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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

After a three-month hiatus, we were back in the saddle September 15, presenting the first of 16 concerts we will produce through June 2017. We hit the ground running thanks to the Steve Swell Quartet, who kicked off Season 5 of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares before a full house at Hampshire College.


There were heavy hearts on stage, as this project was supposed to feature pianist Connie Crothers, who passed away a month ago at the age of 75. After a moment of silence and Swell’s words of respect for his dear friend, the trombonist launched into an extended, unaccompanied solo full of smears, bleats, pretty notes, glissandi and lots of emotion.


Without Crothers, the group pivoted from their original plan to reprise Swell’s riveting Silkheart release, Hommage á Bartók. Although there were music stands on stage and occasional intricate unison passages featuring Swell and alto saxophonist Rob Brown, the single, 70-minute set was for the most part, freely improvised.


But freely improvised does not mean formless. In fact, the virtuosic rhythm team of bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver were a driving force all evening. The two have shared many bandstands over the years, most notably in Farmers By Nature, the superb trio they share with pianist Craig Taborn. The driving, malleable pulse they produced served as a touchstone.

The four musicians have deep shared histories dating back more than 25 years, resulting in a high level of what John Corbett calls “interaction dynamics,” how the musicians relate to one another.


In his insightful pocket book, “A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation,” the Chicago-based record and concert producer talks of “the palpable sense of give-and-take and the excitement of watching musicians build something jointly.” Witnessing the evening’s interactions, we felt that excitement, even a sense of danger, wondering if the train would part from the rail, trusting the artists could navigate clearly uncharted waters.


William Parker is what we call a leading light. Not merely a great musician, but a lynchpin, a towering figure, someone who will command chapter headings when the jazz history of our time is written. We were reminiscing about some of the dozens of visits he’s made to the Valley: from early concerts under the banner of Michael Ehlers’ Eremite Records in the 1990s, to his 2015 UMass Fine Arts Center’s Solos & Duos Series duo with poet David Budbill.


It was great to hear him play bass exclusively, and a treat to hear his fantastic arco work. Was it the distinctive looking bow, made by percussionist/sound artist Tatsuya Nakatani that made the bass sound especially resonant?


Hats off to Steve Swell, who has persevered against all odds to continue to organize and participate in music that matters. Like Roswell Rudd, Wolter Wirebos and a few others, Swell knows the entire history of the trombone, and is able to synthesize sounds popular from the 1920s onward to produce a modern music full of expression.


Thanks to Marty Ehrlich, who has brought great distinction to Hampshire College and enlivens the music scene both on campus and throughout the region. He and Larry Berger and his student staff have created a welcoming home for Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, one that we hope extends into the future.

Like standing up straight, listening to long forms in a short form world is good for you. Sometimes you don’t realize how easily you’ve succumbed to the sound bite, the 3-minute song, lists and bullet points, until you engage with something that unfolds over time and requires your open mind and undivided attention.

Michael Dessen’s Trio with Chris Tordini on bass and Dan Weiss on drums, performed Somewhere in the Upstream, Dessen’s evening-length composition dedicated to one of his major mentors, Yusef Lateef. Friday’s concert at Holyoke’s ever-evolving Gateway City Arts concluded Season 4 of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.

As our senses slump from too much ear and eye candy and other empty cultural calories, how invigorating to listen to the slow reveal of sounds and moods delivered by three extraordinary musicians operating on one wavelength. After the Holyoke concert, Dessen’s 10-year old trio travels to Brooklyn to perform at I-Beam then visit Systems Two to record the material we just heard.

The music took us through periods of near stasis, where rhythm and melody changed incrementally at low volume, to sections of aggressive, hard swinging funk, to an unruly universe of other-worldly electronic sounds. The concert flowed without the usual interruption for applause between solos. The lack of clap was not because the playing was subpar, quite the contrary.

I listen to a lot of the best jazz drummers. I’m hard pressed to name anybody I’d put ahead of Dan Weiss. His crisp subdivision of beats, his unending invention, his constant ratcheting up and down of energy, made it hard to keep my ears off him. Weiss was the Jazz Shares Season 4 bookend drummer, beginning our season driving Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble with a transcendent performance.

Bassist Chris Tordini certainly seemed to enjoy playing with Weiss. Their rapport felt natural and unforced. Tordini was able to establish deep flexible grooves with a few well-chosen notes, reminding me in that regard of Chicago lynchpin Joshua Abrams.

