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Glenn Siegel’s Jazz Ruminations

Comfort levels are a real thing, and most concert goers rarely venture outside them. Listeners usually want to know what’s coming and how it will make them feel. Regular patrons of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, however, are used to venturing beyond their known universe, and have demonstrated a willingness to embrace the unfamiliar.

Some of us might have felt slightly adrift on November 4, as Oceans And filled the elegant marble music room at the Wistariahurst Museum with a dissonant beauty. The group: Tim Berne, alto saxophone, Aurora Nealand, accordion and voice, and Hank Roberts, cello, gave a dense, gnarly, fully improvised recital in Holyoke for 45 intrepid souls.

Jon King, a charter member of Jazz Shares, thought of the concert as “a prayer”. Given our current state of affairs, King mused that the twisted, discordant nature of much of Saturday’s music seemed a reaction to a world out of balance. I’m not sure if that’s how the musicians saw it, but there was a moment late in the concert which reinforced the notion that something spiritual was underway.

There were no pauses in the music. It ebbed and flowed, marked by shrills and purrs and changes in volume, but the concert was one continuous slab of music, with the performers playing virtually non-stop. About 50 minutes in, the music tapered to silence. The applause which typically comes after the music ends, never materialized. I had put my hands together, anticipating an act I had engaged in thousands of times before. But no one made any sound. The musicians kept their eyes closed, heads down, and hands on their instruments. At first, the silence served as a welcomed contrast to the immensity of the music we had just experienced. As the minutes passed, the silence turned profound, and a deep uncertainty took hold of me. How will this end? What if it never ends?

After four minutes, Nealand’s accordion slowly began to breathe, as she pushed air but no tone, through her bellows. Berne responded in kind, blowing wind through his alto sax. As they regained steam, Roberts stopped bowing and started plucking, providing the first rhythmic momentum of the evening. Berne and Nealand delivered “beautiful” tones on top, and ten minutes after the great pause, the evening was over. The sequence had quite an impact on this listener.

Oceans And were playing their 17th concert in as many days. The Holyoke gig was the last on the tour, so a certain rapport had been established. Berne told me that despite the grind, he loved this tour because his band mates were so reliable, chill and skilled.

When she’s not freely improvising with Oceans And, Aurora Nealand is doing a number of very different things. She leads The Royal Roses, a non-traditional Traditional jazz band in her home town of New Orleans, has written and directed original theatre projects, stars in performance art pieces, leads the rockabilly band Danger Dangers, plays sax, keyboards and sings in John Hollenbeck’s GEORGE, and will perform at the next Big Ear’s Festival with Tim Berne, David Torn and Bill Frisell. Berne called her one of the most amazing musicians he’s ever worked with. She brought her clarinet to Holyoke, but never picked it up.

Cellist Hank Roberts also has covered a lot of sonic territory in his almost five decades as a performing artist. I first learned of him in the 1980s and 90s when he was a mainstay at the Knitting Factory, and a big part of the downtown jazz scene, generally. At the same time, he started producing a slew of fine records for JMT, and its successor, Winter & Winter. Over the years, he has remained a steadfast collaborator with Bill Frisell, featured on ten of the guitarist’s records. Roberts stayed close to his home in Ithaca, NY for many years, but thankfully he’s venturing forth again. We saw him a month ago in Turner’s Falls with Jeff Lederer’s “Schoenberg On the Beach” project, and he has recent sextet and trio recordings that are varied and provocative.

Meeting someone after years of admiring their work is an exciting proposition, and getting to spend quality time with Hank Roberts was a treat (the band stayed overnight at our house). Our conversation stumbled upon The Horseflies, a well-known, Ithaca-based roots/rock band that includes some of Robert’s best friends. I pulled out a 1988 Daily Hampshire Gazette article I had written about The Horseflies in advance of their Iron Horse performance, which he photographed and sent his friends. Roberts reminds me of my friend David Gowler: mid-west earnest, extremely competent, kind and creative.

Tim Berne, the man who pulled together both the band and the tour, is among his generation’s most influential musicians, and also someone for whom I have a deep respect. I met Berne briefly in 2014 when he performed in Northampton with the Ingrid Laubrock Quintet, but having a chance to stretch out with him was a blessing. I’ve long been a fan of his bands Miniature (with Hank Roberts), Bloodcount and Snakeoil, not to mention his work with Paul Motian, Craig Taborn and Marc Ducret. His two Columbia records, Fulton Street Maul (1987) and Sanctified Dreams (1988) are valued parts of my collection.

