Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Concert Review: Is that Jazz? Festival: Operation ID and Dana Reason; Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 1/22/2011

I couldn't make it to all of the Is That Jazz? Festival concerts, but this one at least had enough variety to be at least two concerts...

Operation ID - a photo from the Seattle Times.

“Glenn Branca meets Return to Forever with Mr. Bungle, Steve Reich, Rush, and Spock’s Beard commenting from the sidelines.” This is Operation ID – a jazz-rock fusion band of the old school, mixed with free jazz of the new school, with a lot of energy. “…Is it jazz?” The guitar player said that since the band’s inception they’ve been trying to answer than question; and when he asked Steve Peters if they could play in the “Is That Jazz?” festival, he asked, “Is it jazz?” The question gets repeated…

My answer: probably. My other answer: probably not. Neither answer affects the quality of the music.

They played eight pieces, mostly shorter than five minutes each. Most had an least one section of improvisation, either in the standard jazz sense of improvising over pre-set chords or rhythms, or in the free-improv sense of group spontaneity with nothing pre-planned. (A couple of pieces, though, were through-composed.) Most pieces started with some type of riff on one instrument, followed by the entire group exploding into action on a syncopated, heavily accented rhythm/melody; sometimes there was a little “follow the leader” session in the manner of 70’s rock, where one instrument played two or three measures and then the entire band hammered them back. Improvised sections ranged in style from chaotic free-for-all to hazy quasi-impressionism to frenetic rock; there were wailing saxophones and guitars, and moody clarinets and atmospheric hazes. The level of energy, though, never waned. In the end I would have liked the compositions to be more cyclical – in music of this sort, where everything is loud, angular, and intensely rhythmic, the listener may need some sort of home base (I know I usually write about music where this is neither needed nor provided!) but none of the pieces they played ended with the same material that they began with. Most of them sounded like two pieces that were broadly similar, stuck together with an improvisation in the middle. That’s a minor criticism though, and I expect a lot form this group in the future.

Dana Reason, a photo from the Nonsequitur blog

The second half was a piano solo, and it couldn’t have been more of a contrast. That (I think) was precisely the point. I’d heard Dana Reason play before, in California; she was a good and inventive pianist then, and now she has even more impressive technique, inventiveness, and nuance. Much of the music dealt with subtle disassociations in one way or another. There were little snow-flurries of notes that resolved into single-note trills (tremolos) that were not on the expected note but hung there in a kind of meta-harmony; there were unexpected resonances that appeared in the middle of a chord (she was using half-pedaling techniques that made the piano sound like a couple of different instruments); and little snippets (sometimes no more than two or three notes!) of classical and jazz standards. These musical disassociations had a visual element. I mentioned the pedal techniques; these were extremely visible as she bounced her foot up and down often in the “wrong” place(s) during a phrase, sometimes more than once for a single note. The trills were likewise “wrong”; her hands seemed to extend and bend in ways that aren’t used in piano music, and were almost dancelike. This visual element reached its climax in a piece called “Common Sense” – in what would seem like a mere gimmick until one thinks about it, she played the piano backwards by lying down on the piano bench and reaching up over her head. Thus the left hand was where the right should have been, and vice-versa – quite startling to watch, since the hands seem to be backwards and in the wrong place (they shouldn’t bend that way!). The reason behind this was not just a visual novelty (though it certainly was this) but a way to un- and re-learn the piano, approaching it as if it were something entirely new. The usual rules for playing simply aren’t there any more – the thumbs are in the wrong place, higher notes are now played by the right hand, backwards, and the keys are not even completely visible! Yet for all of this, the piece was intensely elegant in style and inflection.

Of course “Common Sense” was only one piece, and it was short. The other pieces were played in the conventional sitting position. She ended her set with a meditative piece by George Lewis (often pentatonic, hints of Lou Harrison, melodies based on 5ths, 6ths, and an occasional sharp-4th) and a classical “mash-up” that used the Beethoven Fifth as an idée fixe in much the same way as Ives used it in the “Concord” Sonata, though here it was underneath little bits of Chopin, Ravel, and Gershwin. Actually a fairly quiet piece, if still with those rapid flurries of notes, and it ended the program on a sense of quiet expectancy for other music.

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