When I asked Daniel Levin if his Trio needed music stands for his Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares gig on October 26, he replied, “Music is all in our heads and hearts, so no need for stands.”
For over an hour on Thursday, tenor and soprano saxophonist Tony Malaby, drummer Randy Peterson, and cellist Daniel Levin improvised without a road map, charting a path without charts or formula. The concert, which took place up 69 stairs at Studio4 in Northampton, had few signposts, and no clichés to guide our listening. Devoid of well-worn constructs, sustained melody and rhythmic certainty, we were left to our own devices to create meaning and pleasure.
That can be daunting for many listeners used to having their art delivered in predictable portions, with elements like song-form, key signatures, beginnings, middles and ends. But for those who can deal with uncertainty and disrupted expectations, the rewards can be thrilling.
I’m not sure how easy it is for the uninitiated to tell novice from master in this terrain. Judging virtuosity can be challenging in a ‘free’ jazz setting. “Are they still tuning up?” was my mother’s favorite quip, who for some reason was concerned that the musicians couldn’t replicate the music they just made. “My five year old could make that,” is the common refrain from puzzled viewers of abstract art.
But those who have spent time listening to non-idiomatic music can separate the wheat from the chaff. Let me tell you, we were dealing with wheat at Studio4.
These three musicians are skilled and practiced, and can play music convincingly in all kinds of idioms. Randy Peterson told us over dinner that he can imitate Elvin Jones’ drumming style so well we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. “But what’s the point of that?” he asked.
As we relaxed into the music, what at first sounded random and disconnected, began to take shape. We realized how deeply the musicians were listening to each other and what control they had over their instruments. We soon abandoned the prospect that Levin’s cello would fall into a familiar walk, for instance, or that Tony Malaby would settle into sustained melody. We gave up thinking in terms of compositions, time keeping, and right notes, and we started to think about color, texture, shape, dynamics, and mood.
When we meditate, we try to suspend judgement and merely observe what is happening inside and outside our bodies. We concentrate on what is before us: our breath. We watch our thoughts come and go as we quiet the mind. This mindset was helpful as I dealt with this fleeting, evanescent music.
During the performance I found myself shifting focus from one instrument to another. My eyes were closed for most of the concert so I could concentrate without distraction. But sometimes an unidentifiable sound, like Levin’s crumpling of a piece of paper or Malaby’s blowing of air through his horn, would require a peek.
The sounds they made: Levin whipping his bow through the air to make a subtle whoosh, using his bow to hit the endpin of his cello, were certainly unique. But it was their ability to listen and respond that was truly amazing. The Trio did not engage in typical call-and-response or play complimentary lines.
Their communication was sly, oblique, related to what was going on around them, but not obviously so. Their music was commanding and demanding. But as Charles Ives asked, “Is not beauty in music too often confused with something which lets the ears lie back in an easy chair?”