Saturday, March 19, 2011

Three Concerts: Wishbone Ensemble and Agogic; Open Mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church; Christohper DeLaurenti

Continuing writing in this blog late because of extreme busy-ness, I’ll here review a series of concerts that I went to last week. (At this point I should be able to catch up at least on the topic of concert reviews.)

The Concert That Wasn’t: Composer Spotlight at Jack Straw Studios

This was supposed to be another in the series where composers talk about their work, sometimes as promos for upcoming concerts. (I had given one of these last month; see my 2/7/2011 and 2/10/2011 postings.) I got to Jack Straw Studios at about 7:15, expecting at least a few people to be there waiting for the presentation. The doors were locked and nobody was around except for an occasional pedestrian ambling by. I asked the man at the cash register at the little market next door if he knew anything about the “concert at Jack Straw tonight”; he responded with surprise that there was something going on there…

I wandered back to the door, finding two more who were there waiting for the door to open; but it never opened. We talked about the scheduled music (and other music) for a couple of minutes, then we decided that there had been some mistake and we’d missed the fact that the presentation had been cancelled. We went our separate ways.

I decided that, since the presentation was partially about a concert that would be at the Good Shepherd Center later on, that they might have rescheduled it and were going to present it there instead. The two locations are about two miles apart, so I drove over to the Good Shepherd Center.

The Concert That Was: Wishbone Ensemble and Agogic

Crowds were gathering there. There were several activities going on; one was actually a concert – but not the one intended. (I talked to a couple of people who knew what had happened: the presentation at Jack Straw had been cancelled, and everyone had been notified – but the Seattle Times hadn’t taken it off of their website until after I’d looked at it… These things happen, I guess.) Anyway, the unexpected concert was worth seeing, if entirely different than what I’d originally gone to see.

It was a concert of two contemporary jazz bands; presented by Earshot Jazz. I’ve often been a skeptic of “contemporary” jazz – to me it’s often not “contemporary” at all and far too close to “smooth jazz” (which is just a new way to say elevator music). These two bands exposed, once again, my musical snobbery.

First up: the Wishbone Ensemble (a.k.a. Andy Clausen’s Wishbone Ensemble – though I can’t find a list of musicians, on the web or anywhere else, except for Andy Clausen, trombonist). Their music was certainly the mellower of the two, and included an accordion besides the “standard” jazz ensemble of piano, bass, drums, and wind instruments (clarinet and trombone in this case). There were a lot of melodic, harmonic, and textural similarities to Pat Metheny, but not in a negative way. “Splitstream”, the first piece, was harmonized almost entirely in 4ths and major 2nds – an expansive, atmospheric sound that was actually reminiscent at times (to me) of my modal pieces in the “StormSound” Cycle. It did in fact feature a “split stream”: the trombone and clarinet soloed at the same time. Any hints of Dixieland that this should have engendered were smothered by the piece’s smooth, mellow sound.

They followed with the “Wishbone Suite” – a long set of full-length compositions (is there such as thing as a jazz “concept album”?) that ostensibly told the story of one of the band members trying to impress a girl on the playground when both were in the 3rd grade. There were nostalgic hints of childhood in the music, particularly in the sometimes nursery-like melodic material (see Keith Jarrett’s “Innocence” on the “Personal Mountains” album, or the last part of the Mahler 4th) – cross-cut with extreme musical sophistication. The first part, “Who Goes There?”, began with bubbling sounds in the trombone and a heterophonic melody, then very fast music in odd, ever-changing meter (think 70’s prog-rock bands like E.L.P. and Kansas). “Trouble” began with microtonality (disturbing in this context) and a spaghetti-Western twanging bass (in the style Ennio Morricone); the main solo was by the accordion. “The Pursuit” was a bebop tune for clarinet over a syncopated bass, with a slower angst-riddled guitar solo in the middle. “Dialogue” seemed to be a conversation between the piano/guitar (treated here as a single instrument) and the clarinet. Neither played a true melody; the p/g played chords based on 2nds while the clarinet made rippling sounds, and then slid into a real “solo” – that is, an improvisation without accompaniment. “Affinity” was essentially a reprise of “Who Goes There?”, with its fast prog-rock meters – but ramped up into a frantic chaos of simultaneous solos and then a grand, symphonic, restatement of the tune. Altogether a successful, beautiful, and interesting set. The wild applause by the audience confirmed this to be a crowd-pleaser. I, for one, would have preferred to have a little more “compositional” variety in the suite; that is, some pieces with no solos or some with several solos, or maybe some with a longer or shorter format – but that is a mere quibble probably brought about by my classical roots. This band is going somewhere (and it’s not down) – I’d like to hear what they can come up with next time they play.

Between acts, the MC announced that they would now “Crank it up – less talk, more rock!” The second act was Agogic, a band of four members: Cuong Vu (trumpet), Andrew D'Angelo (sax), Luke Bergman (bass), and Evan Woodle (drums). Their first piece was indeed much more rock-oriented. The drums began with a slow, steady beat, then the others joined in a unison tune with an indie-rock feel. At the end, an elderly woman shouted “Wow!” which shows that the music can impress across generations.

