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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

A lucky gathering of 110 western Massachusetts listeners got to witness first-hand the maturing of a cohort of highly talented musicians moving into mid-career, as the Tomeka Reid Quartet and Tomas Fujiwara’s 7 Poets Trio shared the stage at the Arts Trust Building in Northampton, MA on February 22. The concert -our first ever double-bill - was part of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ 12th season.

 

Cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Tomas Fujiwara were in each other’s ensemble. Vibraphonist Patricia Brennan was the third member of 7 Poets Trio, while guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Jason Roebke completed Reid’s quartet.


The five musicians in the two ensembles are all in their 40s, and over the past decade have blossomed into important figures in the jazz world. In addition to fellowships, awards and commissions, the five have amassed impressive discographies and garnered critical acclaim. Collectively, they are poised to advance the jazz language for decades to come.

 

Fujiwara’s trio, which performed first, featured his exquisite originals pulled from his new release, Pith. The drummer knew Brennan from their work together in Michael Formanek’s  Ensemble Kolossus, and Reid from their work in the cellist’s quartet, but Brennan and Reid had never played together before joining the trio, which first came together during Fujiwara’s 2018 Stone residency.

 

If there was a chamber-like quality to the work, it was a chamber music that included backbeats and agitated swing, as well as delicate, crystalline compositions. On the compact “Swelter”, for instance, a simple, insistent 4/4 cello line provoked a rock beat that evaporated into meter-less abstraction, before returning to the theme. “Solace” had a relaxed, inquisitive melody that loped along on the strength of Reid’s pizzicato bassline, which Brennan mirrored.

 

There was no soloing in the conventional sense. Brennan, Reid and Fujiwara all played the entire time, with each of them occasionally stepping forward to make a special point. The vibraphone, that most resonant of instruments, filled the space with notes that pulsed and lingered. In concert, it overwhelmed the cello and even the drums at times. All that is corrected on the recording, which allows us to easily hear each instrument.

 

The Tomeka Reid Quartet has been together since 2015 and has two recordings under their belt. While 7 Poets Trio was touring in support of their recent release, Reid’s group was field testing material generated by a 2021 Chamber Music America commission. After additional stops at Bowdoin College, Brown University, Real Art Ways (Hartford) and the Jazz Gallery (New York), the group will record the pieces we heard.

 

The pairing of guitarist Mary Halvorson and Reid is an inspired one. Whether playing unison lines or in darting counterpoint, the two MacArthur grant recipients commanded our attention. Having her fellow Chicagoan, Jason Roebke hold down bass chores freed Reid to explore melody and use her prodigious arco technique. I have seen Halvorson perform a dozen times and enjoyed every one of them. But Thursday was a peak experience. Her single notes were crisp and jazzy, and her pedal-induced extensions were used judiciously in service of Reid’s compositions. The Quartet swung from the bottom up and had an easy rapport, which made navigating Reid’s intricate pieces seem effortless.

 

Patricia Brennan is the most original vibraphonist to emerge in the last half-dozen years, and we have become quite fond of seeing her in the Valley. Thursday was her fourth Jazz Shares appearance in the last 2 ½ years, including a memorable evening at the IMA barn with her own quartet.

 

Tomas Fujiwara has created a full, thriving career on the strength of his fabulous drumming, formidable writing and band leading talents. Many of his projects, including Triple Double, The Hook Up, Thumbscrew and Illegal Crowns have graced western Mass stages over the years.

 

Jason Roebke’s new quartet recording on Corbett vs. Dempsey features the legendary Chicago reedman Edward Wilkerson, Jr. He has been a student and close associate of Roscoe Mitchell, and an indispensable colleague with some of Chicago’s most inventive musicians, including Mike Reed, Jason Stein, Fred Lonberg-Holm and  Jason Adasiewicz. He’s been recording as a leader since 2003.

 

Together with Tomeka Reid and Mary Halvorson, these musicians are creating work that is adding real value to the ever evolving jazz lexicon. They’re all hitting their stride at the same time, and I’m glad we get to hear their evolution on a regular basis.

