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Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares begins Season 5 with the Steve Swell Quartet

After a three-month hiatus, we were back in the saddle September 15, presenting the first of 16 concerts we will produce through June 2017. We hit the ground running thanks to the Steve Swell Quartet, who kicked off Season 5 of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares before a full house at Hampshire College.


There were heavy hearts on stage, as this project was supposed to feature pianist Connie Crothers, who passed away a month ago at the age of 75. After a moment of silence and Swell’s words of respect for his dear friend, the trombonist launched into an extended, unaccompanied solo full of smears, bleats, pretty notes, glissandi and lots of emotion.


Without Crothers, the group pivoted from their original plan to reprise Swell’s riveting Silkheart release, Hommage á Bartók. Although there were music stands on stage and occasional intricate unison passages featuring Swell and alto saxophonist Rob Brown, the single, 70-minute set was for the most part, freely improvised.


But freely improvised does not mean formless. In fact, the virtuosic rhythm team of bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver were a driving force all evening. The two have shared many bandstands over the years, most notably in Farmers By Nature, the superb trio they share with pianist Craig Taborn. The driving, malleable pulse they produced served as a touchstone.

The four musicians have deep shared histories dating back more than 25 years, resulting in a high level of what John Corbett calls “interaction dynamics,” how the musicians relate to one another.


In his insightful pocket book, “A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation,” the Chicago-based record and concert producer talks of “the palpable sense of give-and-take and the excitement of watching musicians build something jointly.” Witnessing the evening’s interactions, we felt that excitement, even a sense of danger, wondering if the train would part from the rail, trusting the artists could navigate clearly uncharted waters.


William Parker is what we call a leading light. Not merely a great musician, but a lynchpin, a towering figure, someone who will command chapter headings when the jazz history of our time is written. We were reminiscing about some of the dozens of visits he’s made to the Valley: from early concerts under the banner of Michael Ehlers’ Eremite Records in the 1990s, to his 2015 UMass Fine Arts Center’s Solos & Duos Series duo with poet David Budbill.


It was great to hear him play bass exclusively, and a treat to hear his fantastic arco work. Was it the distinctive looking bow, made by percussionist/sound artist Tatsuya Nakatani that made the bass sound especially resonant?


Hats off to Steve Swell, who has persevered against all odds to continue to organize and participate in music that matters. Like Roswell Rudd, Wolter Wirebos and a few others, Swell knows the entire history of the trombone, and is able to synthesize sounds popular from the 1920s onward to produce a modern music full of expression.


Thanks to Marty Ehrlich, who has brought great distinction to Hampshire College and enlivens the music scene both on campus and throughout the region. He and Larry Berger and his student staff have created a welcoming home for Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, one that we hope extends into the future.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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