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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

Nate Wooley’s prodigious talent, expanding musical sensibilities and keen intelligence has overwhelmed any trepidation he feels about performing in public. He has a composition titled I Prefer the Company of Birds. The 42 year old trumpeter and bandleader shared humorous and touching stories about his bouts of social anxiety with 75 concert goers at the Shea Theater on Sunday, November 6.

Before launching into their 70-minute set, Wooley explained his decision to set up shop in the “pit” rather than on the stage of the lovely Turners Falls venue built in 1927. After spending many years of his youth in the back row of big bands (“as far away as one could get from the girls dancing in the back”), he vowed in the future to get as close to the people as possible when playing. This upset the plans of videographer Dennis Steiner of the Archive Project, who was anticipating the superior angles and light afforded from the stage. Instead, the band: Josh Sinton, Matt Moran, Eivind Opsvik, Harris Eisenstadt and Wooley, basked in half shadow throughout the evening.

If the visuals were impaired, the sound was not. Each member of the group was heard clearly and to great effect. The concert, drawn largely from Wooley’s recent recording, (Dance to) The Early Music, (Clean Feed, 2015) featured five mid-career artists at the peak of their powers. Wooley can do things on the trumpet that only a small number of people on the planet can do. The dazzling series of smears, bleats, swallowed notes and split tones, delivered with speed and musicality, caused murmurs and muffled laughter from the crowd. His unaccompanied solo that introduced Skain’s Domain, was breathtaking, like stepping out for a first view from the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Most of the evening’s music was written by Wynton Marsalis, and found on his earliest recordings. That a so-called avant-garde trumpeter would choose to interpret the music of a conservative stylist like Marsalis might seem like a strange choice, perhaps one born of cynicism or parody. In fact, as Wooley explained, after a traumatic experience at sleepaway band camp, he and his father spent the drive home repeatedly listening to Marsalis’ Black Codes (From the Underground). The music had a profound impact on the young Wooley, providing inspiration and direction.

I have found that as a group, jazz musicians are flexible, ingenious and hard to ruffle. That was again illustrated when vibraphonist Matt Moran discovered he had left his cross bar, which stabilizes the instrument and holds the pedal, home. Finding a piece of wood, a whittling knife, gaffer’s tape and a drill borrowed from Jazz Shareholder Ken Irwin, Moran fashioned a replacement. No one (but him) noticed the difference. Using two or four mallet technique, Moran made his instrument sing, adding color and drive to the proceedings.

Incidentally, you should check out his fabulous new recording of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite by his nine-piece Balkan brass band, Slavic Soul Party!.

What a treat to hear a bass clarinet in concert, especially in the hands of Josh Sinton. The son of shareholders John and Wendy Sinton, Josh performed during season one of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares with his outstanding Steve Lacy-inspired quartet, Ideal Bread. That ensemble featured Josh on baritone saxophone. On Sunday we were treated to the rich, woody sound of bass clarinet, played with reverence and irreverence by a master of the instrument.

Drummer Harris Eisenstadt, who will be back in the Valley on February 12 with Old Growth Forrest (Tony Malaby, Jeb Bishop, Jason Roebke), blended perfectly with Wooley’s Quintet, providing just what was needed to needle and spark. He told us of his recent trips to Cuba to study and absorb. Perhaps his solo, played with his hands, reflected this interest in Afro-Cuban drumming. His solo did not sound Latin per se, but the way his fingers and hands hit the skins reminded me of the great Latin hand drummers.

Embodying the bass as backbone, Eivind Opsvik provided the armature for the ensemble’s quirky flights, creating supple bass lines that rooted and routed expectations in equal measure. Eivind will be back on March 27 to perform with Mary Halvorson’s Reverse Blue.

All hail the awkward, the oddballs, the misfits and outsiders, who point us in new directions and help us discover novel perspectives.

Although common in European classical music, piano and viola duos are rare in the jazz world. Even when I expanded my search to piano and violin, the pickins’ were slim (Sylvie Courvoisier/Mark Feldman.) But on October 16, about 60 listeners were treated to just such a pairing at Robyn Newhouse Hall at the Community Music School of Springfield.

The Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concert, featuring Lucian Ban, piano and Mat Maneri, viola, was scheduled at CMSS because their piano is better than others we use, but the choice of venue could not have been more perfect. The sound was superb and the juxtaposition of elegant surroundings and regal music made it easy to dive deep into the proceedings.

With Maneri playing through a Fender Twin Reverb amp, the Duo’s 75-minute recital (including encore) was a wide-ranging affair, touching on blues, eastern European folk traditions and Indian music, refracted through a lens equal parts classical and jazz.

Ban is from the small Romanian village of Teaca, near where the Duo’s brilliant 2013 release, Transylvanian Concert (ECM), was recorded. Ban’s pride of place is reflected in the pianist’s celebration of George Enesco, a composer, violinist, conductor, pianist and teacher, and Romania’s most famous musician. Enesco’s most famous student, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, called his mentor “the greatest musician I have ever known.”