 

Because of an email misinterpretation of the word “after”, we didn’t get a chance to break bread with the musicians, who were driving to Boston after the show. Without that valuable schmooze time, we didn’t get the full update on all that these five budding masters were up to. But from all indications they are active, in demand and up to great things. We listeners will be reaping the rewards for decades to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One man bands – a single individual making all the sounds emanating from a stage – is a centuries old tradition. The advent of looping technology has updated the practice, but it still involves all the limbs in intense coordination. The guitarist and composer Roger Clark Miller, who became famous in the early 1980s as co-founder of the avant-punk band Mission of Burma, has been experimenting with the concept since pioneering his “maximum electric piano” in 1987.

 

Miller presented his “Dream Interpretations For Solo Electric Guitar Ensemble” at Hawks & Reed on January 12th as part of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares 12th season. Sitting in his “cockpit” around three lap-steel guitars on stands, along with his 6-string Stratocaster, Miller employed a bevy of foot pedals and stomp boxes to create a dense soundscape of abstract but musical portraits of the composer’s dreams.

 

The 45 minute set, shared with 55 listeners, was divided into discreet, numbered dream interpretations, which Miller occasionally detailed from the stage. Dreams are often fantastical and episodic, with non-linear leaps that belie conscious scrutiny. That description served as an apt metaphor for the music we heard on Friday. Grooves, set up by a loop, would come and go. Likewise, melodies and patterned sounds would float across the room with a randomness we associate with the unconscious mind. Miller told me he has kept detailed dream journals since 1971. Of course, all dreams are deeply personal, and the fact the music was strictly instrumental meant it was not programmatic in any direct way. Still, the overall effect had the loose trippy logic of a hallucination.

 

Many of the pieces we heard were recorded and released in 2022 on a well-received album on Cuneiform Records. “The eruptive musical textures Miller creates are evocative of both the manic psychedelic feedback Jimi Hendrix infused into his yearning solos and the transformative discipline that Robert Fripp uses to turn the raucous into the meditative,” Scott McLennan wrote in The Arts Fuse. Three days after his Greenfield concert, Miller was headed back to his hometown studio, Guilford Sound in Vermont, to record a new set of dream interpretations.

 

Although the original incarnation of Mission of Burma lasted only four years (1979-1983), it's hard to overestimate the impact the band had on American music. The list of groups influenced by the Boston-based ensemble reads like a hall of fame roster of 1980s-90s rock ‘n roll: Pearl Jam, Hüsker Dü, Foo Fighters, Yo La Tango, Fugazi. But Roger Miller’s musical interests have always been wider than the rough-edged music of Mission of Burma. Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, the group he co-founded after Burma, was an experimental band with jazz and 20th century classical musical underpinnings. Subsequent compositions for movie soundtracks and chamber orchestra, his solo work for prepared piano, and his career writing for and accompanying silent films with his Alloy/Anvil Orchestra, reveal a musician with divergent interests and serious ambition. Throughout it all, his humble, self-effacing demeanor runs counter to the rock guitar hero stereotype.

 

There were a few raised eyebrows when we first announced this concert. On the surface, Miller does not fit the profile of the typical Jazz Shares artist. But raised as a pitcher, I was used to throwing curve balls and keeping batters off balance, and I knew our long-time shareholders were open-minded enough to roll with it. Not getting locked into stylistic straightjackets or limited by the confines of genre keeps us young and flexible. Throughout my presenting career, the emphasis has always been on quality and innovation. By those criteria, hosting Roger Clark Miller was no stretch at all. Seeing a one man band creating meaningful orchestral music alone on stage playing guitars, pressing pedals and turning knobs in real time, was immersive and satisfying.

 

The added oomph that a working band can provide raises the music to new heights. Chance encounters and new configurations of musicians can be exciting and result in flying sparks, but most advances in jazz history come from the sustained excellence of stable ensembles. It stands to reason, of course, that the more a group works on something – whether it’s double-plays or marching in formation – the more precise they get. But creative musicians not only have to master the technical elements en masse, the best continually innovate and invigorate the music, while deepening relationships with each other.


