October 2012: Fresh Cut from the Vine, Re: Trio

RJ Johnson By

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Philly Jazz: Fresh Cut From the Vine

Painted Bride Art Center

Philadelphia, PA

October 20, 2012

Philadelphia is a city filled with abundant talent and artistic potential, especially when it comes to the city's vibrant music scene. However, Philadelphia-based musicians often find themselves faced with a lack of opportunities to showcase their original works.

The Painted Bride has been presenting jazz through its Jazz on Vine series for over 20 continuous years. Though not a regular jazz venue, the Bride has always been known for its eclectic programs and open-minded approach to presenting modern artists within contexts which may not otherwise exist. Fresh Cut From the Vine is the next installment of the Bride's Jazz on Vine series. The Bride gave three Philadelphia-based musicians free reign to compose a full program of original music. The only artistic guidance provided by the venue was that the performance needed to involve ten musicians.

The Bride chose trumpeter Josh Lawrence, bassist Jason Fraticelli, and drummer Anwar Marshall to lead the project as composers and ensemble coordinators. All three are up and coming leaders on the Philadelphia music scene, but have established themselves thoroughly as sidemen throughout the past several years.

Musically, the performance certainly highlighted the diverse backgrounds of the Composers, while still allowing for the open improvisation that is standard within most jazz contexts. The show began with Marshall's "Sanguine?," based on a simple framework taking up about half a page of written music. Marshall's tunes, two of which were featured during the evening's performance, were typically little more than musical sketches which were then augmented by the distinct contributions of the musicians in the band. By maintaining an open approach to composition, Marshall's tunes clearly lend themselves easily to lengthy improvisations and intriguingly contrasting interpretations upon repeat performances.

By comparison, Lawrence's contributions seem to pull largely from the jazz tradition. His "Uptown Romance" contained a Duke Ellington-esque melody, easily memorable upon the theme's first statement. Lawrence also contributed the Latin-themed "Frederico," with precise rhythmic hits and a melody harmonized across the various horns. This tune was brought to life mainly through intelligent orchestration, with a particular focus on each instrument's specific timbre. By utilizing the entire band effectively to state the melody and imply the underlying harmony, Lawrence heightened the natural details present in the chart. Nuanced orchestration is often ignored in small ensemble jazz contexts, but Lawrence demonstrated the extended possibilities of part writing, both artistically and effectively.

Fraticelli, perhaps the most eclectic instrumentalist among the band, contributed the lengthy "The Mother's Suite," which closed the first set, twisting and turning through several stylistic shifts. Certain sections contained ECM-inspired free improvisations, while others were held down by thick funk grooves and strong horn accompaniments. Fraticelli also performed on the cuatro, composing "My Summer in Puerto Rico" and co-arranging the Puerto Rican folk standard "El Gallo y la Gallina" with Lawrence as features for his skills on the ten-stringed Puerto Rican instrument that was somewhat similar to a small guitar. Fraticelli's musical interests obviously extend far beyond the jazz idiom, but his ability to play the cuatro authentically, while composing a work in the style of its home country, demonstrated a thorough study of the music akin to that of a serious student of either jazz or classical music. It is rare that such a complete level of proficiency can be attained on multiple instruments, especially when not indigenous to the musician's native country.

The enthusiastic response and large turnout for this event can hopefully serve to inspire future projects aimed at promoting original jazz in Philadelphia. With the city's jazz-friendly venues dwindling, it may soon be necessary for musicians to begin expanding their horizons towards coordinating special performance such as the Jazz on Vine series. Though some Philadelphia-based organizations promise to work towards finding new performance spaces and booking emerging artists, few, if any, have done so as effectively as the Painted Bride. The music performed at this event demonstrated the high level of talent which can be found throughout Philadelphia's creative music scene. With so much new music being written, it is the opportunity to perform that so many musicians find themselves without. Hopefully, this performance can serve as the basis for an expanded roster of jazz events throughout the city's remaining venues. For now, it is the Painted Bride which leads the way in presenting new jazz.

Re: Trio

Greenline Café

Philadelphia, PA

October 25th, 2012

Tenor saxophonist Ben Schachter—a Philadelphia native who has spent the last four years living on the west coast, reunited his last hometown-based working trio for two sets at Philadelphia's Greenline Café. Other than a small handful of performances, Re: Trio—also including bassist Leon Boykins and drummer Matt Scarano—has been on hiatus since 2008, and was Schachter's final working trio before moving west: first to Tucson, Arizona, and then San Diego, California. Though highly respected amongst Philadelphia's best musicians, Schachter is rarely talked about outside of the city, perhaps due to the fact that he chose to remain in Philadelphia for an extended period of time rather than move to New York.

Despite his somewhat underground reputation, Schachter has peaked the interest of some of the best jazz musicians in the world. He has performed with saxophonist George Garzone, and can also be heard on trombonist Conrad Herwig's Land of Shadow (Criss Cross, 2003). The record featured trumpeter Tim Hagans, pianist David Kikoski, and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, and one listen proves that Schachter is more than comfortable performing amongst the highest level of talent. His recent performance at the Greenline Cafe was no exception. The trio's opening arrangement of pianist Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" was particularly interesting. The tune was uniquely arranged in 13/8, adding new depth to the rhythmic sophistication associated with Monk's writing. The main theme was stated clearly, but rather than continuing to the written bridge of the tune, the band broke down into a lengthy free improvisation full of African-inspired grooves and telepathic interaction. Schachter's style of free improvisation is marked by aggression, yet his melodic ideas never seem forced or uninspired. There is a clear logic as to where Schachter pushes the music, and his ability to develop continuously interesting ideas further exemplifies his skills as an improviser.

Another highlight of the performance was saxophonist John Coltrane's "Countdown." Schachter has been exploring odd meter arrangements for years and here, the trio played in 7/4 time, but with a reversed clave, from 4+3 to 3+4 every two bars. The tune provided an excellent example of drummer Matt Scarano's ability to remain loose and creative in a musical environment that would leave most drummers sounding stiff and uncomfortable. Bassist Leon Boykins defined the time with unshakable conviction, providing the necessary harmonic bed following Scarano's solo introduction. A noticeable aspect of the music throughout was the clarity of Schachter's lines. Even with the added variable of an odd meter over an already haphazard harmonic framework, it was never difficult to feel the pulse or follow along with the form. Contrary to some modern jazz musicians, Schachter's odd-meter experiments seem more rooted in true melodic exploration rather than superficial complexity.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the performance was the easily Identifiable, one-of-a-kind nature of the trio's overall sound. The band has developed a style which effectively combines introspective sensibilities with quiet aggression. There is a certain meditative quality to the music; while Schachter is a highly skilled saxophonist technician, he never lets his playing become overly bombastic. Memorable trio performances are often said to be marked by a conversational approach to improvisation. Re: Trio's style, however, could more accurately be described as collective rather than reactive. Rather than simply responding to each other's ideas, the band seems to develop them all at the same time, providing a narrative quality to the improvisational sections of each piece.

With Schachter having relocated to San Diego, hopefully his talent will become more recognized in a city with a far more vibrant music scene. In the mean time, Philadelphia will have to wait for another reunion.

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