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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

The spirit of Ornette Coleman and Ed Blackwell was in the air throughout Hafez Modirzadeh and Bobby Bradford’s two-day Amherst residency. Their visit culminated with a Magic Triangle Series concert on Thursday, where tenor saxophonist Modirzadeh, cornetist Bradford, along with bassist Ken Filiano and drummer royal hartigan, transfixed 100 people in Bezanson Recital Hall with a transcendent 80 minute performance. Bradford, the 81-year old Los Angeles-based patriarch, was a dear friend and musical colleague of Ornette and Blackwell. Modirzadeh spent lots of quality time with Ornette, picking his brain and getting valuable feedback from the alto master. hartigan studied extensively with Blackwell at Wesleyan University.

So there was reverence for Ornette’s indomitable spirit and wonder at the elliptical nature of his thinking, and stories about the time he left his horn at an Italian airport with $50,000 dollars stuffed into the bell (returned safely), and the time Ornette followed someone’s smoking sax solo during a cutting contest by playing his horn with his right hand in his pocket.

The concepts of spirit and reverence were omnipresent during the visit, which also included a well-received class visit and concert at Amherst College, sponsored by Professor Jason Robinson.

During the Magic Triangle concert, hartigan, a 1981 UMass graduate, paid tribute to one of his mentors, Fred Tillis, with a touching speech. Dr. Tillis, responsible for much of the flowering of multicultural arts on campus and now 86, came to the stage to greet each musician. hartigan is a master of West African drumming traditions and began his composition, “Wadsworth Falls”, with an Asante rhythm and praise song, with Tillis’ name inserted. I teared up.

When I first contacted Modirzadeh at his Bay-area home about bringing a band to Amherst, he said he wanted to invite Bobby Bradford. I was thrilled because: 1) of his historical importance to the music; 2) he has never been to our area; 3) he has strong ties to two of my local heroes, Terry Jenoure and Marty Ehrlich; 4) his reputation for having enriched his Los Angeles jazz community for so long; 5) he can really play.

Over the two days, Modirzadeh displayed heartfelt deference, born not only out of health and energy concerns, but by the sheer thrill of spending an extended period of time with a respected elder. He peppered Bradford with lots of questions about Ornette among other subjects, and understood the significance of the occasion enough to professionally record both concerts.

Dennis Steiner’s Archive Project also preserved Thursday’s concert for posterity.

At a dinner in their honor at the home I share with Priscilla Page, we had the opportunity to introduce the musicians to members of our music-loving community. Jenoure and Ehrlich got to catch up with their old friend (there’s now a photo of the three of them floating somewhere on the internet), while they reminisced about the extraordinary series of John Carter records they made together in the 1980s. When scheduling a Thursday band rehearsal at UMass or Amherst proved daunting, my home became the woodshed. I loved seeing how the music comes together.

Ping Chong, the great theater artist, who along with Talvin Wilks, is in residence with the UMass Theater Department preparing their new work, “Collidescope 2.0”, is a friend of Hafez and a long-time colleague of his sister, Leila. We all met up at the Hangar on Thursday after the performance and the theater rehearsal for one more celebration.

As the A-Team’s ‘Hannibal’ Smith used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” It’s not often that one’s expectations, fueled by months of anticipation and preparation, are fully realized. Yes, the music was sublime, but being close to the spirit that informs the music, that exceeded my wildest dreams. Another peak experience.

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.

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