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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, on Wednesday and Thursday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel. It wasn’t the circus that rolled past, it was Jane Ira Bloom and her ensemble that came to Amherst to interact with the enduring legacy of the great poet. Bloom, the remarkable soprano saxophonist and composer, was at the center of three events culminating in the April 28th world premiere of Wild Lines: Jane Ira Bloom Plays Emily Dickinson, performed at Bezanson Recital Hall at UMass. It was the concluding concert of this year’s Magic Triangle Jazz Series, produced by the Fine Arts Center.

The day before Thursday’s spellbinding performance, Bloom, actor Deborah Rush and pianist Dawn Clement spent the afternoon at the Dickinson Museum and Homestead, soaking in the spirit of the Belle of Amherst. Along with Bloom’s husband, the celebrated actor and director Joe Grifasi (The Deer Hunter, Ironweed, The Bronx is Burning) and Rush’s husband Chip Cronkite, a videographer of note, our entourage was given an exclusive tour by Executive Director Jane Wald. A lovely reception was followed by a short musical performance in The Evergreens, Austin Dickinson’s home. With Clement playing the family piano, Bloom on saxophone and Rush speaking Emily’s words, 35 invited guests were transported on this “bright Wednesday afternoon.” It was clear Bloom and company understood the profound poetics of visiting and performing in Emily’s space.

The next morning at Amherst Media, Bloom, Rush and Wald joined me for an engaging conversation about Dickinson and her deep effect on generations of readers. The discussion will be available on channel 12 in Amherst and on line, at Bloom’s aha! moment concerning the poet came during a New York Public Library presentation by scholar George Boziwick, Chief of the Music Division of the Library’s Performing Arts branch, who was at the UMass concert. When Bloom learned Dickinson liked to make things up on the piano, it confirmed for her the felt improvisatory nature of Dickinson’s poetry and started her to writing Wild Lines.

A Chamber Music America New Works grant allowed Bloom to bring Clement from Seattle, where she teaches along side Tom Varner and Wayne Horvitz at Cornish College of the Arts, and hire Rush, whose extensive credits include Broadway productions of Noel Coward and Wendy Wasserstein, films of John Schlesinger, Woody Allen and Sidney Lumet, and the TV shows The Good Wife, Law and Order and Orange is the New Black.

Grifasi, an extremely affable and focused guy, “directed” the concert, setting up the stage with a hanging lace curtain, much like the one that hung on Dickinson’s famous window. On the opposite side of the stage were a vintage table, rug, hurricane lamp and chair. Rush, dressed in a flowing white dress much like the one Emily often wore, moved through the space, even sitting at the piano next to Clement. Rush was such a professional, so convincing with every gesture, expression and utterance. That professionalism was tested when the lavalier mic she wore came loose about half way through the program. While behind the curtain, she discreetly removed it from her dress and held the unit in her hand the rest of the way.

The pace of the 80-minute performance was brilliant, with just the right amount of words and music. Having long-time collaborators Mark Helias on bass and Bobby Previte on drums must have been of enormous comfort to the composer. Not only blessed with rock solid time and temperament, both are extremely compelling soloists and possess gorgeous tone variety on their instruments. Jane Ira Bloom is one of the top saxophonists in jazz and the premiere soprano saxophonist of our time. Constantly moving as she played, making large arcs with her instrument to provide dynamic range, her vitality on stage was a thing to behold. The writing was gorgeous, full of slowly spooling, deeply grooved lines.

As if there was not enough star power in the room, Meryl Streep was in the house. A friend of Bloom and Grifasi from their days at Yale University, Streep made the trip from her home in Salisbury, Connecticut. While news of her siting prompted about 30 young people to congregate outside the Hall, my partner Priscilla Page was as impressed with the presence of Anne Catteneo, dramaturg at the Lincoln Center Theater and an authority in the field. I was equally excited to meet Steve Elman, the veteran WBUR jazz host, who in the late 1970s, gave me my first taste of what jazz really sounded like.

Wild Lines will next be performed at The Kennedy Center in October and then at the NY Library’s Lincoln Center space. We were thrilled that the premiere of this work took place in Amherst and that we could play a role in making it happen.

  • Glenn Siegel

How does music reach people? I’ve been asking myself that question since Chris Lightcap and his quintet, Bigmouth, connected with 100 people at the Arts Block in Greenfield on Thursday, April 21. It was the ninth concert in Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ fourth season.

Playing music from their two most recent Clean Feed releases, Deluxe (2010) and Epicenter (2015), the band had the rapt attention of all present. The audience reaction, which included lots of yelps, applause, unsolicited clapping (in clave) and a standing ovation, was one indication of approval. Post-show reaction and CD sales provided other gauges of success.

What was it about the music that so captivated us? The high level of musicianship was certainly one factor. All four sidemen are potent improvisers, first-call veterans who also compose and lead ensembles. The band: Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek, tenor saxophones, Craig Taborn, keyboards, Gerald Cleaver, drums, and the leader on bass, has developed an uncanny rapport after more than six years together. Their familiarity with the material helped and Lightcap’s repartee with the audience was relaxed and unforced.

