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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

If one needed further proof of the miracle and majesty of the act of improvisation, the concert by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and pianist Angelica Sanchez at Amherst College on March 10, made the case. The two master musicians spent an hour searching the moment to create powerful, spontaneous music.

The event at Buckley Recital Hall, part of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ 11th season of concerts, was presented in partnership with the Amherst College Department of Music, and was made possible by professors Darryl Harper and Jason Robinson.

The great soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy was once asked about the difference between composition and improvisation. The difference, he said “is that in composition you have all the time you want to think about what to say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have only 15 seconds."

For Smith and Sanchez there was no preconceived roadmap and no time to deliberate, only, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “the fierce urgency of now”. Relying on their musical wits and a lifetime of experience, Smith and Sanchez gave 100 rapt listeners a window into their performance practice and their souls.

The two have a bit of shared history. Sanchez was a member of Smith’s Golden Quartet, and they collaborated on Twine Forest, a series of duets released on Clean Feed Records in 2013, but they arrived in Amherst from two very different paths.

Smith was born 81 years ago in Leland, Mississippi and came of age playing in blues, r&b and marching bands. Here is Smith playing in Glendora, Mississippi in 2017. In 1970, he developed a compositional system of graphic notation he calls Ankhrasmation, and he has subsequently composed for string quartet and orchestra. After retiring from CalArts in 2014, he moved back to New Haven, Connecticut, where he has a daughter and grandchildren. In the 1970s, Smith was part of a very vibrant Hartford/Wesleyan/New Haven music scene that included Anthony Davis, Pheeroan AkLaff, Gerry Hemingway, Ed Blackwell, Jay Hoggard and Mark Helias, among others. He is one of the jazz world’s most decorated and celebrated artists.

Sanchez was born in Arizona and moved to New York in 1994. Now 50, she is working more than ever, with trips to Chicago, Knoxville and Europe in the next few months. Her duo recording with fellow pianist Marilyn Crispell, How To Turn the Moon (2020), and her trio with Michael Formanek and Billy Hart, Sparkle Being (2022), both garnered significant critical praise. Her second Nonet recording will be released on Pyroclastic in October. This past fall, she started teaching full time at Bard College, (where Smith taught from 1987-1993), and she is parenting Jack, who is finishing high school in New Jersey.

Friday’s concert featured discreet improvisations that often ended on beautiful notes. How do they know when an unscripted piece is over? There were short periods when one of them would play alone, but there never seemed to be a leader or a follower; they were equals accompanying each other. “How wide is your now?”, the Bay area improviser Tim Perkis used to ask. In other words, how much knowledge and experience can you summon in the moment to make a coherent musical statement? In the case of Smith and Sanchez, the answer is a lot.

From the stage after the performance, Smith thanked us for our attention, drawing a distinction between hearing and listening. Although it was difficult to catch all his words, his gist was that while hearing is a mechanical process, listening requires intent and a level of engagement that musicians feed on to enhance the creative process. Indeed, the audience was one of the quietest I’ve heard, lending focus to an evening without amplification. The microphones on stage were for recording purposes, laying the groundwork, perhaps, for a sequel to their first duo release.

The intensity of the evening was enhanced by the warm acoustics of Buckley Recital Hall, which riveted our attention on the beautiful abstractions of two geniuses with a very wide now.

Some shows are easier to produce than others. The concert at Hawks & Reed on March 4, featuring Jorge Sylvester Spontaneous Expressions, landed on one end of the spectrum. First there was the looming winter storm warning that threatened to dump a foot of snow on Greenfield (it ended early and amounted to much less than 12 inches.) Days before the gig, the band’s pianist, Kuba Cichocki, got COVID. On Wednesday, Amtrak canceled their scheduled train. A half-hour out of New York, their new train lost power and didn’t move for two hours. Instead of a leisurely meal and some downtime, we zipped straight from the Springfield train station to the venue, arriving at 6:50pm for a 7:30pm show. If that wasn’t enough, the bass drum pedal was faulty.

