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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

In the creative music world, relationships matter. Because the music is heavily improvised, musicians must listen deeply to each other in order for meaningful dialogue to occur. Because the material payouts are often meager, the relationships between players becomes its own reward.

I was reminded of this fact on April 15, when Stephen Haynes’ septet, Knuckleball, convened at the Shea Theater for a concert produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares. The concert was supported by a generous grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts, so at least for this evening, the musicians were paid well.

“Perhaps my favorite thing about the work yesterday in Turners Falls,” Haynes wrote on Facebook, “was the conversations: in cars, filled with sets of musicians driving to the gig, before and after our set, during dinner before we performed. Some of this was old friends in the ensemble reconnecting and reminiscing, some of it was new connections - the sort of listening and exchanges that knit and gather ensemble naturally. All of this flowed into and informed the improvisation throughout our hour plus set.”

And what a set it was.

In order to be closer to the audience, the ensemble set up in the pit in front of the stage. Sam Newsome (soprano sax), Josh Roseman (trombone) and Ben Stapp (tuba), were in one row, facing the three cornetists: Taylor Ho Bynum, Herb Robertson and Haynes, with Eric Rosenthal (drums) between them.

The unscripted performance had the drama and the ebb and flow of a great film score. There were no solos, per se. Rather, instrumental voices would emerge from the sound pool to command attention before retreating back into the mix. Periods of stasis morphed into cacophony before settling into quiet reflection. Brief solos and moments of dialogue between members of the ensemble gave the music space to breath.

Robertson’s use of miscellaneous sound making devices, what the Art Ensemble of Chicago called “little instruments”, greatly expanded the band’s sonic universe. Newsome, fresh off his brilliant work with Joe Morris and Francisco Mela in the same space three weeks earlier, attached tubes and tin foil to his soprano sax to produce myriad textures and colors. All the horn players employed mutes of various kinds, sometimes more than one at a time, to bend notes and invoke voice-like inflection.

The music was open and abstract, and produced a range of emotions. The nature of the proceedings reinforced the notion that we were exploring basic sound science, but the mastery of the musicians meant that the experiments were all in the service of making a collective sound. There was nothing dry or academic about it. Indeed, the dynamism of the players gave the septet a cohesion and shared purpose; they meshed perfectly.

After the show, most of the band reconvened at our house, where we listened to and marveled at Herb Robertson’s monumental 1988 JMT recording, Shades of Bud Powell. Ben Stapp, who teaches music to public school youngsters in Long Island City, was very interested in The Saga of Padani, a very hip recording by Oakland middle schoolers who have been taught to compose and improvise by their teacher Randy Porter. So it went past midnight, sharing stories and information, kibitzing, joking, eating and drinking.

Which brings us back to the notion of relationship. There were no egos, no stars in the band. Just seven highly accomplished veterans deciding in the moment what the music needed. The bonds deepened and expectations soared that the bands’ upcoming gigs at Firehouse 12 and Real Art Ways would yield even more satisfying results, and that the subsequent recording would be worthy of widespread public attention.

The perennial question “is jazz dead” has always puzzled me, and the related imperative, taken up by many a jazz society, to “keep jazz alive”, is also a head scratcher. Certainly from an economic standpoint, the jazz world is on life support, largely dependent on wealthy patrons, institutions and public funds for its survival. Jazz musicians struggling to make ends meet is not a new problem, even if the reasons have shifted from racism and unscrupulous club and record owners, to public and media neglect. But despite real hardships borne by artists, the health of the music has never been better. If you know where to look, you can find more talented musicians, exploring more facets of music than ever in history.

That point was driven home by the Mali Obamsawin Sextet, who delivered a great concert in crappy weather at the Institute for the Musical Arts on March 25. These six young musicians, most in their mid-twenties, are living proof that jazz, as a set of musical ideals, is alive and well. Their stop in Goshen, MA was part of a tour in support of Obamsawin’s recent album, Sweet Tooth. The band included Mali Obomsawin (bass, voice), Zack O'Farrill (drums), Allison Burik (alto sax, bass clarinet), Noah Campbell (tenor sax), Miriam Elhajli (voice, guitar) and Allison Philips (trumpet).