But lots of the ensembles we present meet those criteria. What made this concert so memorable was the material. With the exception of the encore, Lou Reed’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, the compositions were penned by Lightcap. Though varied, the pieces all featured strong melodies, hooks that enabled us to follow and anticipate the contours of each song. Sometimes the melody was full blown; other times it was merely a repeated phrase or motif. The pieces were often anthemic and had this bursting quality, a full flowering that had a spiritual dimension. On more than one occasion I had the sensation of flying and felt a sense of becoming.

Another secret to their success was a kind of pop sensibility that is irresistible when stretched so creatively. It was interesting to note how closely the live performance adhered to the recording.

The two tenors interacted in delicious ways, finishing each other’s thoughts, twining around the compositional pole, engaged in harmony, sweet and tart. The sturdiness of each song allowed the soloists to stretch without having to worry about breaking the song structure. In fact, Malaby, who was masterful throughout, got the loudest reactions as he rose through the stratosphere.

The 46-year old Taborn is a modern master, regarded as one of the top pianists in jazz. His work on both acoustic piano and Rhodes provided color and rhythmic propulsion throughout the 80-minute performance. My one regret was the lack of solo space for drummer Gerald Cleaver, who has powered many of the best small groups of the past 15 years. His only solo turn was a brief foray with keyboard ostinato during the encore.

The band had performed the night before at Williams College, Lightcap’s alma mater. He told us that as an undergrad his mentor, Andy Jaffe (who was in attendance), took a van full of students to the very first Magic Triangle Series concert at UMass in 1990 featuring Steve Turre, Bob Stewart, Mulgrew Miller and returned two years later to see Ed Blackwell with Dewey Redman and Cameron Brown. Those early jazz experiences had a major impact on the young bassist.

Lightcap has absorbed the history and is giving us his version of the story, doing what the greats do.

Between the shruti box, the harmonium, the accordion and circular breathing through the clarinet, James Falzone’s Allos Musica Ensemble had the drone down. Their concert, produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, filled Hampshire College’s Music Recital Hall with deep resonance on Thursday, April 14. On the shruti box travel case was the sticker “Drone Not Drones.” I liked that.

The shruti box, a small, bellowed drone instrument, is usually played with hands Falzone explained to Jason Robinson’s Amherst College students the next day, but since he needs both to play the clarinet, he conceived and commissioned someone to fashion a bike lock and foot pedal into a system that allows him to play it with his foot.

The 75-minute concert, attended by about 50, was super sonorous, filled with material from the Ensemble’s brand new recording, Gnossienne. The quartet performed three of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne, a series of traditional dance melodies from Brittany (far-west France, where Celtic influence is strong), music from the Balkans, West Africa and the Middle East, and originals by Falzone. The music, like Falzone’s lovely composition, "A Shadow for Thomas Merton", is clearly derived from specific musical traditions that have been mixed into a wonderfully complex casserole of distinct yet fully blended sound.

The extraordinary percussionist Tim Mulvenna, whose ‘kit’ included djembe, talking drum, (West Africa), bodhrán (Ireland), riq (Middle East), bendir (North Africa), bells and cymbals, approaches these traditional drums his own way. He has rigged snares on his bendir and he plays the instruments unconventionally.

All evening I marveled at the pianistic dexterity of his fingers, and other unconventional ways Mulvenna made contact with his drums. Once you have the tradition under your fingers, you are free to serve the demands of the music in creative ways.

Ronnie Malley, who grew up playing the considerable store of percussion instruments in his home before moving to electric guitar and finally the oud, shared his belief that all music instruction should begin with rhythm. I love this idea; it’s true there can be no great music without rhythmic surety. Malley’s performance on oud and vocals had a deep and melodious charisma about it.

Accordionist Jeremiah McLane lives in Sutton, Vermont, the only member of the band not from Chicago. His New England roots extend into extensive study of Celtic and French music (where he met Falzone) and of course the accordion itself. McLane told stories of dealing by Skype with a master Italian craftsman who was making an instrument for him, without benefit of a shared language.

When the conversation turned to Myron Floren, the legendary accordionist of the Lawrence Welk Show, Mulvenna said that he toured with Floren as a teenager. In his seventies, Floren would dust the youngsters by playing at impossible tempos. The accordion, which McLane reminded us, is a wind instrument, joined naturally in the family of sustained sound.

Falzone exists easily in multiple musical worlds. He visited last year when Jazz Shares produced the Renga Ensemble, his new music clarinet sextet. Allos Musica had a very different sound and effect. Falzone is actively involved with liturgical music, jazz, contemporary classical, pure improvisation and folk music from many places, and works often with artists from other disciplines. He blurs, smudges, uses sfumato to make disparate elements meld into one arresting body of work.

“Allos means ‘otherly’”, Falzone writes in the liner notes, “and the ensemble which bears its name has always been a medium through which I synthesize and amalgamate seemingly disparate musical worlds.”

The band’s deep study of traditional practice, combined with its crazy level of musicianship and erudition, meant that we got to have a true multicultural experience at Hampshire College. Thanks to Marty Ehrlich (a long-time hero of Falzone’s) for making it happen.

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
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