Agogic; a photo from a promotional website

Their next two pieces were, however, something of a disappointment in that they were almost stereotypical “free jazz” (it’s odd how a genre that’s supposed to be about a lack of clichés can sometimes be a cliché…) Full of crashing drum work, screaming loud wailing and screeching solos, spacey effects with a digital delay unit, and distortion – these pieces affected me as exercises in excess. That said, there were a lot of interesting moments: the bass producing strange bubbling noises by rubbing the strings to produce harmonics; didgeridoo and gagaku sounds where the instruments blended into a single voice; and trumpet and sax solos that seemed to continue sputtering and creaking even while these same instruments were starting to restate the main theme. That’s skillful playing, if nothing else.

The last three pieces returned to the format of the first. “Too Well” was a rock tribute to Ornette Coleman – a fusion of rock and free jazz that wasn’t really like anything I’d heard before. “Song for Lisa” was a poignantly personal ballad for a friend who has leukemia; here, a quiet bass solo against brushed cymbals led to heartfelt vocals (“we love you, come back down to this place….”) and a deeply moving trumpet melody based on the same theme (with a sax solo at the same time). Lastly, the drummer began a rock beat again, which started the final piece, an up-tempo rocker that brought the concert to a rousing conclusion.

It was altogether an interesting set, though maybe I’m being too picky in saying that I’d have liked it better if the “free jazz” was a little more free and the rock explored more that’s possible in that (admittedly rather narrow) genre. At the time, though, I left the concert satisfied.

The Second Concert That Was: Open Mike at Woodland Park Presby

The second night of this concert week began with the open mike at Woodland Park Presbyterian Church – a new once-a-month open mike that Wayne had invited me to. (As I’ve said before, some object to the idea of an avant-gardist playing at an open mike. My response always is, “What are avant-gardists doing not playing at open mikes…?” The music needs exposure, plain and simple.) Anyway, having looked on Google Maps and being slightly surprised that Woodland Park Presbyterian Church was not the same Presbyterian Church near Woodland Park that I’d been to years ago a couple of times with a friend, I found it fairly easily (just west of Seattle’s Greenwood Avenue).

It turned out to be a beautiful, cavernous space for performance (and certainly for church services, at least aesthetically – with all that natural reverberation, it would be a perfect setting for “traditional” services with chanting and the roar of the pipe organ). There was art on the walls; not “religious” art but scenes of musicians and Seattle buildings, made of photomontages in a fractured neo-cubist style. Someone – I forget who – commented that it was rather ironic that such “shattered” structures were being displayed after the devestating earthquake in Japan.

The open mike itself turned out to be like most open mikes, but with a very high level of musicianship (and some recitations). Highlights included a didgeridoo solo by Max (“I got this didgeridoo for $20.00 at the Renaissance Fair; it will probably sound better than the last one I played here, which was a rolled up banner with the cardboard tube attached…”); a suite of Celtic tunes played by a duet (called Waterbound) of autoharp and “octave” (bass) mandolin; and Wayne’s ambient guitar piece called “Chamber”, which has a striking use of a minor sixth against a major triad – what I sometimes call an “orange note” (opposite of a “blue note”). Gary and Stefan sang a James Taylor tune (beautifully). Doug played and sang two traditional hymns (“There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Precious Lord”): first on the clarinet (in a non-metered, almost impressionist rendering - the acoustics were perfect for this type of playing) and then a capella in a more rhythmic manner - the sincerity in his voice was deeply moving. Joyce read some classic poetry (Yeats, among others) in a voice that lacked the cloying dramatism often used in such recitations – which made it much more effective. There was also a recitation of hip-hop poetry, without a beat-box. Isla flawlessly played Irish and Swedish fiddle tunes; their lilting melodies surprisingly filling the entire hall. Kai sang “karaoke” of his own songs, R&B vocals against synthesized accompaniment that he’d recorded himself. These were a lot more “commercial” than most music at an open mike, but not commercial in a bad way (cheap hackwork) but in a good way (catchy and fun). And, I attempted an improvisation session, with me on piano and Max on the didgeridoo; it sounded okay at the time (though I missed quite a few notes) but I don’t know how it really sounded because the recording I made didn’t come out.

It turns out that the MC will let the musicians play the pipe organ, and the speakers are available for prerecorded material (hence Kai’s “karaoke”) – so maybe next time I’ll attempt the organ version of my piece “The Psalm”, which I’ve never played live, or even a version of “Desert Bloom” (one of the “StormSound” pieces), both which use prerecorded material. Should be fun.

Chris DeLaurenti at Good Shepherd Center

When the open mike concluded, I jumped in my car and drove over to the Good Shepherd Center to see if I could catch the tail end of Christopher DeLaurenti’s concert of electronic music. (Previous attempts to catch the last part of something have often failed; see my 10/20-2010 posting.) I did manage to hear the (long) last piece: a fifteen minute antiphonal free counterpoint of several female voices singing the old song “You’re my Thrill”. The recordings were of jazz-style vocals (some reminiscent of Nina Simone, others of Diana Krall) – but the blending, with no accompaniment other than each other, created a very different impression. As one sang in one corner and another drifted in from the other side, it almost gave the notion of a 21st-century secular organum. A suitable music for a secular concert in what is still to be considered a sacred space. For a more complete review, see Keith Eisenbrey’s blog (he was there for all of it).

(This posting is on 3/19/2011; 63 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

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