Holy and Unruly: Oceans And at Wistairihurst Museum
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.