Don’t be fooled by his unkept hair, indifferent dress and irreverent attitude; Berne is on it. He was inspired and mentored by the great Julius Hemphill, has released dozens of worthy recordings on Screwgun, the label he created in 1996, and worked out all the details for these 17 consecutive concerts. Berne is serious, and he's had a serious impact on the world of creative music for over 40 years. He is a fierce improviser, a sly composer and a willing collaborator.

“Beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair,” Charles Ives said. “Many sounds that we are used to do not bother us, and for that reason we are inclined to call them beautiful.”

Playing with conventions of harmony, melody and rhythm, Oceans And dove into their unconventional world of sound. It was intense and there were no easy chairs, just an opportunity to expand your comfort zone.

The circle got stronger and wider on November 3 when the New Origin Trio paid a visit to Easthampton. Bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Harvey Sorgen are long-time friends of mine who have made multiple appearances in western Massachusetts over the years. The French clarinetist Christophe Rocher was unknown to me before Friday. Solidifying connections while making more of them, that’s how things stay healthy in the jazz world.

Whenever Fonda recommends a band for Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, I listen. His track record is impeccable, and this cross-cultural trio is a real band, with a 10 year history and a 2019 recording. The fact that I didn’t know Rocher, means little; even knowledgeable North America jazz fans have little idea who is doing what outside our borders.

Fonda and Sorgen met Rocher in his hometown of Brest, a port city in Brittany, in northwestern France. Rocher, and his wife, Janick Tilly, have been producing jazz festivals and related events in the region for many years, and Fonda and Sorgen were regular participants. When the three first played together, the sparks flew and the rapport was instant.

After a few days rehearsing at Sorgen’s place in Woodstock, NY, New Origin kicked off an eight city tour at the Blue Room at CitySpace in Easthampton. They played all new material, written by each of the band members, which will be recorded at the conclusion of the tour.

Some of the compositions featured jagged, off-kilter lines that never wavered. Other pieces skirted convention while exuding calm and charm. Most of the evening featured brilliant improvisation from three skilled veterans. Fonda explained to me that the written elements could be introduced by any member at any time. Often, an emphatic bass line would emerge, resulting in a shift in mood or feel, and the others would respond.

Fonda and Sorgen work together regularly. They provided rhythm at Jazz Shares concerts for Karl Berger in 2014 and Marilyn Crispell in 2020. As is typical for a Fonda/Sorgen rhythm section, the energy was high. Both would vocalize their enthusiasm from time to time in the form of yelps, whoops and hollers. During one steaming section, Fonda exhorted Sorgen not to stop swinging; “keep going”, Fonda implored, “don’t stop”.

For his part, Rocher blew every which way through his clarinet, including backwards through the bell of his horn, and sideways through the keyholes of his instrument. It didn’t strike me as a gimmick, but as an attempt to coax new sounds from an instrument invented over 300 years ago. At one otherworldly point, Rocher rubbed the bell of his clarinet on the stage in a circular motion, creating a whirling moan that he augmented by playing another clarinet “conventionally”.

In a review of New Origin’s self-titled disc on Not Two Records, writer John Sharpe referred to “the marvelous interplay between the threesome...Fonda and Sorgen are masters of a restless conversational swing which can take flight in any direction, with nowhere off limits, while Rocher shows himself to be their equal in his unbridled creativity and plentiful technique.” Sharpe nailed it.

Rocher played the typical B-flat clarinet, its smaller cousin, the E-flat clarinet, and the 4.5-foot bass clarinet. The latter, I’ve been told, has the widest range of any wind instrument. Rocher, trained as a computer engineer and in European classical music, is a master networker. He has invited musicians from all over the world to Brest, and he has travelled extensively in the U.S., making special connections through an ongoing project called “The Bridge”, a transatlantic exchange program featuring musicians from Chicago and France. One manifestation of Rocher’s Bridge work is a fantastic 2017 recording he produced and played on called Wrecks, with an ensemble that includes Jeff Parker, Tomeka Reid, Rob Mazurek and Nicole Mitchell among the Chicagoans.

