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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

What happens when you combine an inquisitive intellect with superior musicianship? You get projects like Anna Webber’s Shimmer Wince. The prolific 39-year old tenor saxophonist and flutist is also a first rate composer and musical thinker who took a deep dive into “just intonation” during the depth of the pandemic. Her research led to a new book of compositions, and the formation of a new band of crack musicians who breathed life into the material. Seventy of us got to hear the results at the Shea Theater on March 17 at a concert produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.

 

Shimmer Wince includes: Adam O’Farrill (trumpet), Mariel Roberts (cello), Elias Stemeseder (synthesizer), Lesley Mok (drums) and Webber. They are touring the northeast in support of their self-titled release on Intakt Records.

 

Just intonation is a tuning system that has its origin in ancient Greece, and differs from the more widely adopted equal temperament system. Just intonation is based on the natural vibrations of physical objects, such as strings or vocal chords, and pitches are expressed as fractions. Its complex notation system requires a good understanding of tuning theory, which is why most musicians are not fluent in it. As a non-musician, it’s certainly beyond me. 

 

Webber was a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2021 during the worst period of the pandemic, a time of “enforced quiet”, she writes in her detailed liner notes that accompany the recording. Webber immersed herself in the inner working of just intonation, reading the scholarship, studying scores that utilize it, and listening. The music we heard on Sunday was the result of her intense focus on this ancient system of harmony. “If this music sounds different from some of my previous albums, that’s because it is,” Webber writes. She wanted the music to feel “almost like a collection of incredibly bizarre standards.”

 

The music had a coherence that felt off or slightly inebriated, full of odd harmonies as well as daring flights of rhythmic fancy. Despite the complexity of the music, Adam O’Farrill barely seemed to refer to the written score, and nailed all the parts. Not yet 30, O’Farrill tours the world with the pianist Hiromi, performs with Mary Halvorson’s Amaryllis, and has worked with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, and his father, pianist Arturo O’Farrill. O’Farrill played a Jazz Shares concert in Easthampton in 2017 with his quartet Stranger Days, part of his first tour as a leader outside New York.

 

Drummer Lesley Mok ushered the band through all the variegated tempo changes with ease. Although they only stepped to the forefront during “Periodicity 2”, you could tell they had a surfeit of chops. In their late 20s, Mok is now touring and recording with Myra Melford’s super group Fire & Water, the percussion collective The Forest, and David Leon’s Bird’s Eye. Their debut recording, The Living Collection, was nominated for a German Jazz Prize in the categories International Debut Album of the Year and Album of the Year. I first met her when she was a student at Berklee and participated in a retreat at the Institute For the Musical Arts.

 

This was my first opportunity to meet and hear the marvelous cellist Mariel Roberts whose work is firmly planted in the contemporary music world. She is a member and co-director of the Wet Ink Ensemble, and is also part of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the Mivos Quartet and the Bang On a Can All-Stars, all premier new music organizations. As we heard on Sunday, she is also a first rate improviser. Her sonic interaction with sounds generated by Elias Stemeseder’s synthesizer added both woozy depth and sharp accents to Webber’s compositions. Neither soloed at length; instead they provided short riffs and fills that gave the music its warp and woof.

 

I first heard about Stemeseder in 2017, when drummer Jim Black hipped me to his name. With bassist Thomas Morgan, the pianist was part of Black’s phenomenal trio, which has four discs to its name. This was also my first opportunity to meet and hear him. He and Roberts set the stage for “Fizz”, laying down a sultry bed over which the horns soared, and he got to dazzle briefly with an arresting array of buzzes and bleaps on “Periodicity 1”. He is an exceptional pianist and I look forward to hearing him play acoustically.

 

Like her fellow saxophonist and composer Ingrid Laubrock, who performed in the Valley three days earlier, Anna Webber is a rising star who continues to turn heads and break new ground. She’s poised to do so for years to come. It’s a good time to be a fan of creative music.

