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So Happy Together: NU Band in Easthampton

Communion. That’s the word that kept coming to me as the NU Band delivered a masterful performance on January 12 at the 121 Club in Easthampton. The deep connection between the band members, between the musicians and the 70 of us in attendance, and between audience members, was palpable and profound.

The concert, number six in Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares sixth season, featured Mark Whitecage, alto saxophone, clarinet, flute; Thomas Heberer, trumpet; Joe Fonda, bass, and Lou Grassi, drums. The quartet, with Heberer replacing the late Roy Campbell in 2014, has been intact since 2003. On the bandstand and off, the group seemed to revel in concentrated and consecrated affinity.


Often the musicians would face each other while playing; there were times when the bells of trumpet and saxophone were a mere two or three feet apart. Although there were jaw-dropping solos throughout, it was the interaction amongst the members that was most inspiring. From Fonda singing background riffs that Whitecage then used to support a trumpet solo to their seamless joint navigation of tricky tempo changes, the NU Band is an ensemble in sync.


And not only simpatico, but a band of equals. Over two, well-paced sets of original material, all four musicians contributed compositions, with each author introducing his own pieces. The band – in their 80’s (Whitecage), 70’s (Grassi), 60’s (Fonda) and 50’s (Heberer) – share an extroverted, post-bop expressiveness that elevated all present.


The band connected with the audience, as well. Afterwards, they expressed what almost all visiting improvisers report: that Valley jazz audiences are attentive, knowledgeable and invested, and considerably larger in number than they’re used to. Feeding off the crowd’s energy, the band delivered streams of heart-felt, life-affirming sounds.


The person-to-person loop was also manifest among audience. Thanks to the set break and our usual after-concert reception, there was ample opportunity to catch up with friends and meet new ones. Musicians also often comment on the community we’ve built.


Back to the solos. Late in the evening, Thomas Heberer began a piece unaccompanied, with a boggling display of extended technique. Is it just my imagination, or is it true that no instrument has undergone such a substantial expansion of its recent vocabulary, as the trumpet. Nate Wooley, Peter Evans, Jaimie Branch (next in the Jazz Shares queue), Taylor Ho Bynum and Axel Dörner all come to mind. Heberer’s use of voice, circular breathing, bee-like buzzing, all made for a riveting solo, continuing after his lips left the horn. Yelps and applause ensued.


Our old friend Joe Fonda, who has been to the Valley each of the last six years (with Conference Call, Barry Altschul, Karl Berger, Michael Mussilami and OGJB Quartet), also elicited excitement with his solo of slaps, double-strumming and other never before seen techniques, all while building a coherent musical statement. There’s a funny Mutt and Jeff juxtaposition of towering bass and diminutive bassist. But his spirit is so large and infectious, we are no longer surprised by Fonda’s joyful lifting of the bandstand.


What a thrill to hear Mark Whitecage play. The evening’s opening number, Five O’Clock Follies, established his deep be-bop lineage. He sailed through the up-tempo romp with an effortlessness that belied respiratory challenges. The final piece of the night, Grassi’s The Last of the Beboppers (Clean Feed’s Pedro Costa’s description of Whitecage,) also featured the alto saxophonist swinging his 80-year old ass off. In between, he played dark chocolate clarinet and, on his original, Prayer for the Water Protectors, a Native American flute. He’s waiting to get his hands on a fujara flute made from PVC pipe. Reason enough to have him back.


NU Band is a cooperative ensemble, but Fonda and Lou Grassi chase down gigs and firm up details. Grassi is a journeyman in the best, most noble sense of the word. Generating work by germinating relationships with producers, label chiefs and many fabulous musicians (he was a good friend and long-time collaborator with the Valley’s David Wertman), Grassi has carved a productive career out of unforgiving material. His crisp drumming gave the evening its backbone, its architecture.


Coming together in community to share a sublime moment or two. That’s what Jazz Shares means to me. Thanks to musical warriors like NU Band for helping us transcend the ugliness around us and inspire us for the fight ahead.

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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