I’m not sure if the stress made the music sweeter, but there was certainly a sense of relief when the first note sounded, only 15 minutes later than usual. The ensemble, led by alto saxophonist Jorge Sylvester, featured vocalist Nora McCarthy, drummer Tony Moreno, and last minute replacement Bruce Arnold on guitar.

The set began with a solo by Sylvester, using Monk’s “Epistrophy” as his point of departure. It served as a wonderful introduction to his sly improvising and full bodied tone. As the evening unfolded, Sylvester proceeded to break the quartet into various duos and trios, giving us a chance to really hone in on each player; maybe half the concert featured the full group. He employed a similar strategy on his latest release, Mayhem At Large, a live concert recording featuring eight players, but only two octet pieces; the rest were duos and solos.

The evening’s 80-minute set was plenty experimental, featuring lots of open improvisation that only hinted at predictable harmony and rhythm. That was true even when the band invoked tunes such as “Peace”. McCarthy sung Horace Silver’s beautiful lyrics and melody while the rest of the ensemble alluded to the form with accents and embellishments.

The Panamanian-born Sylvester, now 70, has been plugging away at his craft since boyhood, mentored by fellow countrymen, Euclides Hall, Efrain Castro and Victor Boa. After earning a music degree from SUNY New Paltz in 1981, he had impactful experiences at Karl Berger’s legendary Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY, where he first made contact with Dave Holland, Oliver Lake and violinist Ramsey Ameen, who became an important collaborator. Career stops have included tours with the World Saxophone Quartet, work with Andrew Cyrille, Craig Harris and the poet Sekou Sundiata (check out The Blue Oneness of Dreams), and numerous recordings as a leader. His first Jazz Shares appearance in 2015 with his ACE Collective, took place at Northampton’s Parlor Room.

Nora McCarthy’s role in the group brought to mind vocalists like Phil Minton, Maggie Nichols and Lauren Newton, who don’t just croon on a bed of sound, but are instrumentalists actually embedded in the ensemble, comping, improvising, interacting like all the other musicians. Her alto voice was sometimes out front singing lyrics, but could also be heard wordlessly blending with a background guitar figure or trading rhythms with drums. The morning after the concert she regaled us with stories about singing background vocals in Wilson Pickett’s’ band as a young person. McCarthy is not only a long-time collaborator of Sylvester’s, they’re life partners.

Sylvester also has a long relationship with Tony Moreno, the veteran drummer who has worked with Frank Kimbrough, Ole Mathisen and Marc Mommas. There was a sureness of touch, a confidence in his playing that comes from a lifetime behind the kit. Born in Manhattan, Moreno was mentored by Elvin Jones, who sold him his first drum set. Moreno studied with him for six years at Frank Ippolito’s Professional Percussion Center, where he also became friends with Mel Lewis, Tony Williams, Gene Krupa and Billy Cobham. Moreno told us the heartbreaking story of losing equipment, all his instruments (including a Yamaha C6 grand piano and a drum kit owned by Papa Jo Jones), and his mother’s music library, including manuscripts dating back to the 15th century, in Hurricane Sandy. Despite the hardship, Moreno exuded a zest for music and the people who make it.

Moreno also suggested adding Bruce Arnold to the band. The two have been collaborating for over 15 years. They shared a basement studio at Westbeth, the legendary complex of artist housing, gallery, studio and performance space in the West Village, that was devastated by the hurricane in 2012. I didn’t know Arnold before last week, another example of the depth of musical talent that escapes even attentive listeners like me. Arnold is a prolific author and educator (Berklee, NYU, Princeton), who has 300 books, videos and apps on music theory, time studies, ear training, guitar technique and more. He can also play the guitar at the highest level in many styles.

Overcoming obstacles and enduring neglect seems to define the jazz journey of many. Like Jorge Sylvester and the members of his band, those that make it develop a resilience and resourcefulness that results in hard earned brilliance.

