top of page

Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

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.

Fame comes in all shapes and sizes, and is pursued differently by each of us. The pianist, vocalist, lyricist and composer Robin Holcomb, who gave a magical performance at the Institute for the Musical Arts on December 3, has earned a good deal of fame in her life, despite her lack of hunt for it.

A self-described recluse, Holcomb has nonetheless amassed accolades and a loyal contingent of fans over her 40 year career. A few of the 40 folks who made their way to Goshen, MA on a dark and stormy night, told me they were touched by her 1990s Elektra/Nonesuch recordings and couldn’t miss the opportunity to see her live. Quietly, out of the limelight, the fame-adjacent Holcomb has made a career sharing her unique response to early American music with all who will listen.

“The late Hal Wilner, his own kind of genius, deserves so much credit for trusting Robin on his many projects in homage to different artists,” wrote Holcomb’s husband, pianist and composer Wayne Horvitz. “At Hal’s invitation, she was often the least famous person on stage, in the company of Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed and Bono and Elvis Costello and Martha Wainwright and many, many more. But as Hal said one morning, after a very long night, on the bus back to the airport in Dublin, ‘here comes Robin, the only one whose music always comes fully baked to these half-baked affairs’”.

The songs Holcomb shared with us on Sunday were small finished gems, four minute pieces of polished perfection that illustrated the human condition in all its expression. IMA’s rustic wooden barn was the perfect venue to experience the music’s plaintive, 19th century aesthetic. She took liberties with a few “covers” by Stephen Foster and Doc Pomus, but otherwise performed original work.

Her piano playing was at once simple and layered, beautiful and tart. Her timing and touch were exquisite, and the note choices and voicings were modern and complex, qualitatively different from typical singer-songwriter fare. She performed a piece without vocals, and elsewhere gave herself ample space to stretch out and highlight her considerable, if understated, piano technique. I heard her voice as fragile, but sure of itself, and her straightforward delivery was offered without adornment or embellishment. Holcomb was there to deliver a lyric. That said, the effect was poignant and potent.

“Satie goes to Appalachia, Morricone goes to the Knitting factory, and you, dear art-folk fan, die and go to heaven,” was how the Village Voice described her impact.

I often have trouble discerning lyrics in live music settings, and on Sunday I wished the vocals had been a bit higher in the mix. But thanks to her recent solo recording, One Way or Another, Vol. 1, and her book, Lyrics, both of which I took home with me, I have been able to sit with many of the pieces she performed in concert. The feelings of that evening continue to simmer.

Holcomb gave us several pieces from song cycles she wrote inspired by Rachel Carson and the utopian communities active in the Pacific Northwest in the late-1880s. In “Copper Bottom”, she sings:

Set me up there with my daughter

I lost my voice around the corner

Don’t confuse me with my laughter

I won’t return the morning after

Don’t come looking for my blessing

I’m not coming back to the colony

no, never

Her rendition of Doc Pomus and Herb Abramson’s “I’ve Got That Feeling”, was reconfigured from a stock, 1950s-era blues about lust, to a haunting folk song that featured a mildly surprising, but very welcome swell of volume on the piano.

Holcomb, who had an avid interest in Civil War songs growing up, told us she has a love/hate relationship with Stephen Foster, before playing two of his compositions, including the oft-covered “Hard Times Come Again No More”. Her interpretation had an ache that seemed relevant to us all, whether we find ourselves on the prairie or in the parlor.

Holcomb was raised in and around Santa Cruz, CA, before she and Horvitz spent 1977-1987 in New York, where they played with the likes of John Zorn, Marty Ehrlich, Syd Straw, Bill Frisell, Butch Morris, Arto Lindsay, Elliot Sharp and many others. They’ve lived in Seattle since. They were in New York for Horvitz’ four-day Stone residency, so we were happy to extend a Jazz Shares invitation for Holcomb to perform in western Massachusetts. Horvitz, who played at IMA last April with bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck, joined his wife at the end of her set, utilizing tasteful electronic drones from his laptop, as well as playing piano and harmonica.

