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Creative Music Studio Spring Workshop 2017

Martin Longley By

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Creative Music Studio Spring Workshop 2017
Full Moon Resort
Big Indian, NY
June 12-15, 2017

There are multiple facets to the lengthy, imaginative musical journey of Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso. Together with Ornette Coleman, they founded the Creative Music Studio and Foundation in 1971. Their old Woodstock wilderness lodge soon attracted a rolling cast of significant artists, frequently performing in permutations that wouldn't be heard elsewhere. Over the decades, Berger (piano, vibraphone) and Sertso (voice) have devoted themselves to the transmission of their long accumulated concepts of improvisation, and its potential organisation via instant composition, as this process might sometimes be termed.

Besides being a leading instrumentalist, composer and arranger, Berger is a highly skilled, decisive and dynamic conductor, employing his personal system of real-time prompts, and smearing the perimeters around improvisation and composition. The CMS operates regular workshop sessions, convening in recent years at the Full Moon resort, up in Big Indian, which is not too far from Woodstock.

Opening Concert, Monday 12th June

The opening Monday night concert of the spring workshop displayed the talents of its guiding artists, playing together in various permutations. It's an initial demonstration of where each player stands, musically, prior to the masterclasses and collective tuition that will follow over the course of the next three days. Full Moon, in the Catskill Mountains, is a secluded encampment of natural quiet, a wilderness haven for the arts, with a particular attention paid to music camps. The Full Moon folks also handled catering for the recent Mountain Jam festival, and will be hosting a King Crimson camp to tie in with the soon-coming tour by those English prog rock leviathans.

The guiding artists and around 25 workshop participants gathered in the Full Moon reception, everyone introducing themselves, and giving a brief background to their journey towards improvisation. Dinner followed in the converted barn, which was to also serve as the ample space for the week's coming masterclasses. Around 8pm, all of the assembled ambled up the hill to the Roadhouse. This is Full Moon's dedicated venue, complete with bar, stage and in-house sound system.

The Chinese pipa player Min Xiao-Fen played solo at first, with a release of pent-up energy, contrasting the often dignified and gentle nature of this instrument with a forceful approach that's immersed in free improvisation and Delta blues traditions. It's a strikingly aggressive attack, loaded with bent and sliding notes, her palms sometimes spread flat to encompass the maximum number of strings on the pipa's broad neck. She makes sudden switches of gear, from a driving thrash, into spidering clusters.

The New York bassist Ken Filiano and the Mexican guitarist Omar Tamez begin with soft, granular bowing and agitated picking. Filiano periodically raises an interest in effects pedals (even though most of his gigs feature a purer bass sound), and he's using these foot-triggerers here, whilst Tamez calls to mind the pliant sound of James Blood Ulmer. Filiano and Tamez are soon heading towards a straight-running momentum. This duo becomes a quartet, as Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso enter, the former implying a South African sound on piano keyboard, the latter flitting between words and scat. Sertso brings in a narrative sense, something that will frequently govern the structure of the following pieces. She might be considering calling their first improvisation "Dance With Life," a developing phrase in the piece.

There's a further expansion, as tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and drummer Warren Smith come onstage, with Berger moving across to the vibraphone. A classic Blue Note-ed character moves the music closer to the jazz mainline, with Smith playing on a straight drum-kit, although augmented by an extra floor-tom. Mostly, when he's found playing in NYC, Smith favours an expanded tympani set-up. Berger's solo mixes open resonance with curtailed strikes, developing a freer nature. "When will the blues leave? Never!," declaims Sertso, as this Ornette Coleman tune concludes.

Continuing, Smith produces an abstract clatter, and Apfelbaum leads a rugged take-off, Tamez making scything strikes, edged with decorative details, and coming close to a Vietnamese microtonality. The evening's most unusual line-up featured Min Xiao Fen, Tom Tedesco (tabla), along with Berger and Filiano. Min also vocalised, her immense energy setting off a flash of communal fire amongst her partners. This was improvisation with tension, release, heightened empathy and fine detail.

Masterclasses & Workshop Sessions, Tuesday 13th June

During her vocal/tuning awareness session, Ingrid Sertso is talking about being inspired by working with the recently departed Pauline Oliveros: "Use your speaking voice," she instructs her gathering of vocalists, in a circle of drone, naturally finding many levels of tone. Even though most of these participants are not professional singers, no one sounds 'out of tune,' as the cluster gravitates towards a strata of sonic suspension. Then, Sertso vocalises across the top of their layers, or perhaps sideways. There's a very Eastern sensibility to this approach, although 'east' can stretch from Tibetan and Tuvan lands, coming back through to the Balkans. The circle gets tighter, the act of standing closer tending to intensify the resultant sound. It's a kind of organic mathematics, beginning to sound like a Ligeti or Stockhausen vocal work.

"Thinking is too slow for music," says Karl Berger. "Go for what you like, instantly, bringing in the sound that's all around you, it's amazing how the sound comes in..."