The beauty of improvised music is it circumvents difference by using sound, not words. Instrumentalists who have little in common can communicate through music, if the spirit moves. Age, spoken language and country of origin are not barriers for musicians. Christophe Rocher, Joe Fonda and Harvey Sorgen are bridge builders, making new origins, enlarging circles, taking risks, comfortable not knowing exactly how it will turn out.

After spending almost 48 hours with Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba Ensemble, who were in town earlier in the week, we had scant time with Anna Webber (tenor sax/flute), Michael Sarin (drums), and the leader, Max Johnson (bass), who performed on October 26 in Easthampton, MA. While the short visit made for easy logistics, that’s not how I prefer it.

Along with the music itself, of course, the time spent eating, drinking and socializing with musicians, what we often call, “the hang”, is one of the payoffs for doing the work of producing concerts. The opportunity to interact with my musical heroes is both motivation and tonic for me. By organizing public performances, I become a small part of the great historical flow of creative music in North America.

After a gig in Philadelphia the night before, the Trio arrived at the beautifully refurbished Blue Room in Easthampton’s old town hall in time for sound check and a quick meal imported from Daily Operation. They left after the show to crash at Webber’s Greenfield headquarters, leaving precious little time to trade stories and catch up on news and jazz scuttlebutt.

But the music was all there, being road tested for a December recording session. After a performance at Firehouse 12 in New Haven the next day, the trio is off to Germany, Austria and Slovenia for eight concerts, before heading back to New York for another live show and the recording. The music should be well lived in by then.

These compositions, much of it recently penned by Johnson, were so new most didn’t yet have titles; Johnson encouraged us to come up with names for them. Many featured intricate heads played in unison by bass and saxophone, some at impossibly fast tempos. As impressive as their technical skills were, it was the melodicism and coherency of the pieces that brought nods and wows from the assembled.

The sophistication of the written music should come as no surprise. Johnson is an accomplished composer, having written dozens of chamber music and vocal pieces in the European classical tradition. He is now enrolled in a PhD program in composition at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is studying with Tyshawn Sorey and others. Johnson is also a first-call bass player in the bluegrass tradition, having performed with artists like David Grisman, Sam Bush, Molly Tuttle, the Travelin' McCourys, Chris Thile, and others. Perhaps the accessibility of his complicated jazz pieces results from his immersion in American roots music.

Johnson’s deep, woody sound on the bass complemented Webber’s strong effort on saxophone and flute. Her phrasing, full of short syncopated bursts and redolent of blues and bebop, infused the evening with jazz essence. On one (unnamed) piece, her precise, masterful use of split tones over the rhythm section’s steady pulse was oh, so musical. Over the last few years we’ve been lucky to see Webber with her Simple Trio (John Hollenbeck and Matt Mitchell), her duo with Eric Wubbels (live streamed from Amherst Media), and as part of David Sanford’s big band. She has always had chops, but she has added a restraint and ebullience that gives added depth to her ideas. Besides her busy touring schedule, the 38-year old Webber is now co-chairing the Jazz Department at the New England Conservatory of Music. She’ll next perform in the Valley on March 17 at the Shea Theater, leading her new ensemble, Shimmer Wince.

What a treat to hear Michael Sarin twice in a month. He was here October 1 with Jeff Lederer’s Septet, but in this stripped down format he really had a chance to shine. He was a whirlwind, changing sticks, picking up rattles and bells, constantly adding color while pushing the ensemble. But as busy as he was, he was never louder than the music demanded, and his shifting rhythmic palette constantly refreshed and reinvigorated the music. It was hard not to focus on him.

I first met Max Johnson during the depth of the pandemic, when Jazz Shares produced a live streamed concert at Amherst Media featuring the James Brandon Lewis Quartet. It was an atypical visit, to say the least. And even though our time together on Thursday was brief, Max Johnson and his trio renewed my faith in the vitality of creative music today. Only 33 years old, the bassist is one of a number of young musicians carving out a life for himself in music. Resourceful, multi-dimensional and right-minded, Johnson has a lot to offer the music world. I hope he continues to include western Massachusetts on his itinerary, and at some point, stay awhile.

Jazz Shares Thanks Its Business Sponsors for this Season
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