Ban met Maneri while recording Enesco Re-Imagined (Sunnyside), a gorgeous paean that Ban and John Hébert produced in 2010. From the Springfield stage, Ban recalled that at one point, Enesco’s music called for a piano/viola duet. The spark between Ban and Maneri convinced them to pursue their smaller project, one that continues to yield dividends. Their Jazz Shares concert was the first in a 13-city tour that will take them to the Earshot Festival (Seattle), Blue Whale (Los Angeles) and Western Front (Vancouver.) There is another recording in the works.

Their Sunday concert included Enesco’s Sonata no. 3, which highlighted the mind-boggling talent of Mat Maneri. I have never heard music played at such high pitch and low volume sound so rich and thick with expression. The variety of techniques he used was staggering. Shareholder Batya Sobel marveled how Maneri would bounce his bow across the strings as beginners often do. His control and mastery, however, transformed the gesture into a flute-like warble that was fresh and evocative.

Mat is the son of the late Joe Maneri, the unique reedman and long-time mentor at New England Conservatory. Joe came up in Brooklyn playing clarinet in Greek, Turkish and Jewish dance bands, wrote concertos and was a leader in microtonal music. Harvey Pekar, John Zorn and especially his son, coaxed him into the public realm, and he enjoyed wide recognition during his last 10 years thanks to a series of startling ECM records.

In October 2004, I was thrilled to present Joe and Mat Maneri as part of the UMass Solos & Duos Series. The only concert poster Mat has in his house is from that event. He fondly recalled the evening, as did his mom, Sonja, who had driven to Amherst from the family home in Framingham. I’ll always remember at the music’s end, Mat coming over to his father and kissing him on the forehead before bowing together.

Season 5 of Jazz Shares is off to a wonderful start. On to Shea Theater for the Nate Wooley Quintet.

Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith have been accumulating honors and accolades like Michael Phelps collects Olympic medals. But the two, who mesmerized a capacity crowd at Bezanson Recital Hall on Tuesday, September 27, have come to their success in very different ways.

After serious study of the sciences at Yale and a PhD from UC Berkeley, Iyer burst on the music scene in the late 1990s, collaborating with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and poet/vocalist Mike Ladd, forming a celebrated trio and composing for all manner of ensemble. In the last four years alone, the 44-year-old pianist has won numerous awards (Doris Duke, MacArthur, ECHO) and polls (2014 Downbeat Pianist of the Year, 2015 and 2016 Downbeat Jazz Artist of the year, multiple Albums of the Year.) He is also the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard. His rise has been meteoric.

Wadada Leo Smith, on the other hand, couldn’t even get arrested during the first half of his career. When asked over dinner how he summons the energy to keep up with his international travel schedule and his torrid composing and recording regimen, the 74-year-old trumpeter said he spent the first 40 years of his life “resting.” Although early commercial success eluded him, Smith was busy creating his own language on his instrument and his own system of music notation, while forging relationships with Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Anthony Davis and Derek Bailey. In the last few years, however, he has won a MAP Fund Award, Chamber Music America New Works Grant, Mohn Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was short listed for a Pulitzer Prize for Ten Freedom Summers, was awarded an honorary degree from Cal Arts and is on the cover of the current issue of Downbeat, where they called him “a national treasure.”

Having traveled divergent paths to notoriety, these two icons came together to kick off the 15th annual Solos & Duos Series at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The 75-minute recital closely followed the contour of their well-received recording, a cosmic rhythm with each stroke (ECM, 2016), down to the epilogue, a tribute to the great contralto Marian Anderson, the first African-American to sing at the Met. The bulk of the program consisted of a suite dedicated to the late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, whose line-based drawing graces the CD cover, and whose words give the release its title.

The music was spacious, abstract, atmospheric, filled with emotion. Without sustained melody or steady pulse, the concert was unmoored to the usual signposts. We were left with sound, texture and the interaction of two masters of expression. Smith uses silence more convincingly than anyone since Miles Davis. In fact, with his bent frame and his bell pointed downward, he resembled the Prince of Darkness. Smith’s conception is an acquired taste, one that has not changed appreciably since his New Haven days in the 1970s. Eschewing extraversion and pyrotechnics, Smith pleases crowds with subtlety and a cracked vulnerability.

Iyer used Fender Rhodes and his laptop to layer moods while producing gorgeous tones from Bezanson’s exquisite 9-foot Steinway. Self taught on piano, Iyer nonetheless has considerable technique at his disposal. Following Smith’s lead, however, he mostly played sparingly, using runs and clusters only when the music demanded it.

We live in a time when capitalist realism dominates every aspect of contemporary society. For most of us, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a world without neoliberal capitalism. That’s what makes this music so powerful. It forces us to acknowledge that a new world is possible. We can organize our lives in ways that are different from what we’ve been sold. Musical rules can be reinvented; sound can be organized in new ways. The yardstick is not just whether it swings, but whether it serves human needs.

The probing interaction and deep listening between these two giants – separated by 30 years, different cultural backgrounds and career trajectories – gives us hope that the gulfs that divide the world in so many ways, are surmountable.

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
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