“During the last decade saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock has been steadily expanding her reach as a composer, devising new ways to inspire, organize and situate improvised music”, writes Peter Margasak in the liner notes to Laubrock’s most recent recording, Monochromes. Margasak’s point was beautifully illustrated for 60 intent listeners who filled the Perch at Hawks & Reed on March 14. The 53 year old German tenor and soprano saxophonist brought Lilith, her sextet of promising younger musicians to Greenfield for a set of highly charged originals.

 

On stage behind Lilith was a dramatic set design for Gorgons, a play produced by Human Agenda Theater that was between weekend performances. Giant paper mache forms were attached to the walls, interspersed with sculpted human figures and enigmatic equations written in chalk. I think the set’s baffling effect improved the sound quality while reinforcing the additive quality that comes with combining different art forms. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if musicians could consistently play in theaters after closing night, before sets were struck?

 

The music flowed from piece to piece, all unnamed and played without pause, in a suite-like trance lasting about 75 minutes. The compositional frames Laubrock built were sturdy, with open floor plans, allowing the band: Yvonne Rogers (piano), Dave Adewumi (trumpet), Adam Matlock (accordion), Eva Lawitts (bass) and Henry Mermer (drums), plenty of room to stretch their improvising chops, which were considerable.

 

Some of her pieces featured tricky heads at quick tempos; others unfolded as slowly as dawn, with elegant melodies emerging through an expanse of open time. Laubrock’s burgeoning reputation as a composer has been confirmed in recent years. Her piece, Vogelfrei, was nominated 'one of the best 25 Classical tracks of 2018' by The New York Times. She won the Herb Alpert/Ragdale Prize in Composition 2019, and has received a slew of composing commissions from the BBC Glasgow Symphony Orchestra, Bang on The Can, American Composers Orchestra, Tricentric Foundation, SWR New Jazz Meeting, Wet Ink, and the EOS Orchestra, among other organizations.

 

Her writing gave form to the improvisations, which were played by individuals or by groups of two or three. The applause after most solos gave the proceedings a jazz feel despite the new music vibe that permeated the evening. Matlock, who studied with Margaux Simmons at Hampshire College, had a particularly mesmerizing unaccompanied solo full of stuttering bursts of air amid pastoral fragments of melody. His work throughout anchored the music, and the unique sonority of his instrument lent the music a folkish, old world feel. Roger’s delicate approach to the piano had a jewel-like quality that was interrupted by a welcome foray of force on her one extended solo. Like all her bandmates, she had a very sophisticated understanding of harmony and rhythm.

 

Lilith came together last year at the behest of jazzahead!, a large, annual festival and trade fair in Bremen. Germany, who asked Laubrock to put together a new ensemble. She knew trumpeter Dave Adewumi from Jason Moran’s Harlem Hellfighter’s project, and the two horns created a strong front line that sparred playfully and delivered punchy lines in unison. An up and comer, Adewumi was awarded 1st prize in the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Competition in 2019, and can be found on recordings by Dave Douglas and Remy Le Boeuf.


The rhythm team of Lawitts and Mermer rooted the band, providing both textural depth and a flexible swing feel. Everyone in the ensemble were crack musicians who could read and interpret, adding their personal voice to Laubrock’s complex compositions. By the time they perform, and then record this work at Firehouse 12 in New Haven two days hence, we should have another fully formed statement of consequence from Ingrid Laubrock. 

A World of Piano, a series of three solo concerts, celebrated its 13th season at the Arts Trust Building in Northampton, February 23-25, as Alexis Marcelo (Friday), Kris Davis (Saturday) and Rob Schwimmer (Sunday) each gave a stirring lesson in how to construct a solo recital. The series was a collaboration between Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares and the Northampton Center for the Arts.

 

The piano is at once a string instrument and a percussion instrument, able to play chords and single notes, handle bass chores, utilize counterpoint and alter it’s sound by preparing its innards. The piano’s orchestral-like versatility makes it a uniquely rich device for an unaccompanied performer. A World of Piano takes its name from a 1962 Phineas Newborn album, and these three accomplished musicians afforded us a chance to hear their wildly personal takes on the ever expanding jazz tradition.

