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The Complicated Made Easy: Anna Webber’s Simple Trio at IMA

What happens when you combine evocative writing, instrumental mastery, and inspired imagination on one bandstand? On Saturday, October 20, Anna Webber’s Simple Trio gave us one convincing answer, providing 40 lucky listeners with entre into the musical world of one of the brightest jazz minds to emerge in the last decade. The 35-year old tenor saxophonist, flutist, and composer was joined by pianist Matt Mitchell and percussionist John Hollenbeck. Together they constructed a complex universe of sounds that occupied a sweet spot where composition and improvisation melt into music that moves souls.


The concert in the rustic, well-equipped barn at the Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen was sponsored by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, which has hosted three (very different) trios to begin Season Seven. As befits someone awarded a 2018 Guggenheim for music composition, Webber brought sheet music galore. But fear that the results would be academic or dry were quickly put to rest. Elaborate compositions, yes. A formalism that comes from reading, yes. The virtuosity we expect from classical musicians, yes. But this music also had personality and quirk, it had energy, and it swung. In fact, many of her pieces were built on complicated rhythmic figures that had a driving momentum.


Saturday’s concert was their second in a five-city tour. They had one rehearsal before their first show in Montreal. At least half of the pieces performed were new, from Webber’s numbered “Idiom” series. Although Mitchell and Hollenbeck had the music in advance, the level of execution on their third try was more than impressive. There are not that many musicians who can navigate that level of complexity and infuse the music with such life.


The great John Hollenbeck, who in recent years has performed in the Pioneer Valley with his Claudia Quintet and his Large Ensemble, as well as with Tony Malaby’s TubaCello, has lived in New York, Berlin and Montreal. Webber has also lived in those cities, but only at the Jazz Institute Berlin, where Hollenbeck taught and Webber studied, did they co-locate. Hollenbeck was an exacting technician, and when appropriate, used two tables worth of little percussion to chatter and create mess. For Webber to have her endlessly creative mentor in her band must feel very good.


At the post-show reception, Hollenbeck talked about Russell Black, his early mentor in Binghamton, NY, a rigorous teacher who insisted his students be able to read music. As head of the local musician’s union, Black would funnel a variety of jobs to his young drummer. Playing experience with polka bands, the circus, and jazz gigs, added to a first-rate education.


One can easily understand why Matt Mitchell is a valued member of the bands of Tim Berne, Dave Douglas, Dan Weiss, Jonathan Finlayson, Steve Coleman, Kate Gentile, Mario Pavone, Ches Smith and Dave King. He was glue, sticking landing after demanding landing, nailing oddly shaped melodies and idiosyncratic ideas as if he’d been playing them for years.


There were no solos in the conventional sense, just passages where one or the other musician would be foregrounded. As a result, it was the compositions that took center stage. They were each highly individual pieces, with intricate twists and distinct turns. The degree of difficulty was off the charts, but made to look easy by these masterful artists. The improvising on these tunes made clear how thoroughly they inhabited the written material.


After the concert I asked Webber how the Simple Trio got its name. Her chuckle acknowledged the obvious irony: the music was anything but. Turns out the first of her two recordings (both on Chris Speed’s Skirl label), was called Simple, and the name stuck. While predicting success in a field as precarious as creative music is a fool’s errand, Anna Webber seems destined for great things. I have to believe her Simple Trio will be a big part of it.

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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