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All Together Now: BassDrumBone at UMass

The average length of a marriage in the United States is just over eight years. Mark Helias, Gerry Hemingway and Ray Anderson have been together as a band for 41 years. You can imagine the familiarity, the shorthand, the sense of trust developed over that span of time. Being in a working band is a kind of marriage. The trio has travelled hundreds of thousands of miles together to countless performances, multiple recording sessions, and social gatherings. There have even been a few name changes over the years (the trio began their career as Oashpe).

Fresh off performances at Cornelia St. Café in New York, Dartmouth College (hosted by band director Taylor Ho Bynum) and a cool space in the very small town of Honesdale, PA, BassDrumBone gave a masterful and highly nuanced concert for 90 attentive listeners at the new Old Chapel at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst on Sunday, February 11, 2018. The concert was part of the Fine Arts Center’s Magic Triangle Jazz Series.

As was clear during the pre-concert dinner, and equally apparent from the bandstand, bassist Helias, drummer Hemingway and trombonist Anderson have a ton of shared experience, musical and otherwise. They spent the 75-minute performance in a constant state of becoming, confidently marching to an uncertain future. They hovered between grooves and frequently shifted meter. They locked in for stretches, referencing funk, swing and bop, only to dissolve into a delicate openness that privileged sound. Because we were in the presence of highly trained musicians, we could relax into whatever pose they proposed. The compositions, all originals by the band members, had character, personality, a point of view, an architecture we could relate to.

Each musician had been to the Magic Triangle Series many times over the years as both leader and sideman. It was a dream come true to finally present them in their most illustrious and longstanding ensemble.

It was a big treat to hear Hemingway, who for the past nine years has lived in Switzerland, where he is a professor at the Hochshule Luzern. His last appearance in the area was a 2002 concert with Miya Masaoka (koto) and Reggie Workman (bass), which highlighted his delicate, textural skills. Those were well displayed on Sunday. At one point, he used a metal cup on his floor tom to produce bent notes of other-worldly proportions, and he used multiple brushes, mallets, sticks and hands to color the proceedings. But on his Don Cherry tribute, Cherry Pickin, and elsewhere, he bashed and wailed, providing energy and drive, sub-dividing beats, teetering between feels.

Helias was last here in April, 2016, at a Magic Triangle concert featuring Jane Ira Bloom, who premiered Wild Lines, her beautiful evocation of Emily Dickinson. He has appeared four times previous: an Ed Blackwell tribute, with Joe Lovano and Tom Gianpietro (2014), the Michael Gregory Trio (2007), as half of the Marks Brothers, with bassist Mark Dresser (2002) and his own Quartet (1997). From my perspective, it’s hard to name a more consistently engaging bass player in jazz over the past 40 years. He is the anchor in BassDrumBone, or perhaps it’s more accurate to call him the rudder, charting the band’s direction, steering the ship. The superior acoustics in the room allowed Helias to say a lot at low volume.

Last summer, up and comer Joe Fieldler told me about his “turning point moment” as a budding musician. While listening to the radio, he remained in his car after reaching his destination to hear the name of the fellow trombonist blowing his mind. It was Ray Anderson. With Roswell Rudd’s recent passing, the mantle falls to Anderson, whose impish spirit and loquacious sound, are essential in advancing the trombone language. Besides an impressive circular breathed, unaccompanied solo statement to begin one piece, Anderson played the horn without multi-phonics or other extended techniques. Just pure vocalized expression through nine feet of coiled metal.

During a gorgeous interlude towards the end of the evening, we heard bird sounds. Where were they coming from? Just as we were settling on Anderson as the source, a bird appeared, making large arcs through the Chapel’s rafters. Just birds being birds, we thought. Except it was a bat, silent, perhaps roused by Anderson’s aviated offering.

The staff was in a tizzy, not reassured by Helias’ comment that his barn is full of them. But the animal’s swoops and whooshes made manifest the dramatic and unexpected nature of this music.

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