Holcomb has achieved her fame without fanfare, in her own way, on her own terms; it’s all the more durable for that. She is living proof that you can’t fake authentic. While a general public blinded by pomp and pizzazz has had trouble recognizing this in large numbers, her peers have had an easier time of it. William Parker called her music “a map that guides us to the house of the sages.” “Have I heard this before?” her long-time collaborator Bill Frisell wrote about her new solo recording. “Not like this. Everyone. Please LISTEN. Listen closely. We need this.”

Drummer Chris Corsano and tenor saxophonist Zoh Amba are world travelers, barely burdened by quotidian concerns like mailboxes and addresses. Like Aurora Nealand, who was recently here with Tim Berne’s trio, and elders like Hamid Drake and Don Cherry before them, a look at Amba and Corsano’s touring schedules confirms that they are rarely home (or in one spot for very long.) They are itinerant musicians, modern griots.

Amba and Corsano stopped at Holyoke Media on November 19, concluding a 12-city tour with a concert produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares. They gave an incendiary performance for 65 broad-eared listeners.

Rather than stay put and create a scene in a hometown, Amba and Corsano choose to travel the globe, touring and collaborating with locals in locales large and small, forging new connections and planting musical seeds where ever they go. When I asked Corsano if he lived in New Jersey, he chuckled and said he doesn’t really “live” anywhere at the moment.

Over the course of 65 minutes of map-less free jazz, our fearless troubadours used expanded vocabularies to cover a large swath of emotional territory on their way to the promised land. Despite the pure nature of their improvisation, they managed to stick a half-dozen dismounts, bringing each piece to a perfect conclusion with logic and precision.

I’ve known Chris Corsano since his Hampshire College days during the second half of the 1990s. He was mentored by writer and record collector Byron Colley, (whose Feeding Tube Records is a Jazz Shares business sponsor), and Michael Ehlers, owner of Eremite Records, who produced The Transnational Jazz Conspiracy on WMUA, and around 100 concerts in the Valley, before moving west in 2009. Suffice to say Corsano was exposed to a lot of good music. I first met him when he worked the door for Ehler’s operation, and in the interceding years, he has developed into a master of sound and rhythm.

He played two high-hat cymbals (with separate pedals, close together), and his cymbal work generally shimmered and shined. There was a point when he placed a small, metal bowl on his floor tom and created holy, resonant tones. Sometimes he used two sticks in each hand, creating a mass vibration. He could be seen flipping sticks to take advantage of the special sonorities each end provided. Corsano swung hard and had the requisite force to match Zoh Amba.

If she were not standing right in front of us, no one would imagine that the ferocious, guttural torrent of sound we were hearing was coming from a slight, 23 year old white woman from rural Tennessee, who skews shy and introverted when off-stage. But there was Zoh Amba, summoning the spirit of her role models: Albert Ayler, Frank Wright, David S. Ware and Frank Lowe, testing the soundproofing of our black box studio space, while putting her personal stamp on the “fire music” of the 1960s.

The band was in fifth gear from the first note. She produced cascades of tones broken into multiphonic shards; she displayed the pathos-filled vibrato and gospel leanings we associate with Ayler; she shared the raw, fuck-it-all attitude we get from punk and noise. But despite the music's intensity, Amba had such control of her instrument and spewed so many ideas so quickly, it didn’t feel like a demand, it felt immersive and meditative.

Amba spent hours playing saxophone in the woods near her home in Kingsport, TN, and did deep YouTube dives into her predecessors. But she has living mentors, too. She studied with David Murray for a time, and spoke kindly about Mark Dresser, who was very encouraging. She’s learned from playing with veterans like drummer Tyshawn Sorey, who’s featured on her latest release, Bhakti (Mahakala Music), and John Zorn, who produced and appears on her first recording, O, Sun (Tzadik). She has worked with William Parker, Francisco Mela, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily. She only has a bit of post-secondary training, but she’s been well educated. Hank Shteamer wrote a wonderful profile

of her last year in the New York Times.

One of the roles of “jazz producer” I most cherish, is having musicians stay overnight at the home I share with Priscilla Page, where we provide respite and rejuvenation for musicians on the road. We supply whatever they need: morning coffee, home-made food, laundry, some Valley jazz history, mood enhancers, stories and news. We are glad to be part of the jazz world’s connective tissue, making safe spaces for musicians who flit from place to place. For one day, I was glad to share all that with Zoh Amba and Chris Corsano, two modern road warriors spreading a gospel of love through music.

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
bottom of page