 

Alexis Marcelo spent the second half of the 1990s at UMass, where he was mentored by Dr. Yusef Lateef. In 2001, when I presented Brother Yusef at the UMass Magic Triangle Series on his 80th birthday, he insisted on having Marcelo in the band (alongside Von Freeman, and former students Tim Dahl and Kamal Sabir.) While still a youngster, the late, great multi-instrumentalist brought Marcelo to Europe to perform with his ensemble and featured him on multiple recordings. He has also formed a strong association with percussionist, and long-time Lateef collaborator Adam Rudolph, with whom he tours and records. Marcelo began his concert with the gospel tune “Let Us Break Bread Together”, which set the tone for a soulful and uplifting evening of music. The rest of the recital included an Afro-Peruvian melody, George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun”, and a number of distinctive Marcelo originals which were highly percussive, rhythmically provocative, and full of pleasing melody. His anxiously awaited recording debut as a leader, a solo outing on the well-respected Swiss label, Intakt, was delayed by his work in Anthony Davis’ celebrated opera, “X”, which recently concluded a two-month run at the Metropolitan Opera.

 

Kris Davis treated a full house of listeners to a daring and bracing concert that featured a healthy dose of improvisation and a clear demonstration of her prowess at the keyboard. Her use of metal objects on some of the piano strings expanded her sound palette, transforming the piano into a dampened, buzzing kalimba-like instrument. Her repertoire ranged from references to 20th century classical music to Monk’s “Evidence”. Davis’ profile has risen precipitously in recent years, due to her expanding discography, her respected record label and her work at the Berklee School of Music. She has 25 recordings as a leader, and has contributed to dozens more by folks like Ingrid Laubrock, Eric Revis and Tom Rainey. Her latest with the cooperative ensemble Diatom Ribbons, was recorded live at The Village Vanguard with Terri Lyne Carrington, Val Jeanty, Julian Lage and Trevor Dunn. That record was released on Pyroclastic, a label she founded in 2016 that has produced over 30 albums by some of the most forward looking jazz artists of the day. She is the Associate Program Director of the Berklee Institute For Jazz and Gender Justice, and with fellow pianist Angelica Sanchez, is creating The International Music Creators and Collaborator Workshop, a one-week program for emerging musicians that will host its first season at Bard College in June.

 

A World of Piano concluded on Sunday afternoon with a riveting performance by Rob Schwimmer, who also appeared in the series in 2008. He arrived in the Valley in time to share Saturday dinner with Kris Davis, with whom he collaborated on Noah Preminger’s 2019 release, Zigsaw: Music of Steve Lampert. It was fun to watch them geek out and “talk piano”. Schwimmer, who possesses one of the quickest wits I’ve been around, played theremin on Preminger’s recording and is an acknowledged master of the instrument. Unfortunately, he did not play it in Northampton. Schwimmer has a most intriguing resume. Although not as well-known as his talent would suggest, he has traveled the world with Simon & Garfunkel, and performed with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Stevie Wonder, Bobby McFerrin, Willie Nelson, The Cleveland Orchestra, Chaka Khan, Laurie Anderson, Bette Midler and Queen Latifah, as well as a long list of jazz luminaries. With Bang On a Can’s Mark Stewart, he leads the hilarious and musically astute duo, The Polygraph Lounge, and has toured extensively with the Mark Morris Dance Company. Full of rhapsodic arpeggios and classical flourishes, Schwimmer provided a varied set that included Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence” and selections from the Great American Songbook. He told me that after hearing Davis’ Saturday concert full of avant adventures, he wanted to gear his performance in a more tonal direction.

 

For me, programming these piano concerts is so much fun. Trying to convey a sense of the wide world of jazz piano by finding balance and brilliance each season is a welcome challenge. No matter how many years we do this, we will never run out of great musicians willing to explore new facets of the keyboard universe.

 

 

 

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
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