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Brian Marsella / Sae Hashimoto and Miguel Zenon / Matt Mitchell / Miles Okazaki at Miller Theatre

Brian Marsella / Sae Hashimoto and Miguel Zenon / Matt Mitchell / Miles Okazaki at Miller Theatre

Courtesy Paul Reynolds

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Satisfying music that was often jazz-like in sound and spirit, but daringly skipped the improvisations that often help define the music.
Brian Marsella / Sae Hashimoto and Miguel Zenon / Matt Mitchell / Miles Okazaki
Miller Theatre
New York, NY
June 9 and June 27, 2023

Underappreciated—perhaps because it's on the Columbia University campus in New York's upper Upper West Side—Miller Theater's innovative music programming favors contemporary classical music with a splash of jazz. But it's rare for its programs to straddle the two genres as much as did the two last 2023 installments of the Miller's after-work Pop-Up Concert series.

The debuts of composed pieces by Brian Marsella (June 9) and Miguel Zenon (June 27) saw their fine performances all but erase genre lines. This was entirely composed music that was structured like contemporary classical, yet exuded the harmonic, and sometimes rhythmic, flavor of jazz.

In both cases, the composers were known jazzmen with adventurous resumes, though not ones that might have predicted all that we heard at the Miller. Marsella, who has extensive credits as a jazz pianist, met vibraphonist Sae Hashimoto when they were both "playing" Cobra, the musical game devised by John Zorn—that leading habitue of territory between avant-jazz and avant-classical. In a series where atonality is often the norm, Marsella's hour-long Suite for Vibraphone and Piano startled with its frequent, singing harmonies.

With this instrumentation, echoes of preceding piano-vibes duos is almost inevitable. The first of the composition's nine sections, for example, among the jazziest, recalled the lyricism of Chick Corea and Gary Burton's on their duet albums like Crystal Silence (ECM, 1973). In other sections with a more minimalist character, one couldn't help but conjure up Philip Glass scores built on dense thickets of piano and marimba and vibraphone.

Yet Marcella found freshness in a piece that defied categorization. That resistance to genre is consistent with his past work with Hashimoto in Archipelago X, a more freewheeling, improv-based trio with Ikue Mori.

With his nine-minute duet piece, part of a three-composition evening under Miller's Mission Commission project, Zenon all but announced its unique standing within his canon by not playing on it. Over 20-plus years, Zenon's dazzling career has ranged from albums of original jazz compositions to an Ornette Coleman tribute to multiple projects, often with folkloric roots, that paid tribute to his Latino heritage (he was born and raised in Puerto Rico's largest housing project). The through line on them all has been Zenon's beautifully modulated alto saxophone, including on several duet albums with pianists.

It was intriguing, then, at the Miller to hear a Zenon work that included piano, but not his saxophone (the piece can be streamed from Miller's website and on a Mission Commission playlist on Spotify). "Layer Upon Layer" was a burbling conversation between Miles Okazaki's guitar and Matt Mitchell's piano. A restless recurring theme—dare I call it a "head," jazz style?—alternated with more open passages, in which Okazaki and Mitchell soloed; sometimes one served as accompanist, at other times they created a dense thicket of overlapping lines. But even in the more open and reflective interludes, both musicians stayed focused on the score.

In both the Zenon and Marsella performances, as a structured theme ended and the music opened up, my jazz ear often readied for a solo that never came. Part of me missed the added spontaneity and self-expression such excursions would have brought. But kudos to these composers—and to Miller's boundary-free programming—for bringing forth satisfying music that was often jazzlike in sound and spirit, but daringly skipped the improvisations that often help define the music.

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