Like most emerging musicians today, their learning place has shifted from the bandstand to the classroom, but the members of the Sextet have already logged a ton of real world experience. They seemed relaxed and seasoned, and delivered a polished performance filled with compelling music. The compositions, all found on the new record, were written and/or arranged by Obamsawin, and highlight her connection to her Abenaki heritage.

The evening began with a solo by Elhajli, a Venezuelan-Moroccan-American guitarist and vocalist, educated at Berklee. She’s a researcher at The Association for Cultural Equity, founded by Alan Lomax, where she discovered Doc Watson’s, “Winter’s Night”. Her finger-picking performance was a tour de force and showcased an angelic and muscular voice that transfixed all 50 audience members.

Obamsawin, a member of Abenaki First Nation at Odanak (Quebec), was mentored by Taylor Ho Bynum at Dartmouth College. Ho Bynum plays cornet on Sweet Tooth and helped produce the recording. Five years removed from Dartmouth, Obamsawin is an activist and a holder of stories and culture, and she set up many of the pieces with concise and cogent remarks.

“Wawasint8da”, a beautiful Catholic hymn with lyrics translated from Latin to Abenaki by an early Jesuit priest, devolved as the melody fractured, reflecting the complicated history between First Nation peoples and their colonizers. “Pedegwajois” featured the recorded voice of Theophile Panadis, recounting an ancient tale of a young man receiving a teaching, which brings him to the middle of Betobagw (“Lake Champlain”) during a thunderstorm.

One reason jazz remains a living, breathing art form is the integration of disparate musical traditions with African-American constructs. Many jazz artists, including Charlie Parker, Oscar Pettiford, Mildred Bailey and Don Pullen, had Native American ancestry, and the weaving of traditional chants, melodies and stories into jazz lexicon has precedent. Saxophonist Jim Pepper, whose parents were Creek and Kaw, had a hit in the late-1960s/early 1970s with “Witchi-Tai-To,” which was built around a peyote song Pepper learned from his grandfather. Recent efforts by Obamsawin, Diné trumpeter Delbert Anderson and Nez Percé singer Julia Keefe have organically incorporated Indigenous aesthetics into jazz. For information on the impact Native Americans have had on American music more generally, watch RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World.

The horn section added piquancy and punch. Noah Campbell, a classmate of Obamsawin’s at Dartmouth, delivered strong solos on tenor and soprano saxophone. He’s getting his PhD in political science at Brown in his spare time. Alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist Allison Burik was mentored by Joe Morris at New England Conservatory. When I saw Morris at last week’s Jazz Shares concert, he told me how much he liked and respected Burik. Trumpeter Allison Phillips was educated at the New School, before earning a masters in Jazz Performance from the Conservatorium van Amsterdam in The Netherlands. Together they provided bite, carried melody and raised the level of musicianship in the ensemble.

Drummer Zack O’Farrill was the only musician I had worked with before. He was part of a family band with his father, Arturo, and brother, Adam, in Holyoke in 2013, and he performed in Easthampton, with Adam’s Stranger Days quartet in 2017. As third generation royalty (his grandfather is big band legend Chico O’Farrill), Zack is well positioned to carry on the family legacy.

Mali Obamsawin’s Sextet provided a powerful first-person assertion of cultural pride, along with a healthy dose of musical prowess and youthful exuberance. It gave us pleasure in the moment and hope for the future of jazz.

A thirst for challenge and new experience fuels many jazz artists, who find exhilaration in the uncertainty that comes from improvising. Joe Morris, Sam Newsome and Francisco Mela, who played together for the first time as a trio at the Shea Theater on March 23, embraced their novel situation with gusto and confidence.

