Is chamber jazz a real thing? The term, like most terms, is clumsy and imprecise. It conjures certain instrumentation, a particular configuration on stage, large amounts of written music, precise execution and European Classical sound production.
Duende Winds plays chamber jazz, I guess. They check some of the boxes. The quartet features Sara Schoenbeck, bassoon, Tomeka Reid, cello, Nicole Mitchell, flutes, and the leader, Marty Ehrlich, clarinets. They entranced 120 listeners shoehorned into Hampshire College’s Music & Dance Building on Saturday, December 1, as Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares continued its seventh season. Although bassoon, cello, flute and clarinet are common chamber music instruments, they are rarely heard together, perhaps never in a jazz context. Despite the presence of written scores, the amount of improvising we heard on Saturday was substantial. The band was seated on stage in a typical Classical quartet semi-circle, but the range of music, and the techniques used to produce it, were far from the buttoned-down formality so highly valued in “concert” music.
By way of explaining the ensemble’s name, Professor Ehrlich, who teaches at Hampshire College, referenced Federico García Lorca’s influential essay, “Theory and Play of the Duende”, which declares, “All that has dark sounds has duende.” The essay goes on to say, “Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art.”
Duende Winds, which made its world premiere at Hampshire, is the logical extension of Ehrlich’s Dark Woods Ensemble, which also mined the nexus between chamber music and jazz. They performed Julius Hemphill’s “The Painter,” and three older Ehrlich compositions, “Sojourn,” “Rites Rhythms,” and “News on the Rail”; the rest of the 80-minute performance featured newly written music for the occasion by the 63-year old reedman.
Tomeka Reid is the most important cellist to emerge in the past 10 years. She works constantly, and her self-titled 2015 debut recording on Thirsty Ear garnered a massive amount of well-deserved praise. Reid played a borrowed fiberglass cello lent to her by Yo-Yo Ma, producing a rich sound that is the instrument’s birthright. As befits someone who came up through Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), she easily navigated different roles. Over the course of the evening, she alternated bass line duties with Shoenbeck’s bassoon and Ehrlich’s bass clarinet, she was the lead “gospel” voice on “Sojourn,” she plucked, bowed, and slapped her way into our hearts. This was her first visit to the Pioneer Valley; we hope many more follow.
Nicole Mitchell and Sara Schoenbeck were last in the Valley in 2013 when they performed at the Institute for the Musical Arts with Harris Eisenstadt’s Golden State. In my humble opinion, they are each the premier improviser on their instruments. Mitchell was so creative and played with such authority. The technique of vocalizing while playing flute, sometimes called “throat tuning,” is no longer unique among creative musicians. But Mitchell has developed her own sound with it, and employs it liberally. At times she filled the music with mystery, other times she buoyed the bandstand with joy. Mitchell will lead her project, Mandorla Awaking II, at Amherst College’s Parallel Series on February 22.
Many people commented what a treat it was to hear a bassoon. When was the last time you heard one outside of the symphony stage? I remember the bassoon solos in Ravel’s “Bolero” and Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”, but Sara Schoenbeck has brought the instrument into the 21st century, using its unique sound to color and probe. A lot of her professional work entails notated music, but she is a brilliant improviser. She’ll be back next year in a duet with pianist Wayne Horvitz.
The concert was the culmination of two full days of workshops and symposia that Ehrlich organized at Hampshire. Mitchell gave an inspiring talk by about her musical process and her personal history as it relates to the work of writer Octavia Butler. Harvard professor Ingrid Monson gave a highly informative lecture by about Yusef Lateef that she hopes to expand upon.
Ehrlich is a Valley jewel, raising the region’s level of musicianship, pedagogy and collegiality. I first engaged Mr. Ehrlich in 1997 (with Tony Malaby, Michael Cain, Michael Formanek and Bobby Previte) for the Magic Triangle Jazz Series, and I’ve been lucky enough to present his quartet and large ensemble in recent years. It was a treat to help advance this side of his musical persona. He mostly played clarinet and bass clarinet, with one turn each on flute and soprano saxophone. His writing, playing, and bandleading led to an evening full of excellent music making and resonant possibilities.