Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Yin and Yang of Improvised Music

David Torn’s Prezens Quartet had top billing at the Walker last night, maybe because he is represented by a bigger label (ECM) or perhaps a bigger following among the young and electronically devout. Drew Gress’ Seven Black Butterflies ensemble was billed as the “opening” act, yet Gress has been at the top of jazz bass society for a decade and clearly provoked more audience response. The core members of Torn’s quartet (save the leader himself) are long-time associates of Gress and form 3/5 of Butterflies, yet the two ensembles reflect significantly different approaches to modern improvised music: one relying on human manipulation of sound, the other relying on human-induced feats of engineering, both dedicated to the creation and resolution of sonic experiments.

That both ensembles reflect significant artistry is indisputable. Even on a dimly lit stage filled with laptops, pedals and circuitry, one recognizes collective, in-the-moment creation, interaction among musicians, improvisation that evolves as collaborative composition. Yet even with visual cues available, it was often hard to decipher the man from the machine as Torn’s quartet wormed its way through an extended “piece” filled with loops and loopholes, dirges and drones, surges and recessions, squawks and squeals, buzzes and pings. Sometimes it growled, mostly it spun on its own tilted axis, an ensemble floating through space more than hurtling out of orbit. Torn fiddled with the pilot’s controls, kept his feet dancing from one pedal to another, carrying the guitar as baggage as often as finding new ways to coax sounds directly from its strings. Taborn was on his feet as often as seated at the Rhodes, “bending circuits” on the control panel or maybe that was the “mellotron” box, his efforts often hard to isolate or identify in the mix. Berne and Rainey seemed less plugged in yet similarly creating from a well of Artificial Intelligence, the drummer providing graceful antics while Berne infused a bit of humor, muting his horn with a water bottle.

Torn and company were undeniably interesting if not always aurally satisfying. Gress and Butterflies, on the other hand, were undeniably artful, spontaneous, and as satisfying as any ensemble I’ve heard at the Walker in recent years. Limited to acoustic devices, the quintet added muscle with a second horn (trumpeter Ralph Alessi), pulse with acoustic bass, and soul with acoustic piano. It was a rare opportunity to hear Craig Taborn in the role that brought him national attention 15 years ago as a member of James Carter’s early bands, and while his music has pushed farther and farther to the outside, his monsterous well of inventive and exquisite control of the keyboard remain. Taborn can stack thick chords like pancakes or dissect noodled passages into separate ingredients, then reassemble all into fragile glass chimes.

While spontaneous combustion marked much of the too-short set, the four compositions offered variety in dynamics, rhythms and collaboration, at times as modal insurgencies and at other times as orchestral firestorms. The third selection (all unidentified) evolved as a call-and-response challenge of short tones among trumpet and bass as Gress and Alessi worked out at the respective tops of their instruments, yielding to a similar debate between Taborn and Rainey, then Berne and Rainey, the conversation trading dyads before the full quintet erupted. It was planned as the finale but the audience pushed for an encore.

The stage was quickly turned into an electronics lab, with only fifteen minutes between the acoustic mayhem of Gress and the digital engineering of Torn. For the unplugged Berne and Rainey, it seemed like a short drive, yet for Taborn, the leap seemed cosmic, traveling across a sea to a parallel universe. It is in fact a transition he makes almost daily given the long list of bands on his current itinerary. Often his task is to move seamlessly between acoustic and electronic in the span of a few notes, and I have experienced sets where he sits with one hand on the Steinway and one hand on the Rhodes. I’ve always wondered how his brain is wired.

Modern jazz, or modern improvised music of whatever classification, requires exceptional flexibility in its musicians as acoustic boundaries are stretched like taffy, as more and more nonacoustic elements become part of the arsenal, and as its practitioners find themselves moving from one approach to another. And it also requires more flexibility on the part of the audience, particularly when two or more ensembles with divergent philosophies share the stage. For better or worse, the brains of the artists typically show greater elasticity than the brains on the other side of the stage. It makes for some challenging evenings, but that is the evolving nature of jazz. Fifty years ago, bebop was the avant garde.

