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  • Glenn Siegel

On the Road Again: Zoh Amba and Chris Corsano Visit Holyoke

Drummer Chris Corsano and tenor saxophonist Zoh Amba are world travelers, barely burdened by quotidian concerns like mailboxes and addresses. Like Aurora Nealand, who was recently here with Tim Berne’s trio, and elders like Hamid Drake and Don Cherry before them, a look at Amba and Corsano’s touring schedules confirms that they are rarely home (or in one spot for very long.) They are itinerant musicians, modern griots.

Amba and Corsano stopped at Holyoke Media on November 19, concluding a 12-city tour with a concert produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares. They gave an incendiary performance for 65 broad-eared listeners.

Rather than stay put and create a scene in a hometown, Amba and Corsano choose to travel the globe, touring and collaborating with locals in locales large and small, forging new connections and planting musical seeds where ever they go. When I asked Corsano if he lived in New Jersey, he chuckled and said he doesn’t really “live” anywhere at the moment.

Over the course of 65 minutes of map-less free jazz, our fearless troubadours used expanded vocabularies to cover a large swath of emotional territory on their way to the promised land. Despite the pure nature of their improvisation, they managed to stick a half-dozen dismounts, bringing each piece to a perfect conclusion with logic and precision.

I’ve known Chris Corsano since his Hampshire College days during the second half of the 1990s. He was mentored by writer and record collector Byron Colley, (whose Feeding Tube Records is a Jazz Shares business sponsor), and Michael Ehlers, owner of Eremite Records, who produced The Transnational Jazz Conspiracy on WMUA, and around 100 concerts in the Valley, before moving west in 2009. Suffice to say Corsano was exposed to a lot of good music. I first met him when he worked the door for Ehler’s operation, and in the interceding years, he has developed into a master of sound and rhythm.

He played two high-hat cymbals (with separate pedals, close together), and his cymbal work generally shimmered and shined. There was a point when he placed a small, metal bowl on his floor tom and created holy, resonant tones. Sometimes he used two sticks in each hand, creating a mass vibration. He could be seen flipping sticks to take advantage of the special sonorities each end provided. Corsano swung hard and had the requisite force to match Zoh Amba.

If she were not standing right in front of us, no one would imagine that the ferocious, guttural torrent of sound we were hearing was coming from a slight, 23 year old white woman from rural Tennessee, who skews shy and introverted when off-stage. But there was Zoh Amba, summoning the spirit of her role models: Albert Ayler, Frank Wright, David S. Ware and Frank Lowe, testing the soundproofing of our black box studio space, while putting her personal stamp on the “fire music” of the 1960s.

The band was in fifth gear from the first note. She produced cascades of tones broken into multiphonic shards; she displayed the pathos-filled vibrato and gospel leanings we associate with Ayler; she shared the raw, fuck-it-all attitude we get from punk and noise. But despite the music's intensity, Amba had such control of her instrument and spewed so many ideas so quickly, it didn’t feel like a demand, it felt immersive and meditative.

Amba spent hours playing saxophone in the woods near her home in Kingsport, TN, and did deep YouTube dives into her predecessors. But she has living mentors, too. She studied with David Murray for a time, and spoke kindly about Mark Dresser, who was very encouraging. She’s learned from playing with veterans like drummer Tyshawn Sorey, who’s featured on her latest release, Bhakti (Mahakala Music), and John Zorn, who produced and appears on her first recording, O, Sun (Tzadik). She has worked with William Parker, Francisco Mela, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily. She only has a bit of post-secondary training, but she’s been well educated. Hank Shteamer wrote a wonderful profile

of her last year in the New York Times.

One of the roles of “jazz producer” I most cherish, is having musicians stay overnight at the home I share with Priscilla Page, where we provide respite and rejuvenation for musicians on the road. We supply whatever they need: morning coffee, home-made food, laundry, some Valley jazz history, mood enhancers, stories and news. We are glad to be part of the jazz world’s connective tissue, making safe spaces for musicians who flit from place to place. For one day, I was glad to share all that with Zoh Amba and Chris Corsano, two modern road warriors spreading a gospel of love through music.

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