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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

The last two concerts I have produced: the UMass Magic Triangle Jazz Series event on February 25 and Thursday’s (March 17) Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concert at Northampton’s Parlor Room were led by drummers. That, in and of itself, is not a big deal in today’s jazz world (see John Hollenbeck, Tomas Fujiwara, Mike Reed, Terri Lynn Carrington, Bobby Previte, Allison Miller, etc.) But some striking differences and similarities between the two bandleaders made me realize there is more than one way to succeed in music.

Where Matt Wilson appeared precise and polished, Andrew Drury looked a little disheveled, like he had just rolled out of bed. On more than one occasion, Drury began pieces by rummaging around his pile of miscellaneous percussion. Was he looking for something or had the “music” begun?

Where Matt Wilson had us laughing and fully engaged with his in-between banter, Drury confessed that he was having difficulty transitioning from intense music-making to the English language. Where Wilson mostly worked inside established forms, Drury took a more expansive tact, employing more different textures and extended techniques. Where Wilson brought a basic jazz aesthetic to the music, Drury had a rock feel to his playing.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much they had in common. Both are master drummers, of course, working with tremendous musicians. Both are totally versed and in love with the music’s history. Both are accomplished and dedicated jazz educators (check out Wilson’s “kids” CD, WeBop: A Family Jazz Party. Drury spent six months teaching music to members of the Oneida nation and is spending the next few months in public schools in Brownsville and East New York.) Both expressed gratitude for the audiences’ engaged listening.

“We all had a ball,” Drury wrote in an email. “So much appreciate your good spirit and how it manifests itself in a great series, great audience, great dinner, great hanging out before and after the gig… and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to push the music and the group a bit further toward our next steps (most immediately performances in DC and NYC in about 10 days.) Very encouraging!”

Drury’s Content Provider, featuring tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and alto saxophonist Briggan Krauss, treated 65 intrepid listeners to two ample sets of music. Without guitarist Brandon Seabrook, who is on the recent recording but could not make the Jazz Shares gig, the saxophonists had room to move and showcase their considerable skills.

Although the music moved from in-the-pocket funk and African-derived unison passages to basic sound science, it always seemed to retain its shape, purpose and point of view. With eyes closed, it was impossible to determine who/what was creating the undulating electronic sounds (it was Laubrock). I discovered that what sounded like guitar was being produced by Krauss. When I looked, there was Briggan strumming his saxophone keys. (He happens to be an accomplished guitarist.) The vocalized flute passages were actually Drury blowing into the side hole of his floor tom.

My almost grown sons, who had ventured to check out the music, laughed with incredulity. Whatever they ultimately thought of the music, I was glad they saw people claiming the space to express themselves outside of accepted conventions. Periodic murmurs and chuckles from the rest of the crowd confirmed their reactions.

That Andrew Drury, Ingrid Laubrock and Briggan Krauss are virtuoso musicians in complete control of their instruments made their sound production techniques more than novelty. They made music that moved and provoked us, and made us glad we were there.

“Enjoy.” That was Matt Wilson’s advice to Amherst College music students who had gathered to hear the great drummer, composer, bandleader and educator give a workshop before his evening concert. Wilson is a pied piper, on and off the bandstand, using a disarming brilliance to spread his enthusiasm for jazz.

Matt Wilson follows his own advice. Despite the devastating loss of Felicia, his childhood sweetheart, wife and mother of his four teenage children two years ago, Wilson is consistently upbeat, grateful and full of wonder. It’s contagious.

“Give the music more life,” he told Professor Jason Robinson’s students. “Try different things. Play the music slightly backwards to see how it feels. Break out of jazz conventions like head/solo/head, trading fours. Give listeners some mystery, something else to listen to.”

His ensemble, featuring saxophonist Jeff Lederer, cornetist Kirk Knuffke and bassist Martin Wind, gave us plenty to listen to, as they kicked off the 27th year of the UMass Fine Arts Center’s Magic Triangle Jazz Series on Thursday, February 25.

I like to listen to music with my eyes closed. But I had to peek when the band was replaced by what sounded like a Balinese gamelan. All four musicians had picked up brightly colored bells of different pitches and played complex, highly rhythmic, ever changing music. Soon they were using the bells to strike their instruments, producing sounds from other worlds. The piece, “Raga”, a Wilson original found on Humidity (Palmetto, 2002), also featured a driving Indian-based melody and Wilson’s mind-bending solo on the tamberim, a small Brazilian frame drum.