Warren Smith is down by the gulch, preparing for multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum's masterclass, taking place soon, up in the barn. The first part of multi-instrumentalist Apfelbaum's masterclass begins with him distributing word- sheets, to be used later in the proceedings. He's talking about the scale as a foundation, either as something to harmonise with, or alternatively, scrape against. As he constructs the ranks, delivering their duties, Apfelbaum introduces the comparison with a Jamaican dub reggae wizard, bringing up the fader on sonic action that is already underway. He instantaneously cues either individuals or spontaneously created groups to rise up, or slip away in the collective spread. He prompts them to enter suddenly, or creep in softly, and incrementally, then he turns his attention to the percussionists, asking them to play busily, but imagining that they're way off in the distance, much quieter than usual.

Finally, he adds a loping funk drumbeat. The participants might feel like they're caught in the midst of an efficient and hard-working LA studio recording session, perhaps for a movie soundtrack. Apfelbaum is a master communicator, actively open to accident and spontaneity, but with a very precise idea of a battle plan. He has the knack of giving instructions, but making them seem like suggestions. He's not locked into his own advance playing: if he hears a player straying, Apfelbaum might decide that they're worth following.He instructs everyone to commune with the barn's ambient sound, even its air conditioning. "We'll leave some daylight for that phrase," he suggests. "I want that part to sound completely inhuman!"

After all this swift construction, it's time to introduce some solos, at the same time as building a bridge section. The players have an impressive capacity to memorise their leader's repeating patterns and involved passage-shifts. Apfelbaum wants the bridge to be looped, in human fashion, with a flexibility for content, but also requiring a dogged repeat, once the content has been decided.

After a break for lunch, the second part of the masterclass has Apfelbaum moving to the drumkit. His chief instrument is the tenor saxophone, but he's also pretty hot on keyboards and drums. Apfelbaum is breaking down the percussion into separate parts, and this is where reeds specialist Lee Odom (from NYC) solos on soprano saxophone, scooting around with a supple ease, magnifying the excitement of the section. Next, Apfelbaum wants to work on a mostly vocal ensemble sequence, as a prelude to inserting the content of the lyric sheets. Part of this involves a reading of In The Beginning, a poem by Dylan Thomas, tackled by three vocalists: Charles Ver Straeten, Roberta Lawrence and Mary Enid Haines. All of these constituent parts are eventually melded, even though they might seem ungainly in their mass. Apfelbaum has everything under control, though, with his remarkable ability to shape and direct all of these talented artists.

In an unusual move, Apfelbaum's next step is to work on an arrangement of Prince's "Sometimes It Snows In April," as the rain begins pattering on the barn-roof, in June. This selection perfectly illustrates the wide range of sources for improvisation to be found during a CMS workshop. For the last 30 minutes of his masterclass, Apfelbaum constructs a complete arrangement, working with his usual speedy decisiveness. He guides the song towards an easy gliding motion, switching to the keyboards, as trumpeter Steven Bernstein arrives to coincide with the latest downpour outside. He's a veteran attendee at CMS workshops for the last four decades, with him (15 years old) and Apfelbaum (16 years old) first making their pilgrimage from Berkeley in 1977. Both of them (along with percussionist Billy Martin) are now associate artistic directors with CMS.

Berger's daily session begins with a call for the horn players to have ears open for the entire spread of sound, not just their own contribution. Then, all of the ensemble's instruments become a part of the palette. He prompts single stabs, followed by sustained smears. Bernstein starts completely solo, and the orchestra awakens into a fiercely up-tempo number. The music, and Berger himself, lift off, as he stands up, getting right up close to players as he urges them on with detailed hand-gestures, directly addressing the horns. Berger is in control, but he's also facilitating individual expression, within the structural guidelines that he's built.

Evening Concert, Tuesday 13th June

The evening's first grouping features Berger, Sertso, Smith, Tamez, Filiano, Bernstein, Apfelbaum and the newly-arrived Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola. They weave a winding tale, and the music is suitably filmic in character, as Bernstein rips into a flaring slide trumpet solo. Besides this display, most of the orientation is towards an ensemble nature, creating a levelled group sound. Smith and Filiano begin the next piece, with the latter using a wah-wah pedal to contort his sound, the rest of the players now weighing in with a be-bopped momentum. Kalmanovitch takes a swooping solo, richly embellishing, and the mischievous Bernstein/Apfelbaum team trade curt phrases, in the old school manner. It's the typical equality of jazz language presented throughout this workshop's span, embracing jazz tradition as well as the more wayward extremes of free improvisation, with frequent exploration of global ethnic forms. Berger moves to the vibes, adopting a lightly stippling touch, in a duet with a visiting Spanish guitarist, Alvaro Domene, who has recently settled in the Hudson Valley area. The combination benefits from a taut dynamism, particularly during their second number.

Masterclasses & Workshop Sessions, Wednesday 14th June
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