Three Things To Say
Magic Triangle Series
Bezanson Recital Hall, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
March 26, 2009
Originally conceived by artist and musician, Terry Jenoure, the group Three Things to Say gave its premiere performance at Bezanson Recital Hall at UMass Amherst, the second of three concerts of the annual Magic Triangle Series. Jenoure's motivation behind forming this group of violinists, including Billy Bang and Charles Burnham, was to pay tribute to their collective mentor, Chicagoan, composer, violist, violinist, member of the AACM, the late Leroy Jenkins (1932- 2007).
l:r Terry Jenoure, Billy Bang, Charles Burnham
LeRoy Jenkins brought credibility to the violin as an instrument worthy of application in improvised music. And according to all three musicians in Three Things To Say, he coaxed the spirituality of the self out of those he touched as a teacher and as a musical innovator.
In this concert, the music began with one bow stroke from Jenoure's violin. Then one stroke became two and then threeher bowing gradually expanded into phrases that multiplied into mid-tone thematic material, which become the baseline for what lay ahead in the evolution of musical ideas. Bang filled the sound space with quick hard-landing bow strokes that changed to continuous ones. Burnham clapped small, heavy, bronze hand-cymbals to provide the pulse first together, then against his body and lastly on the floor. It was not long before he also stroked his violin strings fluently to establish temporarily a drone to support Jenoure's devolution and scattering of the substance of the recurring theme.
The line Jenoure was shaping transformed into the primary melodic phrase "across the wide Missouri" from "Oh, Shenandoah." But she quickly took it apart and moved into the high register of her violin; Bang moved his bow back and forth midrange at an even tempo; meanwhile, Burnham's strokes were slower, his bow traveling almost upright across the strings. The three merged into a synchronous harmonizing, before progressing to a transition during which pizzicatos became the primary sound device. Jenoure sang basso sorrowful tones. The continuity of her shifting violin tones was offset by Bang's plucking at half the time of Burnham's pizzicato, introducing a tempo change and signaling the strong polyrhythms that followed. With that shift, the music flowed with effervescent energy. Each musician explored a unique motif. And after a duo interchange between Jenoure and Bang, Burnham bowed quickly and then drew long strokes to convene with Jenoure's as she slowed down, her gaze showing concentrated reflection. The musical line stretched out until the three came together, converging as a focused entity prior to closure.
Two additional, thoroughly thought-out pieces ensued. The freedom essential to enhance the playing with percussive gestures was not left behind: Burnham tapped a small frame drum and shook a shaker; Jenoure patted her chest as a movement complementing her patting the wooden butt of her instrument. Not infrequently all three strummed or picked at their violins' strings while holding their instruments like ukuleles. Repeatedly Jenoure blossomed with the most forceful and intense expression, initiating musical conversation that occasionally became lightly talkative in its inflection of sound. Just as often Burnham chose to drive the pulse with his violin rather than a percussive instrument. Only once did the three musicians, each exploring varying sonic effects, verge on explosion: their collective energy surged so exhaustively that it moved Burnham to stomp his foot; it caused some hairs of Jenoure's bow to break; and it moved Bang to strengthen his mid-range eloquence. It soon became apparent that the trio would stop at nothing to prevent a regression of this musical evolution: it was in order to keep the sound from sinking that the three maintained this determined, vital dynamic.
Dressed in black, each member of the trio behaved gracefully, not only in the way each played but also in the manner each moved to assure that none of the individual voices would go unheard. It was if each moved within an invisible channel on the stage floor to and from the cluster of three microphones set up between the performers and the audience. They would converse with one another as a trio as well as in duos and in solos. Then the exchange would take a dance-like turn, as one musician came forward to the front to solo while the others dropped back, still playing as they withdrew, their murmur gradually fading to silence.
Bang stood center stage as he soloed, his eyes closed, his feet together, his knees often bent. There was no subtlety as his bow landed on the strings; when the sound rose, the tone was strong, adamant and sincere. The boundless energy with which he played propelled him to strike the strings with abandon and rock the bow repeatedly. He worked his instrument so rapidly that he could hardly keep up with himself; the changes just kept coming til he settled in the mid-register of his instrument, marking the transformative moment to come by repeatedly plucking one string like a clock ticking.
When Burnham soloed, he came forward from stage right, his eyes wide-opened, his expression almost a vacant stare, his mouth remaining partially opened. He stressed the extremes of numerous high notes that eventually became mid-range variations entailing the slightest of changes but ones that were nonetheless constant and relentless. He modified his quick rapid strokes into longer slower ones, creating a folk-like melody that drifted into the body of the larger musical concept.
Jenoure's solo added the finishing touches to this musically conceptual form, a construction suggestive of a grand tribute plan. She came forward from stage right, her body relaxed as she immersed herself in the sounds of her instrument. To this observer, it seemed as though she had fallen into her own world, vocalizing gutturally and playing with fortitude, all the while exercising careful precision in an effort to transcend the reality of skin and bones and attain the ethereal.
Each solo acted as a transition to the next phase of the music, whether that entailed the three interacting in rounds or two members engaging in counteracting dialogue. Nonetheless, these three musicians integrated their playing cleanly, their "conductor" invisible but inextricably ingrained within them. It seemed that Jenkins, himself, served as their conductor. Even though the group's name might imply a lack of unity, Three Things To Say was how each musician spoke in response to their conductorin the tradition of the African- American tongue, when three folkloric compositions intermixed with improvisations were celebrated both in words and music within the musical community whose heart throbs with invocations of peace and blessings. As the group walked off stage at the close of the concert, with Jenoure in the lead singing Jenkins' "Come Home Baby," the three were making a metaphoric journey to the birthplace of their spiritual heritage.
The impact of this music would not have been as compelling without the artistry of Terry Jenoure. Ultimately, the elegance of the esthetic with which the performance was imbued lifted it to a level resisting mundane musical analysis, magically altering it into an exquisite jewel.
Photo credit: Lyn Horton