At another point, I had to look again to make sure Wilson’s Quartet had not been replaced by Sun Ra’s Solar-Myth Arkestra. Chris Lightcap had recently given Wilson a stylus synthesizer, a cheap, hand-held gadget, which he rubbed on his floor tom to produce weird, undulating electronic noises. They were not random sounds but, like everything Wilson touches, were filled with logic, wit and surprise. From the amazed smiles and shaking heads of his bandmates, who craned to see what was happening, I’m guessing this marked Wilson’s debut with the little instrument.

Wilson is a genuinely funny guy. After playing “Hug”, with its infectious, easily hummable melody, he mused how well it could serve as a TV theme song, referencing classics like the Mary Tyler Moore show. As the band picked up the melody again, Wilson pantomimed a smiling, waving bus driver using his cymbal as steering wheel.

Just like his imaginary bus driver, Wilson smiles a lot. He also makes other people smile a lot. He is the most important and effective jazz educator this side of Wynton Marsalis. (After Wilson’s Friday UMass workshop, Professor Tom Giampietro wrote, “The kids LOVED it. I have been getting great feedback already, which I knew would happen!”)

Unlike Marsalis, Wilson does not draw lines in the aesthetic sand. He loves it all, and urges students and listeners to embrace all music made with “honesty, clarity and grace.” His Magic Triangle concert reflected that big tent philosophy. While the band approached Charlie Rouse’s “Pumpkin’s Delight” and Gene Ammons’ “The One Before This” with the original swagger and swing, they had no compunction adding daring harmonies and extended techniques. As he introduced the beautiful ballad, “Barack Obama”, written by Butch Warren, he spoke reverentially about Monk’s long time bassist. At other points during the 80-minute concert, the band played abstractly, stretching boundaries that would have made Wynton squirm. That’s why we will follow Matt Wilson wherever he goes.

The vocalist Queen Esther, decked out in a diaphanous, fur-themed dress, made the ornate Robyn Newhouse Hall at the Community Music School of Springfield, seem even more elegant. Accompanied by pianist Jeremy Bacon, resplendent in a deep red, velvet jacket, the Queen Esther Duo performed the rare sides that Billie Holiday sang in the 1930s and 40s. Friday’s concert (February 5) was produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.

Queen Esther’s voice is round and supple. She would slowly roll into words or attack them with well-articulated emphasis. Her phrasing was right on and she expressed these songs of love and love lost with perfect period sentiment.

Over the course of two sets of music, Queen Esther established a wonderful rapport with the 80 intrepid souls who braved a morning snowstorm to hear her sing. A self-described “library nerd” who spent considerable time researching Holiday and her work, Queen Esther gave just the right amount of anecdote and context throughout the evening.

We learned that Holiday spent a good part of 1948 in prison (the same facility where Martha Stewart did time), and despite entreaties from the warden, refused to sing a note while incarcerated. Because of her conviction, she couldn’t work in New York nightclubs, so upon her release, and despite having been off the scene and rusty, Holiday sold out Carnegie Hall. Soon afterwards she premiered “Holiday on Broadway” and began each night with “Easy to Love.” Queen Esther delivered her version with sass and easy swing.

Describing “Some Other Spring” as Holiday’s favorite, Queen Esther gave us a thumbnail sketch of the song’s composer, Irene Kitchings, a brilliant, classically trained pianist and arranger who was leading bands of adult male professionals in Chicago at age 16! She put her own career on hold after marrying pianist Teddy Wilson, expanding his musical horizons and raising their family. Queen Esther’s raised eyebrows and comments about gender inequality were seconded by the assembled.

The duo closed the first set with “Big Stuff,” penned by a young Leonard Bernstein from the musical “Fancy Free.” It was a critical time in Bernstein’s budding career and he created controversy by using “Negro slang” in his lyrics. Bernstein wrote the song with Billie in mind, but lacking clout and cash could not afford to have her sing it in the original production. Queen Esther counted off the rhythm then had a brain freeze; she forgot the words. It was a moment of high, unscripted drama. Her witty repartee, spot on all night, was tested, until a smartphone-wielding member of the audience handed her the three opening words: “So you cry”. With the lyrics unlocked, Queen Esther sailed through the song. In that moment she won over audience members, many of who undoubtedly have had their own experiences with the vagaries of memory.

The role of accompanist requires special skills: blending the sound, leaving space, lack of ego. Pianist Jeremy Bacon acquitted himself beautifully. It was a nice touch to have Bacon begin each set with a solo piece, giving us a chance to see his spread wings.

Queen Esther came highly recommended by acclaimed dramaturg and good friend, Talvin Wilks, who helped develop her Billie Holiday project at Minton’s in New York last year. Thanks Talvin, good call.

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