People sometimes use the term “serious music” to distinguish it from the easy pleasures of popular music. Besides the implied value judgement about the inherent worth of such music, the term also assumes added effort to both produce and appreciate it. But the serious music made by the Patricia Brennan Quartet in the barn at the Institute for the Musical Arts on February 25, displayed a seriousness of purpose and was readily enjoyable.

The Quartet featured Brennan on vibraphone, along with Kim Cass, bass, Noah Brennan, trap drums and Mauricio Herrera, congas and batá drums. They played material from their recent Pyroclastic release, More Touch. (Marcus Gilmore plays drums on the recording.)

The musicians had obviously invested a good deal of effort to turn the subtle, shifting nature of Brennan’s compositions into breathable and satisfying sound; and from conversations with the band it was clear they have devoted their lives to developing a deep understanding of Latin and classical music.

Patricia Brennan was born and raised in Veracruz, Mexico where she absorbed son jarocho and other traditional music, while learning to play piano, marimba and timpani. Fully immersed in the western classical canon, Brennan toured with leading Mexican orchestras before enrolling at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her detour towards improvised music has put her in the illustrious company of John Hollenbeck, Michael Formanek, Mary Halvorson, Matt Mitchell and Vijay Iyer. We first heard her in person last year at IMA in Goshen, when she played in Mary LaRose’s Dolphy project.

Brennan told us about playing John Cage and Steve Reich compositions for percussion quartet, and how the instrumentation of those groups inspired her current configuration. The music Brennan organized had rhythmic bite, harmonic complexity and plenty of melody. The pieces with overt Latin rhythms, like “Unquiet Respect” and “Square Bimagic”, churned with forward momentum. “Space For Place”, began with gauzy atmospherics, before Herrera entered on batá drums, raising sacred plumes. The piece ended with a tight, high energy percussive line.

Brennan’s use of pedals and technology to bend notes made me think of Mary Halvorson’s guitar approach. Although much of the music was firmly in the pocket, Brennan’s use of electronics and shifts in mood and tempo, distinguished her pieces from the dance forms they referenced. This superimposition of modern constructs on traditional grooves is immensely exciting, and the 25 intrepid listeners who braved the snow to get there were riveted.

In much the way New Orleans drummers in the early 20th century melded their instruments into the modern drum kit, Mauricio Herrera connected his three, two-headed batá drums so he could play them simultaneously, an innovation conceived in the 1980s. Herrera is a Babalao, a high priest of the Ifá oracle in Santeria practice, and his understanding of the religious significance of each rhythm deepened the music. Since the Cuban-born percussionist came to the U.S. in 2005, he has worked with dozens of high profile musicians in the jazz and Latin music world, using his knowledge of traditional drumming to serve modern ends. His interplay with Noah Brennan provided all-night fireworks and a solid rhythmic foundation for the ensemble.

Patricia’s husband, Noah Brennan, was a revelation. How does someone born and raised in Robbinston, Maine, a coastal town with a population of 600, become an outrageously creative drummer while joining forces with a Mexican rising star? That’s a story for another day. Maybe due to his extra rehearsal time with the composer, Mr. Brennan’s time feel was hand in glove.

As the evening’s other melody instrument, bass played a critical role in the overall sound of the ensemble. Kim Cass was masterful and soulful. In the last few years I’ve started to see his name in print, on records by Matt Mitchell, Rob Garcia and Noah Preminger, and in performance with Tyshawn Sorey, John Zorn and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Now we know what the fuss is about. Like Noah Brennan, Cass moved to Brooklyn from rural Maine and is now rubbing shoulders with the best musicians in the land. Cass will return to western Massachusetts in September for a Jazz Shares performance with Noah Preminger’s quartet.

Incredibly accomplished, Patricia Brennan is poised to blow-up. She has classical chops, and her rhythmic sense is impeccable. Her compositions are complex but not dry, and she is a fearless improvisor. Brennan has her own sound on her instrument, no mean feat on the vibraphone. And she is genuinely nice. She’s also serious.

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