The Jamie Baum Septet
Houghton Memorial Chapel, Wellesley College
September 19, 2008
Flutist-composer Jamie Baum and her septet presented a striking contrast to the imposing Gothic Revival Chapel at Wellesley College, the setting for the ensemble's Friday night performance. The concert was one stop in a tour celebrating Baum's recent release, Solace (Sunnyside), on which the septet is augmented by a few additional musicians. All of the evening's selections were Baum compositions, all but two appearing on Solace.
Marking the group's ten-year anniversary, the current personnel of the septet (several of whom are original members) are all first-rate, respected performers: Baum on C (standard) flute and alto flute, Taylor Haskins on trumpet, Douglas Yates on alto sax and bass clarinet, Chris Komer on French horn, George Colligan on piano, Johannes Wiedenmueller on bass, and Jeff Hirschfield on drums.
The concert opened with the vigorous, up-tempo "Spring Rounds," recorded on Baum's release Moving Forward, Standing Still (OmniTone, 2004). This full-throttle rendition of a dance, from Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, featured multiple melodic threads and a bracing rhythm section, with most of the solo work, as was the case throughout the concert, going to Baum and Colligan.
The septet followed with the tightly composed "Wheeler of Fortune." Explaining that the inspiration for the work was venerable trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler, Baum sensitively mixed color and timbre in a rich blend, from which the high-register instrumentsflute and trumpetemerged organically.
Baum's solo was outstanding on the evocative "Pine Creek," which aurally described the view from a window in her parents' home. Piano and bass played a simple but syncopated, repeated figure in a quick 5/8 meter with a strong accent on beat 3, suggestive of the creek's steady roll. Above it, the horns played a jagged melody, evoking the imagery of crosscurrents and light glinting on the water's surface. The melody was in the dominant key, which created bitonal tension. Colligan played an animated solo in a modal style that built to dazzling runs and rebounding chords.
Baum favors the lower part of the C flute's range, so it's natural that she often plays the alto flute, pitched a fourth below and with a fatter sound in its lower range. The instrument was featured in the compelling "Inner Voices" which, though as yet unavailable on recording, was clearly a project of special interest to the composer. She explained that she composed it for performance in a New York City museum dedicated to Asian art of a spiritual nature. But when the museum unexpectedly closed the exhibit that was to be the subject of the composition, Baum instead took her inspiration from her walk to the museum. "Inner Voices" started quietly and gradually intensified in texture and mood, somewhat in the manner of Ravel's Bolero. On the surface, it sounded like the walker was encountering an increasing volume of overlapping sounds of traffic and other activity on the street, the whole resonating with the interplay of sound and movement, leading climactically to the entrance of the alto flute. Baum took an impassioned solo, intensified by the electronic doubling of the flute an octave lower.
"Solace" was a well-shaped melody employing conversational phrasing overlaying a straight-eighth, Latin rhythmic undercurrent that emerged at the end to change the mood from slightly melancholic to optimistic. Harmonic movement was minimal, and the melody, with its suggestion of Dorian mode, was haunting.
"Dave's Idea" started off sounding like a hymn with simple harmonies and conversational phrasing, ultimately developing into an up-tempo jazz number. Baum explained that the title came from her initially wondering whether she'd inadvertently borrowed the motif from a melody by a colleague named Dave; she later decided she hadn't, but kept the title anyway. This listener found the tune's changes and form refreshingly reminiscent of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps."
The evening closed with the rollicking "Answers Unquestioned." Baum composed it as the last movement of her Ives Suite, commissioned to reflect the music of groundbreaking American composer Charles Ives. She cited particular interest in two of Ives's worksThe Unanswered Question and Symphony No. 4but explained that she sought to embody the spirit rather than actual compositions of Ives. In the selected movement, each horn plays its own cyclical, dissonant melodic figure, rather high-pitched, and everyone takes a solo. "Answers Unquestioned" only hints at the depth and complexity of the entire suite, which is included on Solace.
Ives was an independent innovator whose music featured the juxtaposition of opposites and the resultant tensions, few of which are resolvable in a ready or apparent manner. That kind of subtlety and depth could be heard throughout this evening of Baum's music.