Ember, Caleb Wheeler Curtis (sax, trumpet), Noah Garabedian (bass) and Vinnie Sperrazza (drums), are developing a body of work and forging a group identity that makes for fireworks on stage. The trio has been together for about five years and have three releases to their name, but becoming a true working band is not only about longevity and the number of gigs played, but its willingness to come together to make a collective statement.


Ember is doing just that. Everyone in the band is the leader and everyone composes for the ensemble. Their Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares performance at The Drake in Amherst on December 14, provided a glimpse of what an ensemble coalescing sounds like. The group played a wide-ranging set of music drawn from their latest recording, August in March (Imani Records), for 60 attentive listeners.


The band can swing. “Angular Saxon” (Sperrazza) and “Break Tune” (Curtis) evolved into burners, revealing an almost casual virtuosity. Curtis was flying across his straight alto saxophone, cleanly articulating notes, tossing out impactful phrases with alacrity. He juxtaposed those runs with elongated, split-toned honks that cut across the brisk tempo, heightening tension.


The three can write tunes. “Floatation Device and the Shivers” (Curtis) and “Sam Cooke” (Sperrazza) have a pop directness that’s easy to like, and have hooks I’ve been humming since Thursday. Each of the compositions had personality and a point of view.


The band all gets along. Hanging out after the concert, the musicians launched into a pun-filled comedy routine that had Priscilla Page and I in stiches. I suggested they find a way to incorporate the material into their performance. Thus far, this democratically run ensemble has only recorded original work, but there is talk their next project might involve arranging the compositions of others. I’m sure the selection process will be lively, but without acrimony.


Caleb Curtis was my point of contact for this concert. I met the 37-year old, Ann Arbor native when he performed with the Michael Musillami Trio +3 in March, 2022. Curtis is smart, curious and very talented. His main instrument is the straight alto, also known as the stritch, made famous by the great reedman Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Curtis also played trumpet and the sopranino sax, a smaller cousin of the soprano. Building on Eddie Harris’ late-1960s innovation, Curtis inserted a saxophone mouthpiece into his trumpet to create an otherworldly sound on what’s called a “reed trumpet”. Curtis is quite knowledgeable about the history and variety of saxophones, running the entire family down for us during dinner. It’s little surprise he is friends with Jon Iragabon and Scott Robinson, two practicing scholars of all things sax-related.


Vinnie Sperrazza is a witty and engaging guy from Utica, NY (also home to drummer Jimmy Wormworth and saxophonist JR Monterose), who like his Ember-mates, now lives in Brooklyn. Like Curtis and Garabedian, Sperrazza is well versed in both current and historic jazz recordings, and his thoughtful writing on the music can be found on his Substack, Chronicles. “Mashups, juxtaposition and collage are part of American culture, modern life, and are basic flavors in jazz,” Sperrazza wrote in his tribute to Billy Hart. The Ember concert in Amherst, with varied tunes moving from one to the other without pause, embodied that sentiment. Sperrazza played with a rock edge, while giving the music exactly what it needed across mood and tempo. In energy and attitude, he reminded me of a young Jim Black.


Noah Garabedian is among a cohort of young-ish bass players (Max Johnson, Mali Obamsawin, Brandon Lopez, Kim Cass), who are reinvigorating the bottom end of jazz ensembles. He certainly did that for Ember. Using his own small amp, he produced one of the deepest, fattest bass sounds I’ve heard in years. On his slow blues, “Snake Tune”, his walking bass line provided the backbone for his bandmates to accent and embellish. Other Garabedian originals, like “Easy Win”, and “August in March”, are short understated snapshots that do not draw undue attention to the composer, and are all the more powerful for that. Raised in Berkley, California, Garabedian is the musical director for the dance show, “Rhythm Is Life,” featuring choreographer and world-renowned tap dancer Dormeshia, and recently released Consider the Stars Beneath Us, featuring Dayna Stephens, Carmen Staaf and Jimmy Macbride.


Pulled in so many directions while paying Brooklyn rents amidst dwindling opportunities to play, makes keeping a band together tough sledding. That Ember has persevered and continues to thrive, is a testament to their drive and vision. Jazz Shares is happy to play a small role in the evolution of a real band.


Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
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