Dana Reason Trio: Bellingham, Washington July 24, 2010

Michael Boyce By

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Dana Reason Trio
The Amadeus Project
Bellingham, Washington
July 24, 2010

The Dana Reason Trio's recent Angle of Vision Tour performance in Bellingham, Washington consisted mostly of new material, which they were preparing to record a couple of days later at Wild Rose Artists' Studio in Oregon.

Dana Reason has an accomplished background as both a classical and avant-garde composer and pianist, working and recording with such musicians as Cecil Taylor, Pauline Oliveros, George Lewis, Lilse Ellis and Joëlle Léandre. Reason has played in the past in a variety of configurations, some of which have been in a more abstract, experimental vein, but she's also played in the context of a gypsy swing orchestra and comping for a jazz chanteuse. This new Trio, however, presented her work in a unique way. Her composition and performance have evolved to embrace the full spectrum of her diverse background, resulting in a hybrid of styles including East Coast/West Coast jazz, Cuban music, classical music from the Romantic period, world music, and contemporary classical avant-garde music. On paper, this might seem odd or difficult to manage, but it sounded quite alluring. This was not the sort of music that only a musician could understand, and was lush, rich, romantic and complex; evincing a delicate balance between musicality and artistic conception.

Naturally, the success of her aesthetic approach is partly dependent upon who she is playing with, and she has chosen very well in this regard. The Trio, also including bassist Glen Moore (Art Pepper, Carla Bley, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Oregon) and drummer Peter Valsamis (Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Marco Eneidi, challenged the usual expectations for jazz trio arrangements. Rather than bass and drums being configured as a traditional rhythm section, which normally provides general support for the lyrical instrument while taking the odd feature solo, Reason's arrangements encouraged her trio to play as a small orchestral unit, making for a much more dynamic correspondence between musical elements.

Of course, there were solos, and the other players did support them, but they did so with an attention to the total sense of the piece. There wasn't the feeling that the soloist had gone off on his/her own trip, leaving the others to keep the business running while out having fun. Such departures in more typical settings, framed as displays of virtuosity, can be very entertaining, but the members of Reason's trio were able to show such virtuosity without leaving their partners behind. Moore also contributed one of his pieces, "Nightclub Skin," and the relationship between the three players here was consistent with the rest of the material; the dialogue continued, regardless of who began it, so to speak.

Dialogue is very important to Reason's artistic approach, and she included the audience as part of the discussion. The Trio's approach to each individual's playing addressed the audience's experience to keep it situated in the context of the total piece. This sort of inclusion allowed for an overarching sense of totality, of grand narrative, such as might be experienced from 19th century orchestral music (i.e., Romanticism). Indeed, the overall feeling of the music over the course of the evening was, broadly speaking, romantic. Not in the sense of insipid background dinner music (and not that there's anything wrong with that), but rather in the sense of emotional and inspirational drama and narrative. This might seem a bit unusual in the context of a jazz trio, but nevertheless, the Trio managed to blend these elements, while still also evoking and exploring the qualities typical of contemporary jazz: music with a modern sense of progress; of the flow of forward movement and innovation; and which is joyfully unrestrained. It would be very interesting to see dance choreographed to this music.

Reason also related stories to the audience about her sources or inspirations, before performing some of the works, which definitely added to the experience. Still, even though these stories provided rich background, and gave a good sense of Reason's interests and passions, they were not required in order to understand what the pieces were exploring conceptually, because the aesthetic, musical and conceptual exploration ultimately took the same form—the music itself.

Often, the artistic ideas informing musicians' works remain unapparent or not evident, without explanation by the artist or through critical review, but this was not the case with Reason's work. This is because the dynamic relationship between approaches—whether improvisational or compositional—was explored by Reason not just conceptually, but actually right before the audience's ears, so to speak. The Trio performed three pieces that night, which specifically demonstrated this. Each of these three pieces spawned from work by other composers: "Drei Romanzen, Opus 21," by Clara Schumann (Dedicated to Johannes Brahms 1853); "Adiós Nonino," a Tango by Astor Piazzolla (Dedicated to his dead father, 1959); and "Unmarked," by Allison Johnson (Dedicated to Bridget 'Biddy' Mason—a 19th Century African-American liberated slave, nurse, California real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist, 2008/2009).

Each piece contained the music of the original composer as an opening statement or query in a musical dialogue, and then Reason responded with her own musical extensions, elaborations, and even challenges (resolving Clara Schumann's "Opus," for instance, in A+ rather than A minor, as the original did, to dispel some of the gloom and suggest more optimism for contemporary female composers). With Piazolla's Tango, she replied with a "Paris Tango," reviving the fiery elements of the dance for the living. In the case of "Unmarked," there was a more direct collaboration with Johnson. Reason has a general commitment to playing the music of female composers, both dead and alive, and so she went to Johnson as a living composer whose work she greatly admires and respects, and asked the composer if she would allow her to write a second section for it, to which Johnson agreed. Reason's response used the extra voices of bass and drums to make a counterpoint, adding movement to the somber quality of the piano voices. There were tragic elements to the life of Biddy Mason that were highlighted in Johnson's tribute, and it was as if Reason was saying, "Yes, I agree with you about that, but it is also important to show the energy and power in this woman's incredible life."

Each of these dialogues were tributes, and they were also, in a sense, tributaries— which is to say, as rivers that run from a main body of water, so Reason's musical exchanges with other artists run in different, yet related directions. In one way, this is akin to the approach of jazz in the 1950s, which worked extensively with pieces of popular music from the '30s and '40s by the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, playing the choruses of known songs in order to orient, or ground the attention, so as to better understand the jazz musician's individual interpretations and departures from the familiar. But in another way, this approach seeks to maintain the distinct separate character of the different voices. This is a very interesting approach. It is at once a tribute and a departure. It is a reply that is both in deference to and in difference from her interlocutor. Of course, in the case of her performance even though the original music was there, it was arranged in the context of the Reason's Trio, which in itself transformed it, enfolding it into the conversation as a thing in itself, a third overarching element beyond the two voices—which is to say that, by extension, it also enfolded and absorbed her own voice into the grand narrative that went beyond them all.

Overall, it was quite an accomplishment to compose and perform music that was aesthetically and conceptually meaningful while, at the same time, being a rich and moving experience for her audience. Reason's recording of this material will be eagerly awaited.
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