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Edgefest 2017: Give the Drummers Some, Part 2-2

Troy Dostert By

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Part 1 | Part 2

Edgefest
Ann Arbor, MI
October 20-21, 2017

On the last two days of the festival, the Edgefest audience was treated to even more of the eclectic, explorative music that was present in abundance on Wednesday and Thursday.

Edgefest-goers who were able to attend the early-evening performance of Ben Goldberg's "Invisible Guy" trio experienced Goldberg's distinctive combination of technical brilliance and imaginative, boundary- stretching work on clarinet. With his partners, drummer Hamir Atwal and pianist/keyboardist Michael Coleman, Goldberg presented music that had one foot in the tradition and the other in a stranger, more amorphous realm. After pacing the stage while unfolding a lovely version of "Abide With Me," Goldberg dug in on dynamic interactions with Coleman and Atwal—interactions that became increasingly intriguing once Coleman switched from piano to keyboards. Working with a Fender Rhodes and a synthesizer, sometimes simultaneously and with a host of effects to process the sound, Coleman added keyboard textures reminiscent of '70s fusion while ultimately moving beyond category altogether. When locked in on hypnotic, swirling ostinato phrases, the group kept a tenacious groove going (thanks in no small part to Atwal's unwavering support) while avoiding clichés and obvious reference points. Whether deftly interpreting a couple of Steve Lacy pieces or unveiling their own material, these musicians cast a captivating spell.

Edgefest veteran Tom Rainey brought his own band this year, in contrast to his many previous sideman appearances at the festival, and it was a terrific set, with tenor/soprano saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson rounding out the trio. Within the first few minutes the group hit an early peak of intensity, with Halvorson's churning chords and Laubrock's repeated figures creating a stirring effect, helped in no small measure by Rainey's formidable pummeling of his kit—with brushes, no less! While the group had its moments of relative calm—Laubrock in particular is fond of exploring timbre and texture during her more ruminative moments, and Halvorson has a beautiful tone when teasing out less-frantic phrases—it was without question at its most gripping when going all-out. These musicians know each other remarkably well, as their transitions within the pieces were crisp and decisive, and they communicated intuitively throughout the set. A well-oiled machine, to be sure.

Drummer Andrew Drury had a busy week at Edgefest as he partnered with Joe McPhee on some workshops with local middle school students, but fortunately he had plenty of his trademark spirit and engaging humor left for Friday's performance with his band, Content Provider. With Laubrock staying on stage to partner with fiery alto saxophonist Briggan Krauss and the uniquely creative Brandon Seabrook on guitar, the group was determined to make music that could cover the spectrum of improvisation, with rich, Mingus-like heads gradually devolving into much more open and unhinged spontaneity. Seabrook's punk-meets-jazz aesthetic works wonderfully with this band, with jagged shards of notes flying off of his guitar, and Drury did more than enough to keep things interesting, whether climbing out from behind the kit to direct the band with manic gestures or blowing on bells to turn his drums (and tympani) into wind instruments. An entertaining set with an anything-goes aspect, the band kept the crowd enthused for the duration.

Friday's headliners were Larry Ochs's Fictive Five. Although the group usually appears in a two- bass quintet format, with Pascal Niggenkemper alongside Ken Filiano, it was just Filiano on Friday; even so, the group stuck with the "Fictive Five" moniker for the performance, which was a fitting culmination to a night of exceptional creativity. Tenor/sopranino saxophonist Ochs is an Edgefest stalwart, having appeared at the festival many times over the years, and he obviously felt right at home in leading his group through a wide-ranging set of music that highlighted his complex compositions but left plenty of room for top-flight improvisation. With a stellar line-up that includes Nate Wooley on trumpet and Harris Eisenstadt on drums in addition to Ochs and Filiano, this band can do anything it wants. There was ferocity galore, as Ochs can take his horn into the stratosphere at the drop of a hat (and Wooley's no slouch in that regard, either); but perhaps the most stimulating moments were the more subdued ones, in which the group slowed things down and generated a more mysterious mood. Wooley's hallmark extended techniques ensured that texture was a crucial component of the group's sound, and Filiano's multifaceted creativity allowed the bass to become an essential feature of the band's musicality. Not to be ignored was the outstanding drum work of Eisenstadt, whose waves of percussive momentum were pivotal in negotiating the fluidity of Ochs's compositions. A challenging, expertly-played set of music, as one can always expect from musicians of this caliber.

Saturday's programming at Edgefest is truly an all-day affair, starting with the community parade that winds its way down North Fourth Avenue at noon. This year's parade was bigger than ever, helped in part by the gorgeous, unseasonably warm weather. With close to 100 middle-school students leading the way under the unflappable guidance of Andrew Drury and with many Edgefest attendees and other members of the community joining in, the parade honored the 100th birthday of Dizzy Gillespie by playing and singing "Happy Birthday, Dizzy Gillespie" to the melody of his classic "Manteca." Drury connected wonderfully with the students, and it truly brought the spirit of jazz into the community, an ideal way to celebrate the birth of one of jazz's greatest ambassadors.

The afternoon's programming was varied and engaging, starting with Detroit-based drummer GayeLynn McKinney's duo with electronic percussionist Ken Kozora. With a battery of electronic instruments and effects, Kozora brought a highly musical sensibility to his playing, whether in an abstract vein or in cranking out some Herbie Hancock-inspired funk. McKinney's versatility allowed her to stay in close communication with Kozora throughout the set, always keeping the beat at the center. Special guests made an appearance as well, with Michael G. Nastos providing a poem dedicated to the entire spectrum of Detroit drummers—everyone from J.C. Heard to Elvin Jones—and then Piotr Michalowski bringing out the bass clarinet for some sparring with Kozora on trumpet. A very enjoyable set, one that paved the way for the fireworks that followed from the Oluyemi Thomas Trio.

