The range of the clarinet is similar to the human voice, so one might worry that an ensemble of three clarinets and voice would have a limited palate. But as 50 listeners witnessed at the Parlor Room on Friday, in the right hands, that configuration can yield expansive results.
Clarinetists James Falzone, FrançoisHoule, Michael Winograd, and vocalist Ayelet Rose Gottlieb are Pneuma. They kicked off the 11th season of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares in Northampton, MA on August 19, with a deep, 60-minute concert of chamber jazz.
Pneuma means “wind”, “breath”, or “spirit” in ancient Greek, and Gottlieb intoned wind-inspired poetry by Christina Rossetti, Izumi Shikbu and Forugh Farrokhzad that projected a sense of longing and bitter sweetness. “Do you hear the darkness blowing?”, asked Farrokhzad, the late modern Iranian poet. “Who has seen the wind?” asked Rosetti, the English poet from the 19th century.
I appreciated that both Gottlieb and Falzone recited the poems beforehand, giving us clear access to the words. Gottlieb’s voice soared above the clarinets to deliver lyrics, then blended with them to spar and parry. Her beautiful instrument had depth and gravitas, and she was unafraid to let loose, producing worlds of wordless sound that brought feelings of freedom and playfulness. Gottlieb told us she conceived of Pneuma while grieving the loss of her grandfather, who played clarinet. Her piece “Passing Through/Lament for Harry”, was the impetus to form the band.
The Jerusalem-born vocalist now lives in Montreal, and has closely collaborated with John Zorn, Anat Fort, and the string quartet ETHEL. Her latest project, “13 Lunar Meditations: Summoning the Witches”, is a song cycle about the moon and our connection to it, based on writings by women and girls from around the world. Over dinner, Gottlieb told me how as a 16-year-old in Israel she was forever changed after meeting the legendary saxophonist and educator Arnie Lawrence, who brought her into his band, taught her to be a professional singer, and shaped her fearless approach to music making.
Michael Winograd is regarded as one of the best working klezmer clarinetists today. He performs regularly in Amherst at Yidstock, the Yiddish Book Center’s annual festival of new klezmer music. Like many in the field, Winograd is funny and quick-witted. He joked that he wanted to include “Someday My Blintz Will Come” on the evening’s set list. He told us he has always wanted to form the “Make a Knish Foundation”. His formative teacher was Sid Beckerman, whom he met at Klez Kamp as a 14-year-old. Winograd is a serious musician with chops, whose Semitic note bending added complexity and a certain melancholy to the stew.
During a wonderful clarinet workshop at the Northampton Community Music Center organized by Evan Arntzen, François Houle ran down his list of influences, which included John Carter, Perry Robinson, Don Byron, and especially Bill Smith, who was a mentor. Houle was born in Montreal and has lived in Vancouver since 1990. He is the only band member who didn’t attend the New England Conservatory of Music; he went to McGill University and Yale. The bulk of his best work can be found on Songlines, a label also based in Vancouver. Like Winograd and Falzone, Houle is a master technician, whose off-the-chart facility shone during sections of rapid, jagged, poly-tonal unison playing. That brilliance sat in winning combination with his emphasis on tone and emotion.
I first met James Falzone in Chicago in 2013. Since then, Jazz Shares has presented his six-piece celebration of the clarinet family: the Renga Ensemble (2014), his Arabic and European folk music quartet: Allos Musica (2015), and his duo with bassist/vocalist Katie Ernst: Wayfaring (2019). Each project was distinct in instrumentation and orientation, but shared a commitment to mixing authentic music traditions in fresh ways. Falzone has a natural-born divinity that shines. He is a first rate teacher (now a Dean at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle), a creative and immensely talented musician, and a kind and considerate human being. I hope to see him every few years forever.
Except for a few brief introductory solos, it was difficult to tell who was playing what, so I closed my eyes and made it impossible to find out. The resulting sound became one living, breathing thing that vibrated through heart and soul. This concert, postponed by the pandemic, came right on time for me, and was an auspicious start to another season of live music.