Morris, best known as a top-tier guitarist, played bass. Newsome, who came up playing tenor saxophone, was featured on soprano sax. And Francisco Mela, who grew up playing Latin rhythms, played drums with only passing reference to his Cuban heritage.

The result was a bracing, hour-long free improvisation that busted conventional niceties. Preferring to be closer to the 50 active listeners in the house, the musicians decided to forego the proscenium stage for the pit in front, and proceeded to worm their way into 100 ears.

For someone who has been impacting students for over two decades at the New England Conservatory, Morris has a fraught relationship with formal education. He didn’t go to college or a conventional high school, and he holds strong opinions about why “jazz education”, and the academy more broadly, has largely failed to foster creativity and deal with race. Over the course of his career, Morris has followed his own advice to students: make a scene with like-minded musicians and create your own opportunities. He has done that where ever he’s lived.

Morris is a music community organizer who has created scenes in Boston and throughout the Hartford/New Haven area. He co-founded the Boston Improvisers Group in the 1980s, and has a long history of producing and curating in Connecticut, especially with Real Art Ways in Hartford. In the last few years he has revived his fabulous monthly Sunday afternoon series at RAW called Improvisations Now. Ingrid Laubrock, Tom Rainey and Brandon Lopez will join Morris on April 2. It was instructive for us to compare notes on producing creative music.

After establishing himself as one of the most creative guitarists in jazz, Morris picked up the bass about 23 years ago. He is self-taught on both, and is in the process of adding drums and piano to his repertoire. His bass playing on Thursday was insistent, driving and inventive. He used a drum stick in addition to a bow to provide a throbbing bottom for the group sound.

Since 1995 Newsome has devoted himself exclusively to the soprano saxophone, and in 2005 started to develop a serious solo saxophone practice, using tubes, mutes, bells and balloons to provide an expanded sound palette. His Jazz Shares concert at the Wistariahurst Museum in December, 2019, was memorable. At the Shea, Newsome limited his bag of add-ons to chimes and a mute made of crumpled tin foil. Walking around his stationary bandmates, Newsome weaved lines of fractured melody, at times playing highly rhythmic staccato phrases or endless passages using circular breathing techniques. While in action, he waved his instrument from side to side, much like another paragon of the soprano sax, Jane Ira Bloom. Newsome is also a dedicated educator (at Long Island University in Brooklyn), and a writer. His recent book, Be Inspired, Stay Focused: Creativity, Learning and the Business of Music, is a deep, yet easy to read primer for musicians and lay people alike. He also writes fiction, and is close to going public with a novel and a set of short stories. Newsome will be back at the Shea Theater on April 15th, performing with Stephen Haynes’ seven-piece ensemble, Knuckleball.

Newsome and Mela, who hadn’t met before the gig, are both in their mid-fifties, and veterans of real repute. Born in Bayamo, Cuba and educated at the National School of Arts for Teachers, el CENCEA, Mela came to Boston in 2000 to enroll at the Berklee School of Music. Upon arrival, he realized he was offered only a half scholarship. Unable to afford the other half, Mela stayed in Boston, becoming a ubiquitous presence in the city and the house drummer at Wally’s Cafe. He now teaches at Berklee and has been a fixture in the ensembles of Joe Lovano, Esperanza Spalding and the late McCoy Tyner. His recent recordings as a leader on 577 Records includes William Parker, Cooper-Moore, Matthew Shipp and Zoh Amba. His drumming and his persona are infectious and ebullient. His kit was augmented by bongos and a frame drum, and he used it to propel the trio to ecstatic heights. His constant smile and yelps of joy lent momentum and good energy to the proceedings. It was great to finally meet him.

No fancy band name, no records together, just three creative souls open to making music with each other. I’m attracted to musicians who have vision, talent and drive, and are serious and humble about developing their genius. Joe Morris, Sam Newsome and Francisco Mela are like that.

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