Michael Dessen, who spent about six years in the Valley getting his masters from UMass and teaching at Hampshire, is one of a handful of gifted improvisers on trombone. During the public afternoon conversation about Yusef that I had with Dessen and a dozen others at 340 Bridge St., we heard about weekly private lessons with Lateef, where discussion of music theory would co-exist with talk of Yusef’s Ahmadiyya Muslim practice and Dessen’s understanding of Zen Buddhism.

It was a long overdue treat for me to present my good friend Michael Dessen in concert, and re-connect him with Terry Jenoure, Jason Robinson, Matt Waugh and other old friends, including a long-lost childhood friend who lives locally and happened to see a concert flyer. What a beautiful coda to an amazing season of Jazz Shares concerts.

Here is what shareholder Tony Stavely jotted down during the concert:

Trio: Homage á Yusef Like a legato snake Who’d swallowed accents Grave and acute, the Trombone notes sallied forth, Pas de deux and do si do, With bursting bass tones And the most many im- Aginable agile drumstick strokes And kicks — all possible kicks — All around the room.


  • Glenn Siegel

Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom, expanded to a sextet for a six-week tour, stopped at June Millington and Ann Hackler’s magical oasis known as the Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen for a transcendent Mother’s Day evening of music. It was a Jazz Shares joint.


The material, all written and wonderfully introduced by Miller during the concert, had a pop music knack for simple declarative melody. Her heads became stuck in our heads. It occurred to me that Boom Tic Boom shares that quality with Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth, who wowed us last month in Greenfield. After both shows, a number of folks who do not listen to a lot of jazz told me how much they enjoyed both bands, and bought the record. Of course, both bands employ the music’s best improvisers, who imbue the written material with the mystery that comes from mastery.


Miller has long had a foot in what we call the music industry. Years of essential service with Ani DiFranco, Natalie Merchant, Brandi Carlile, Toshi Reagon, the Meredith Vieira Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers, have given her a good idea of best practices. She has a professional tour manager, and a real tour. These things are rare in the jazz world I inhabit. It’s cool. It’s the difference between selling CDs and having a merch table. There was flair everywhere: in Miller’s look, in the ease of engagement with the standing room only audience, in the music.


What an evening of music. The musicianship was through the barn’s roof. Kirk Knuffke, cornet, Ben Goldberg, clarinet and the exotic, serpentine contra alto clarinet, Jenny Scheinman, violin, Myra Melford, piano, Todd Sickafoose, bass and the leader on drums, formed a formidable ensemble. At this point in the tour (21 down, 3 to go), they were a well-oiled machine, down with the material and in sync. They drew from their new record, Otis Was a Polar Bear (Royal Potato Family.)


That Miller was at IMA, one of the premier women centered spaces in western Massachusetts, with her partner Rachel and their almost two year old daughter, Josie, on Mother’s Day, felt right. The band dinner, lovingly prepared by Priscilla Page, (“our first home cooked meal on the tour,” Miller told the assembled), left us satisfied and in a happy frame of mind. The energy in the room was high, and the band responded.


Half the band stayed over night in Goshen, half at our place. After Myra went to bed, Priscilla and I sipped our way into the wee hours with Ben and Kirk. Ben told us that the person who first put a clarinet in his hand was Willie Hill, who taught in the Denver public schools in the late 1960’s and 1970s. Goldberg called him the most influential person in his musical life. (Ben also mentioned a thrown music stand, and Hill’s insistence on learning to read music.) Dr. Hill, now Director of the UMass Fine Arts Center, was in attendance, making Ben more than a little nervous before the gig.


Knuffke, 20 years Ben’s junior, is also from Colorado and moved to Denver as a 20 year old. They did not meet in Colorado, but have become fast musical friends. Kirk also had a demanding and pivotal public school music teacher, Mike Smith from Ft. Collins High School, who yelled at him to improve until his senior year, when he would call him into his office and hand him records like John Zorn’s Naked City and Henry Threadgill’s Where’s Your Cup. Knuffke also told an amazing story about Denver guru Ron Miles. If you are a promising trumpeter in the Denver area, you study with Ron Miles (who has long associations with Myra Melford and Bill Frissell.) After it became clear that the limitations of his instrument was holding him back, Miles gave Knuffke his $14,000, custom-made Monette cornet, on condition that he play it and not have it collect dust. He’s used it non-stop since.


Thanks to Ann and June, who cut short a trip to Hawaii, for hosting. The great vibe and rustic charm of IMA, combined with the superb musicianship in egoless service of dynamic compositions, made for a special evening of music and fellowship.

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
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