On March 13, 2020 I reviewed a Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares concert featuring Steve Swell’s Kende Dreams. “The typical pre-concert buzz of excitement,” I wrote, “was overlaid by mild dread in the face of the uncertain arc of the gathering pandemic…there was a dawning realization that this might be the last live music any of us would hear for some time.”
Here we are, eight months later, our world turned upside down, with no end in sight, trying to overcome a novel coronavirus and a criminal president, while maintaining beauty, grace and joy in our lives. I am here to report that despite raging infections in the U.S., we remain steadfast, resourceful and committed to safely nurturing our music.
On Thursday, November 12, Jazz Shares produced a concert by the James Brandon Lewis Quartet, our seventh event since the great upending. Jazz Shares is persevering thanks to 73 dedicated shareholders, 12 business sponsors, and my new wife Priscilla Page’s heroic decision to put 100% of our wedding gifts into the Jazz Shares coffers.
We began our pandemic presenting on July 25th with a live, outdoor solo percussion concert in the backyard of founding members Ron Freshley and Linda Tumbarello. Ra Kalam Bob Moses is a legendary drummer and composer, a musician revered and overlooked in equal measure. Our company Gretsch Catalina Club kit was augmented by a second bass drum, a few toms, a set of congas (thank you Brandon Marger) and a trove of rattles, bells and whistles. Against a summer breeze and a backdrop of tall trees, Moses righted our psyches with two hours of non-stop percussion therapy. He set up patterns of rhythm that had the punch of a compelling first sentence, then wove stories full of twists and inversions. It was clear he was enjoying himself, and his happiness rubbed off, big time.
Over the summer, we kept kicking optimism down the road like politician’s kick cans. Surely by fall we’d be able to resume normal activities. But we had to move Terry Jenoure’s three-concert, Season 9 kick-off into the digital realm. Recorded in September at the Institute for the Musical Arts (IMA) in Goshen and broadcast on Amherst Media, her series was entitled Portal, a portentous concept, with the planet being on the verge of major change and all.
Over three programs, we entered layers of Jenoure’s musical world, beginning with vibrating strings set in motion by Avery Sharpe, (bass,) Wayne Smith, (cello,) and the leader, (violin.) The music unfolded like an unhurried conversation between friends. It was exciting to hear Sharpe, who kept time for McCoy Tyner all those years, explore open terrains and textures. Similarly, it was instructive to hear Smith, a classical player by training, stretch out so convincingly. Jenoure gave musical signposts to root the affair, but trusted her sidemen to listen, lead and follow.
Her duo with pianist Angelica Sanchez also had that surefooted looseness born of confidence. By turns reverent, playful and earthy, their set sailed. Jenoure and Sanchez are both in that sweet spot in their careers: they have enough experience to react comfortably to any aesthetic situation, and enough energy to get their point across with emphasis. The final leg of Jenoure’s journey included Joe Fonda, bass, and Reggie Nicholson, drums. A familial atmosphere prevailed, with Jenoure and her brothers joking good-naturedly, solving problems creatively and making music collectively. Jenoure’s vocals added extra piquancy, moving from skipping, high-pitched cavorting, to guttural, get-this baby out wails. Although these concerts were each aired only once, we hope the audio will one day be widely available. It was that good.
We were back at what has become our second home: Ann Hackler and June Millington’s Institute for the Musical Arts on October 4, when Jazz Shares hosted Charlie Kohlhase’s Saxophone Support Group for 40 socially distant travelers. Standing before a panoply of reds, yellows, browns and greens, the six reedmen: Dan Blake, Sean Berry, Jason Robinson, Josh Sinton, Andy Voelker and Kohlhase,filled the dry autumn air with crackling counterpoint and sonorous, mossy chords. The following Sunday, Priscilla and I returned to that hallowed ground for our wedding.
When the UMass Fine Arts Center cancelled two virtual Magic Triangle Series shows a week before the first concert (risk managers, lawyers and timid administrators won the day,) Jazz Shares stepped up and assumed responsibility for the events. On Oct. 29, we ushered in our new mode of producing: livestreamed concerts from Amherst Media, which boasts a professional TV studio, experienced operators, four cameras, and an interest in creating engaging programming. Marilyn Crispell, piano, Joe Fonda, bass and Harvey Sorgen, drums were first up. Crispell and Sorgen have been neighbors in Woodstock, NY for decades; Sorgen and Fonda have been in bands together for over 35 years; Fonda and Crispell have each “graduated” from Anthony Braxton University. Known collectively as Dreamstruck, the trio put us in a 75-minute trance, spun from sorrow and joy, hope and fear.
On November 12, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis brought a quartet to Amherst. Playing with pianist Angelica Sanchez for the first time was a thrill the two shared equally. (Lewis was a student of Sanchez’ at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music in 2009.) The bass chores were handled by Max Johnson, who at 28 is nine years younger than Lewis. Chad Taylor, who over the last few years has been through these parts as much as anyone not named Joe Fonda, is Lewis’ closest collaborator. Their duo has released two recordings; it’s a real band; Taylor is the lone holdover from Molecular, Lewis’ brand-new quartet release. As always, the drummer was glue-like solid. The performance, as well as Lewis’ compositions, had muscle and flexibility, bravado and humility. As the pandemic has disrupted lives and livelihoods, I wonder about its impact on creative music, which has been on life support long before Covid-19 entered our lives. What happens to the music when people can’t play together, when there is no work?
Over and over again, we heard words of thanks and expressions of appreciation from musicians. Similarly, we were grateful for the opportunity to hear live music, played at the highest level. During these days of uncertainty, artists, and those who love art, need each other. Many of us have been dealing with financial concerns, depression and a loss of meaning in our lives. For all our sakes, it’s time to re-invigorate the term community. Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares is keeping a light in the window for dispossessed travelers.