Monday, March 7, 2011

Concert Review: David Paul Mesler and Friends; Broadway Performance Hall, Seattle, 3/1/2011

Been very busy lately, so this concert review will seem a few days late. But here it is anyway…

“It's daredevil jazz! It's extreme classical!
It's both! It's neither!
It's . . .
David Paul Mesler and Friends in a concert of free improvisation!"
--From the e-mail promo.

David Paul Mesler, piano
Tony Grasso, trumpet
Tony Rondolone, alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, flute
Gary Shutes, trombone
Michael Nicolella, acoustic and electric guitar
Brad Hawkins, acoustic and electric cello
Ken French, drums

This concert did seem to be a blend of “daredevil jazz” and “extreme classical”. (Darestream jazzical? Exstrevil clazz??). The first half concentrated on the “classical” timbres, with acoustic guitar; the second half (for larger ensemble) brought in the drums and electric guitar – so it had more of a jazz (or rock) feel. However, David’s meticulous, often Bartokian piano chops rooted the entire concert in its (modernist) classical approach.

Not that some of the other instruments didn’t root the entire concert equally in the jazz idiom. Unusual for a concert of free improvisation, the “pieces” presented were all short, concise “compositions”, usually under three minutes. Each was part of a suite of related pieces, and each had two titles: a concept and a keyword.

The first suite of pieces was based around the idea of family members. I was walking in when I heard the first “Messiaenic” chords for “Father” (and I didn’t hear the keyword for this one); the rest consisted of a melodic conversation for piano and trumpet. “Mother” used the keyword “busy”, and the music was such; the clarinet etched a sharply delineated scherzo against a piano ostinato. Then, “We ended together! That was amazing!” The pieces unfolded quickly, one after the other: there was a vaguely bluesy “hard of hearing” (keyword) “Grandfather”, a militaristic (and later chaotic) “Son”, and a daughter that “starts out so sweet…” but didn’t remain that way as contrasting dissonant piano chords snuck in. Finally the entire ensemble played a kind of coda, “Family”; the keyword was “chaotic” but the music was basically rock with little bits of free-jazz squeals from the trumpet (and a long melody from the sax). It all ended on a long, luminous, major chord.

A second set of pieces was based on emotional states. Highlights of this suite included “Melancholy” for ‘cello and piano (comparisons with the Debussy ‘cello sonata and Takemitsu’s “Orion” are inevitable here); “Joy” for piano and guitar (this went suddenly into Stravinsky, and the guitar wanted to play but was cut off several times); and “Fear” for the whole ensemble. In the latter, dissonances built up against percussive piano; then everything went berserk and “resolved” on a loud sustained minor second – Art Ensemble of Chicago all the way! (Of course, the same happens in a dramatic moment in the Nielsen 6th symphony.)

After the intermission, all pieces were for the entire ensemble, and they were marginally longer. This was a suite of Celestial Bodies, beginning with the sun and ending at the outermost planet (excluding Pluto). “Moon” was a nocturnal dreamscape that had several waves of sound, as if influencing tides of notes. “Comet” had a “fragile long tail” but mostly was a trumpet solo – “fragile” muted notes interacted with more forceful brass bellowing; altogether in a style reminiscent (to me at least) of Dizzy Gillespie. “Venus” used romantic saxophone, with just enough dissonance and oddly placed accents to keep it from sliding into the banal. “Earth” was a kaleidoscope of sounds, moods, and “industrious ants” (that was the keyword – it probably metaphorically meant people as well). “Mars” had the expected warlike overtones, with the electric ‘cello playing frantic spasms of off-key notes and the guitar providing a screaming metal background. “Jupiter” (“heroic”) featured grand piano triads in what could have been an alternate version of Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate of Kiev”. The longest piece came at the end, “Neptune” (“Mystical”) – here there were microtones on strangely elastic open fifths, providing a mysterious texture; touches of Ives as all players pursued their own, unrelated, tonal paths for a minute or two; a ‘cello melody in harmonics with tranquil chords from the piano and guitar; a return to the beginning; and a coda with a bit of Spanish guitar and a crescendo to the final chord; fade.

After the concert I conversed with David briefly about the length of the pieces. He stated that he prefers a shorter format for free improvisation – especially when it sounds as if it were a composed piece. Medium-length improvisations, such as usually occur in free-improv concerts, tend to meander too much and lose their interest. He then added a footnote: the exception is, of course, when the improvisational music goes epic – if it’s gargantuan, as the “StormSound” Cycle, then it takes the listener into its own space and no longer seems to meander. He compared it to a Wagner opera – it takes twenty minutes or so to get into what’s going on, but then it just washes over the listener like a tide. Four hours seems short in such a context.

(This posting is on 3/7/2011; 75 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

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