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  • Glenn Siegel

Traveling Towards Connection: Wayfaring Stops in Northampton

What is music but a series of relationships? There is the relationship between the notes; the relationships between the band members; between audience and performer; between producer and artist; and between the music’s past and present. These relationships are not in perfect harmony all the time. Indeed, tension is a crucial element in generating drama and fostering growth. But when you are connected, to a practice, an idea, each other, all can thrive. Can we call it love?

James Falzone and Katie Ernst, who were touring the northeast as Wayfaring, have an affinity that generates a kind of kinship that brings people together. We were links on the chain as Wayfaring delighted an audience of 50 at the Parlor Room in Northampton as part of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares on Thursday, March 14th.

Falzone, who made his name as an important clarinetist and scene builder in Chicago, is now Chair of Music at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. Ernst, a generation younger than Falzone, is a Chicago bassist and vocalist of uncommon depth and sensitivity. Together they exuded warmth and melded genres to produce a sublime evening of music.

“Music schools have become very genre-focused,” Falzone told Earshot Jazz in 2017. “My observation about 21st-century music making is that most genres are obliterated as a working musician. I was performing Wayne Horvitz’s music the other night; you had to read, improvise, be able to play very classically oriented, be able to swing, and there were elements that were world music-esque where you had to play in a certain kind of groove. It asked the musicians to do an incredible variety of things… Jazz has always been an open container.”

Wayfaring, which takes its name from the beloved American folk song, ignored musical borders like birds disregard town lines. Folk music, church hymns, jazz, traditional American tunes, contemporary classical music all came and went without any flag waving.

Like their fantastic 2017 Allos Documents release, I Move, You Move, the concert began with the title composition, written by Ernst. It felt like a beautiful, Bach-like exercise, just voice and clarinet at first. The sound was clear, the piece simple, a warming up, their lines interweaving, then in unison. When Ernst’s bass enters, that third voice sounds rich and very welcome.

“One of the most austerely beautiful recordings of the year sounds very much like a balm for troubled times,” wrote Howard Reich, in The Chicago Tribune. “Elements of jazz, folk, pop, blues and other genres course through this work, but it’s the long-lined lyricism and pervasive warmth of the music-making that leave the deepest and most lasting impression.”

“This is My Hand,” written by Shara Nova, lead singer and songwriter of My Brightest Diamond, found Falzone on Shruti box, an Indian drone instrument, that he rigged to play with his foot. That freed him to play a Paiute flute. The piece felt like a prayer, like something that had been around for a long time.

Many of the songs had that timeless quality and an air of spiritual engagement. Not only the lovely renditions of blues and gospel staples “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” but Ernst’s yearning “Pressed in Books, Like Roses,” and Falzone’s “And Yet Hope.” They felt like calls to our higher selves. Beauty of such magnitude reminds us what is possible when we focus our skills and attention in the service of good. Sighs of appreciations could be heard in the crowd.

We say “the stars are aligned” when things work out; when vibrations line up. But it’s not just luck. James Falzone and Katie Ernst are individuals in alignment with the universe, in deep relationship with music, musicians and the rest of us.

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