Fittingly for a festival dedicated to the drum, and in keeping with Nastos's Detroit homage, native Detroiter Thomas brought two Detroit-based drummers to the stage with him: Djallo Djakate Kieta and Kurt Prisbe. Reminiscent of the days of raw energy music from the 60s avant-garde, Thomas brought jaw-dropping intensity to his bass clarinet and tenor saxophone, and he used a range of other woodwinds to enhance the scope of his performance. One could feel the way in which the drummers' collective force gathered steam behind Thomas's tumultuous flights, and just when the intensity seemed at its highest, Thomas's brother Kenn scampered across the stage for a turn at the piano, pounding the keys with abandon. Kenn Thomas is well-known to Southeast Michigan jazz fans as he's a resident of Ann Arbor, but his appearance at the festival was a surprise that delighted the audience with the additional gale- force power he brought to the music. For its sheer elemental force, this group's performance was tough to top.

Trombonist Steve Swell made his second appearance at the festival late Saturday afternoon with a set by his Soul Travelers group. With an all-star lineup including Dave Burrell on piano, Ken Filiano on bass, Jemeel Moondoc on alto sax and Gerald Cleaver on drums, Swell's music made plenty of room for improvisational freedom within some air-tight grooves. Cleaver's steady, driving pulse was essential, and it contrasted nicely with Burrell's characteristically oblique chordal clusters, while Swell and Moondoc dueled with each other over Filiano's nimble bass patterns. Unlike Swell's relatively subdued performance with Joe McPhee and Dick Griffin Wednesday night, he brought a high-octane approach to Saturday's show, putting his whole body into his solos and generating torrents of notes. Although unanticipated surgery prevented William Parker from joining the band for this gig, he was there in spirit, as the group played one of his pieces dedicated to Arthur Williams, a trumpeter who played with Parker and Moondoc in the early days of the avant-garde. At a more languid tempo, this piece brought out a more reflective mood from the group. But the strong, surging groove that characterized the set as a whole returned definitively for the last piece, and between Swell and Moondoc's careening exchanges and Burrell's furious assault on the keys, one was reminded of what a creative-jazz "superband" can accomplish.

Demonstrating both his creativity and seemingly limitless stamina, Andrew Drury was back in action Saturday evening, this time heading a thirteen-piece ensemble comprised of University of Michigan students and faculty for a special performance down the street at Bethlehem United Church of Christ. Drury teamed with U of M professor Mark Kirschenmann to explore ways of harnessing the power of improvisation with a larger group, and the results were intriguing and, at times, moving. With a sprawling, 45-minute piece that included a wide range of instruments including organ, bassoons, and lots of diverse percussion in addition to conventional jazz instrumentation, the ensemble wound its way through ambient passages, bracing atonal onslaughts, and even a swinging reference to "Manteca." Drury directed some of the traffic, but much of the performance seemed to proceed according to its own open-ended logic. With moments of cacophony juxtaposed with eerie beauty, the piece offered ample rewards to Edgefest attendees who made the several-block trek to the church to hear such an imaginative display of improvisation.

The last couple performances of the festival were yet more examples of the superlative array of percussionists and drummers on offer this year. Both utilized two-drummer line-ups, starting with Adam Rudolph's Moving Pictures band. Teamed with the inimitable Hamid Drake, Rudolph brought his usual arsenal of assorted percussion and electronic effects, and even played a sintir (a camel-skinned three-string instrument common in North Africa) for a couple pieces. Joined by Ralph Miles Jones on an array of wind instruments, Kenny Wessell on electric guitar, keyboardist Alexis Marcello and bassist Damon Banks, Rudolph's band played what could best be termed "avant-garde world music." With irrepressible grooves, the musicians explored a lot of stylistic terrain, drawing from a host of musical traditions while creating something all their own. Drake and Rudolph complemented each other perfectly, with Drake's shape-shifting drum patterns and Rudolph's nonstop creativity generating a rich rhythmic synergy.

Finally, and not to be outdone, the two-drum lineup in Tomas Fujiwara's Triple Double anchored one of the festival's most riveting performances, timed perfectly to coincide with the release of the band's self- titled debut album the day before. The group uses an intriguing sextet concept premised on divisions into twos and threes: with duos involving drummers (Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver), guitarists (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and horn players (Taylor Ho Bynum—cornet; Dave Ballou—trumpet), the group can also be envisioned as two trios, with Fujiwara's longtime colleagues able to assume different configurations within each piece as it unfolds. Dave Ballou replaced Ralph Alessi for this performance, but he fit in nicely with the band's vibe, which is a heady mixture of lyrical ensemble parts with dense layers of sound: the former spearheaded by Ballou and Bynum, the latter provided by the guitars and drums. But that's an oversimplification, as each instrument could at times assume the forefront of the music. Fujiwara's compositions have an organic logic with surprising twists and turns that still make eminent sense, and the music is by turns subtly beautiful and fiercely aggressive. Remarkably, despite each having a dynamic personality behind the kit, Fujiwara and Cleaver mesh seamlessly in their percussive rapport, and the entire band feeds off of the collective energy they create. There could be no better way to end a drummers' festival than with the music this group provided.

With programming that gets stronger with each passing year, it's clear that Edgefest will continue to set a very high standard for improvised music and creative jazz long into the future. Stay tuned for October 2018, when the festival promises to highlight the best of the current Chicago creative music scene.

Photo credit: Frank Rubolino

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