Before the concert began, there was some funky, dissonant jazz-rock playing. The MC said it was Captain Beefheart, who had just died, and this concert would be dedicated to his memory. I haven’t listened to much Beefheart but this little bit made me want to hear more.
As the audience filed in (I was there quite early), the chairs were moved around more than once – “Improvised seating for improvised music!” suggested someone. A little boy in the front row was showing off to his parents that he knew the names of all of the percussion instruments in the drum kit that was set up on stage.
The opening set was by Dennis Rea (electric guitar) and James DeJoie (spoken word and bass clarinet). James’s provided dark existential ramblings and a disturbing narrative poem about a woman who slowly dismembered herself (minus any gory details) by dancing – probably a metaphor about “giving oneself entirely to one’s art”. He spoke in informal, conversational tones, while Dennis improvised ambient sounds on the guitar, often by simply turning the amp loud enough to hear the strings reverberate when he tapped on the neck of the instrument. There was also one piece where James played the bass clarinet, in a style that echoed his informal poetry reading – notably, there was one section where they both wound up on exactly the same note at exactly the same time, so this was obviously not entirely improvised music.
The second set was the main act: Wally Shoup (alto sax), Gust Burns (piano – really, this blog is not turning into a Gust Burns fan club, though I like his piano), Paul Kemmish (bass), and Mark Ostrowski (drums). Wally, a long time fixture of the Seattle improvised music scene, said at the beginning that they would play some structured improvs in the middle of the set, but would bookend it with two completely free and spontaneous pieces. Then they launched into the first, and right away it was clear that this was a free-jazz power band. Their tremendous volume at a furious pace seemed to expand outside of the small venue. Altogether they played five pieces, two of them in excess of fifteen minutes. Wally played the sax with both skill and beauty, often making surprisingly subtle melodic lines in the middle of the semi-chaos. Mark provided an often blues-based groove, and sometimes played the cymbals with two drumsticks in one hand, one above and one below the instrument, providing a quick metallic chatter. Gust played in several styles, some suggesting McCoy Tyner; sometimes he attacked the sound with a clattering nebula of notes; at other times he held back and just plunked a chord or two here or there. During a solo he occasionally held a note and then semi-released it several times, producing a wobble. Paul’s bass is the hardest to comment on; as often in ensembles, it seemed to be drowned out by the other, louder instruments, but at the same time gave the music an underpinning that would have been missed had it not been there.
Near the end, they played a slow piece with balladic undertones; then Wally announced, “We’re going to play one more for you – it’s about two hours… joke…” The title, he said, was something like “Squid Eating Joe in a Polyethylene Bag”, and it was a short, dizzying spiral of sound that slowly disintegrated into silence. I guess Joe ate the squid, or was the title ambiguous – did the squid eat Joe? At any rate it was a fitting conclusion to an exciting concert.
[A 3/6/2011 comment here: I finally got around to listening to some Beefheart a couple of weeks ago. One song begins with a couple of lines of nonsense blank verse: “A squid eating dough (or squid-eating doe) in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous, also tapered”. So the title of the above piece is a reference.]
(This posting is Dec. 20, 2010; 155 days until the first performance of the complete StormSound Cycle.)