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  • Glenn Siegel

The Ties That Bind: Stephen Haynes’ Knuckleball at the Shea Theater

In the creative music world, relationships matter. Because the music is heavily improvised, musicians must listen deeply to each other in order for meaningful dialogue to occur. Because the material payouts are often meager, the relationships between players becomes its own reward.


I was reminded of this fact on April 15, when Stephen Haynes’ septet, Knuckleball, convened at the Shea Theater for a concert produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares. The concert was supported by a generous grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts, so at least for this evening, the musicians were paid well.


“Perhaps my favorite thing about the work yesterday in Turners Falls,” Haynes wrote on Facebook, “was the conversations: in cars, filled with sets of musicians driving to the gig, before and after our set, during dinner before we performed. Some of this was old friends in the ensemble reconnecting and reminiscing, some of it was new connections - the sort of listening and exchanges that knit and gather ensemble naturally. All of this flowed into and informed the improvisation throughout our hour plus set.”


And what a set it was.


In order to be closer to the audience, the ensemble set up in the pit in front of the stage. Sam Newsome (soprano sax), Josh Roseman (trombone) and Ben Stapp (tuba), were in one row, facing the three cornetists: Taylor Ho Bynum, Herb Robertson and Haynes, with Eric Rosenthal (drums) between them.


The unscripted performance had the drama and the ebb and flow of a great film score. There were no solos, per se. Rather, instrumental voices would emerge from the sound pool to command attention before retreating back into the mix. Periods of stasis morphed into cacophony before settling into quiet reflection. Brief solos and moments of dialogue between members of the ensemble gave the music space to breath.


Robertson’s use of miscellaneous sound making devices, what the Art Ensemble of Chicago called “little instruments”, greatly expanded the band’s sonic universe. Newsome, fresh off his brilliant work with Joe Morris and Francisco Mela in the same space three weeks earlier, attached tubes and tin foil to his soprano sax to produce myriad textures and colors. All the horn players employed mutes of various kinds, sometimes more than one at a time, to bend notes and invoke voice-like inflection.


The music was open and abstract, and produced a range of emotions. The nature of the proceedings reinforced the notion that we were exploring basic sound science, but the mastery of the musicians meant that the experiments were all in the service of making a collective sound. There was nothing dry or academic about it. Indeed, the dynamism of the players gave the septet a cohesion and shared purpose; they meshed perfectly.


After the show, most of the band reconvened at our house, where we listened to and marveled at Herb Robertson’s monumental 1988 JMT recording, Shades of Bud Powell. Ben Stapp, who teaches music to public school youngsters in Long Island City, was very interested in The Saga of Padani, a very hip recording by Oakland middle schoolers who have been taught to compose and improvise by their teacher Randy Porter. So it went past midnight, sharing stories and information, kibitzing, joking, eating and drinking.


Which brings us back to the notion of relationship. There were no egos, no stars in the band. Just seven highly accomplished veterans deciding in the moment what the music needed. The bonds deepened and expectations soared that the bands’ upcoming gigs at Firehouse 12 and Real Art Ways would yield even more satisfying results, and that the subsequent recording would be worthy of widespread public attention.

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