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The Swim Upstream: Ken Vandermark/Nate Wooley Duo at UMass

Most celebrated musical forms were pioneered by, and made for, those with limited resources. Rebetika, hip hop, flamenco, blues and many other popular styles were originally street music, made by disenfranchised folks in dive bars and poor neighborhoods, before being co-opted and monetized by others. It’s an old story: cultural innovation bubbles up, and economic rewards (sometimes) trickle down.


But because the business of creative music is to confound and spellbind, it’s hard to exploit, and thus left mostly to its own meager devices. I alluded to the shoestring budgets I’ve had over my 30+ years of producing “jazz” in the Pioneer Valley, at a lovely event/concert on April 24 at the Old Chapel at UMass. I was honored with a “Jazz Hero” award by the Jazz Journalists Association at a reception prior to a concert by Ken Vandermark and Nate Wooley, concluding the Magic Triangle Series’ 30th anniversary season.


My budgets are large compared to grass-roots, door-gig producers, but small compared to my Fine Arts Center colleagues. Yet because the supply of truly astounding musicians is so high and the number of performances that pay is so low, I am able to hire the most innovative musicians on the planet for modest fees. By the way, if I had more money I wouldn’t necessarily engage higher-priced artists, I’d pay the musicians I would book anyway, more.


Trumpeter Nate Wooley and saxophonist Ken Vandermark began their seven-city tour at UMass on Wednesday, before moving on to a couple of art galleries, a tavern, a school, and a bicycle factory. Not dive bars perhaps, but unprepossessing venues with tight margins. With awards and accolades galore, thousands of amazing live performances and critically acclaimed discographies, you’d think a civilized society could do more for them. Not in 2019 America.


Wooley took the stage first, playing a half hour solo set full of remarkable sounds and moving music. Though he is a leading sound scientist, expanding the potential of his 500-year old instrument, he didn’t just catalogue various techniques, he used them to create arc, narrative, beauty and provocation. The uninterrupted performance touched all the bases: delicate half-heard whispers, fuselages of circular breathed fury, percussive valve taps, pure round tones, decaying sound, silence.


During his solo, Vandermark performed pieces on tenor saxophone, clarinet and baritone saxophone, each dedicated to a different influence. His clarinet piece acknowledged three masters of the instrument: Pee Wee Russell, Jimmy Giuffre and John Carter. References to those elders were oblique, found in small gestures, invoked in spirit. His piece on baritone honored the influential filmmaker, Agnes Varda, who died March 29 at the age of 90. As the audience of 115 murmured in recognition, my film watch list just got longer. Vandermark used his beautiful sound on the instrument to lay down rhythm and break notes into many parts.


The second half of the program featured the duo playing material that was jointly composed. Adapting the Surrealist parlor game of “exquisite corpse,” where a person would write a phrase on a sheet of paper, fold the paper to conceal it, and pass it on to the next player for their contribution, Wooley and Vandermark sent composed parts back and forth between New York and Chicago. Despite the disparate nature of the process, the results were coherent, meaty, delightful in places. The compositions, which Wooley titled on the spot with names like, “Ken Got a New Shirt but I Think It’s an Old Shirt and He’s Lying,” and “Farting on Main Street,” featured strong unison passages leavened with improvised whimsey. Vandermark again made the instrumental rounds, giving the evening a nice range of pitch and texture.


Creative music always swims upstream, head-winding our expectations and comfort zones; refusing to guarantee that audiences will “like it,” be entertained. Of course, upstream has financial dimensions; for many of the artists I present, music is as much a calling, as a profession.


What an honor to present Nate Wooley again (Jazz Shares brought his Quintet to the Shea Theater in November, 2016,) and to finally host Ken Vandermark as a leader. They are honest-to-goodness working musicians, bucking odds, busting trends, refusing to curl up and abide by convention. I’m glad there are outposts like ours willing to take chances to lift up our people.

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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