys. Allen also played flute in less volatile but still space age compatibility. Balancing the unusual mix in tonality was Parker, who set a bass line that added stability in a freeform way. Allen was highly innovative as he responded to the synthesized ocean that washed in waves from Silva's hands. The hour-long exploration of the galaxies moved from mesmerizing quietude to fully explosive bedlam and back again as crescendi were reached and re-reached. The band went into several black holes and emerged unscathed to fly repeatedly. Silva talked about taking music into the next century. He made great strides in that effort with this electronically infused set.
Fire in the Valley is a unique festival. Within the space of one very full and fulfilling day, a vast amount of creative improvised music germinates from a stellar cast of artisans. The environment is conducive to such creativity, and the fans came away from the event enriched by the experience. I am sure the musicians felt equally satisfied.
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