Old and New Friends: New Origin Trio in Easthampton
The circle got stronger and wider on November 3 when the New Origin Trio paid a visit to Easthampton. Bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Harvey Sorgen are long-time friends of mine who have made multiple appearances in western Massachusetts over the years. The French clarinetist Christophe Rocher was unknown to me before Friday. Solidifying connections while making more of them, that’s how things stay healthy in the jazz world.
Whenever Fonda recommends a band for Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, I listen. His track record is impeccable, and this cross-cultural trio is a real band, with a 10 year history and a 2019 recording. The fact that I didn’t know Rocher, means little; even knowledgeable North America jazz fans have little idea who is doing what outside our borders.
Fonda and Sorgen met Rocher in his hometown of Brest, a port city in Brittany, in northwestern France. Rocher, and his wife, Janick Tilly, have been producing jazz festivals and related events in the region for many years, and Fonda and Sorgen were regular participants. When the three first played together, the sparks flew and the rapport was instant.
After a few days rehearsing at Sorgen’s place in Woodstock, NY, New Origin kicked off an eight city tour at the Blue Room at CitySpace in Easthampton. They played all new material, written by each of the band members, which will be recorded at the conclusion of the tour.
Some of the compositions featured jagged, off-kilter lines that never wavered. Other pieces skirted convention while exuding calm and charm. Most of the evening featured brilliant improvisation from three skilled veterans. Fonda explained to me that the written elements could be introduced by any member at any time. Often, an emphatic bass line would emerge, resulting in a shift in mood or feel, and the others would respond.
Fonda and Sorgen work together regularly. They provided rhythm at Jazz Shares concerts for Karl Berger in 2014 and Marilyn Crispell in 2020. As is typical for a Fonda/Sorgen rhythm section, the energy was high. Both would vocalize their enthusiasm from time to time in the form of yelps, whoops and hollers. During one steaming section, Fonda exhorted Sorgen not to stop swinging; “keep going”, Fonda implored, “don’t stop”.
For his part, Rocher blew every which way through his clarinet, including backwards through the bell of his horn, and sideways through the keyholes of his instrument. It didn’t strike me as a gimmick, but as an attempt to coax new sounds from an instrument invented over 300 years ago. At one otherworldly point, Rocher rubbed the bell of his clarinet on the stage in a circular motion, creating a whirling moan that he augmented by playing another clarinet “conventionally”.
In a review of New Origin’s self-titled disc on Not Two Records, writer John Sharpe referred to “the marvelous interplay between the threesome...Fonda and Sorgen are masters of a restless conversational swing which can take flight in any direction, with nowhere off limits, while Rocher shows himself to be their equal in his unbridled creativity and plentiful technique.” Sharpe nailed it.
Rocher played the typical B-flat clarinet, its smaller cousin, the E-flat clarinet, and the 4.5-foot bass clarinet. The latter, I’ve been told, has the widest range of any wind instrument. Rocher, trained as a computer engineer and in European classical music, is a master networker. He has invited musicians from all over the world to Brest, and he has travelled extensively in the U.S., making special connections through an ongoing project called “The Bridge”, a transatlantic exchange program featuring musicians from Chicago and France. One manifestation of Rocher’s Bridge work is a fantastic 2017 recording he produced and played on called Wrecks, with an ensemble that includes Jeff Parker, Tomeka Reid, Rob Mazurek and Nicole Mitchell among the Chicagoans.
The beauty of improvised music is it circumvents difference by using sound, not words. Instrumentalists who have little in common can communicate through music, if the spirit moves. Age, spoken language and country of origin are not barriers for musicians. Christophe Rocher, Joe Fonda and Harvey Sorgen are bridge builders, making new origins, enlarging circles, taking risks, comfortable not knowing exactly how it will turn out.