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  • Glenn Siegel

Breaking New Ground: Anna Webber's Shimmer Wince Plays The Shea Theater

What happens when you combine an inquisitive intellect with superior musicianship? You get projects like Anna Webber’s Shimmer Wince. The prolific 39-year old tenor saxophonist and flutist is also a first rate composer and musical thinker who took a deep dive into “just intonation” during the depth of the pandemic. Her research led to a new book of compositions, and the formation of a new band of crack musicians who breathed life into the material. Seventy of us got to hear the results at the Shea Theater on March 17 at a concert produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares.


Shimmer Wince includes: Adam O’Farrill (trumpet), Mariel Roberts (cello), Elias Stemeseder (synthesizer), Lesley Mok (drums) and Webber. They are touring the northeast in support of their self-titled release on Intakt Records.


Just intonation is a tuning system that has its origin in ancient Greece, and differs from the more widely adopted equal temperament system. Just intonation is based on the natural vibrations of physical objects, such as strings or vocal chords, and pitches are expressed as fractions. Its complex notation system requires a good understanding of tuning theory, which is why most musicians are not fluent in it. As a non-musician, it’s certainly beyond me. 


Webber was a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2021 during the worst period of the pandemic, a time of “enforced quiet”, she writes in her detailed liner notes that accompany the recording. Webber immersed herself in the inner working of just intonation, reading the scholarship, studying scores that utilize it, and listening. The music we heard on Sunday was the result of her intense focus on this ancient system of harmony. “If this music sounds different from some of my previous albums, that’s because it is,” Webber writes. She wanted the music to feel “almost like a collection of incredibly bizarre standards.”


The music had a coherence that felt off or slightly inebriated, full of odd harmonies as well as daring flights of rhythmic fancy. Despite the complexity of the music, Adam O’Farrill barely seemed to refer to the written score, and nailed all the parts. Not yet 30, O’Farrill tours the world with the pianist Hiromi, performs with Mary Halvorson’s Amaryllis, and has worked with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, and his father, pianist Arturo O’Farrill. O’Farrill played a Jazz Shares concert in Easthampton in 2017 with his quartet Stranger Days, part of his first tour as a leader outside New York.


Drummer Lesley Mok ushered the band through all the variegated tempo changes with ease. Although they only stepped to the forefront during “Periodicity 2”, you could tell they had a surfeit of chops. In their late 20s, Mok is now touring and recording with Myra Melford’s super group Fire & Water, the percussion collective The Forest, and David Leon’s Bird’s Eye. Their debut recording, The Living Collection, was nominated for a German Jazz Prize in the categories International Debut Album of the Year and Album of the Year. I first met her when she was a student at Berklee and participated in a retreat at the Institute For the Musical Arts.


This was my first opportunity to meet and hear the marvelous cellist Mariel Roberts whose work is firmly planted in the contemporary music world. She is a member and co-director of the Wet Ink Ensemble, and is also part of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the Mivos Quartet and the Bang On a Can All-Stars, all premier new music organizations. As we heard on Sunday, she is also a first rate improviser. Her sonic interaction with sounds generated by Elias Stemeseder’s synthesizer added both woozy depth and sharp accents to Webber’s compositions. Neither soloed at length; instead they provided short riffs and fills that gave the music its warp and woof.


I first heard about Stemeseder in 2017, when drummer Jim Black hipped me to his name. With bassist Thomas Morgan, the pianist was part of Black’s phenomenal trio, which has four discs to its name. This was also my first opportunity to meet and hear him. He and Roberts set the stage for “Fizz”, laying down a sultry bed over which the horns soared, and he got to dazzle briefly with an arresting array of buzzes and bleaps on “Periodicity 1”. He is an exceptional pianist and I look forward to hearing him play acoustically.


Like her fellow saxophonist and composer Ingrid Laubrock, who performed in the Valley three days earlier, Anna Webber is a rising star who continues to turn heads and break new ground. She’s poised to do so for years to come. It’s a good time to be a fan of creative music.

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