Photos: In the spirit of the music, Craig Taborn and Tim Berne at the Walker. Photos by Andrea Canter with a bit of modern engineering.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

With the Boys in the Band

I’ve seen and heard bands of all shapes and sizes on the stage at the Dakota Jazz Club, from solo performances to the 17-piece Mingus Big Band—so large for the club space that a row of musicians occupied what normally would be space for a half dozen tables. Obviously big band music is intended to be played by a large ensemble, and even in a relatively small room the music fills the space without overpowering it, thanks to a high tech sound system and expert sound engineer.

But often, particularly when the focus is on a vocalist, it seems that musicians are often added beyond critical mass without adding quality—just quantity. This is not a characteristic of Christine Rosholt’s ensembles, which tend to range from trio to sextet. A singer with a relatively short resume (she celebrated five years of public performance last fall), Christine is long on business sense and presentation, which might explain why she is one of the busiest, wide-ranging vocalists in the area. It’s not unusual for Christine to have three or more gigs in a given week, and at venues ranging from supper club to jazz club, from Minneapolis to Bay City, Wisconsin or the North Shore. The fact that she is an increasingly accomplished singer constantly adding new material to her repertoire is of course part of the reason for her popularity, but another significant factor is her choice of musicians. She’s often supported by pianists Chris Lomheim or Tanner Taylor, two marvelous accompanists with very different styles; bassist Graydon Peterson, a young UW-Eau Claire grad who has surprising facility backing vocalists; drummer and choreographer of all things percussion, Jay Epstein; and everyone’s favorite tenor sax man with the famous red socks, Dave Karr.

Tonight she added another instrument to the mix, guitarist Vinnie Rose, a relative newcomer who was a classmate of Peterson’s at UW-EC. And while some vocalists might feel compelled to perform all tunes with the full band, Christine made choices as best fit each tune, and it was a virtual musical chairs on stage, now a duet, then a quartet or quintet. The core of the band performs together often, and it shows; their timing, their pacing, their interplay is as smooth as it gets. They are always in tune—to each other. New material—Christine’s duet with Tanner on the challenging “Lush Life”—seemed to flow as seamlessly as long-standing favorites with the full contingent, like “Day Dream.” And Christine, responding to a request, closed the late set with a tune that gave everyone a chance to shine, particularly Dave Karr and the singer herself, on “When Sonny Gets Blue.”

Musicians constantly make choices on stage, selecting notes, tempos, adjusting phrasing, stepping back and stepping up, deciding what tune to call next….And sometimes those choices are not so much about what or how to play, but who will play. Here, Christine Rosholt makes wise and satisfying choices.

Photos: Christine Rosholt; Christine with Jay Epstein and Dave Karr at the Dakota, March 24, 2008. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Classical Dissonance

I grew up on classical music. My parents say I heard it in utero and I’m sure I did. Or at least I absorbed the vibrations. I’m not sure at what point our embryonic ears recognize sound. I used to fall asleep listening to Delibes’ Coppelia and was well into my 30s before I heard the last three movements fully conscious. With my parents, I attended a lot of classical concerts, and have been a faithful Schubert Club subscriber for 30 years.

But today I’m less enamored of classical music, at least live performances. For a while I have assumed that my near-obsession with jazz has pushed me to expect, to demand improvisation at some level. I don’t want to hear every note as written when there might be another note, or sequence of notes, that gives the music more interest, gives the performance more individuality. Why should a live performance merely duplicate a recording? Why should that allegro go off in the same direction every time, return to the same starting point night after night?

But even Beethoven had themes and variations, and the great performers of the last century managed to infuse their own interpretive powers into the dynamics, the emotions of their repertoire. Hardly the same as the deconstructions of Ellington, Monk, and Parker that inform much of contemporary jazz or the extended exploratory solos of the great horn players of the Big Bands, or the vocal experiments of great scat artists from Ella to Elling. But I think one reason I preferred classical music in my 20s and 30s was that classical music used to have more soul.

Case in point, the recent, rather unsettling performance of young Lang Lang, a Chinese pianist of incomparable technical facility and the capacity to bring a staid Minnesota audience to its feet one minute while leaving us stone cold the next. Or vice versa, as was the case last week. I enjoyed his performance in 2004—he was barely in his 20s and oozed enthusiasm as well as prodigious talent. He was grinning ear to ear when his elderly father joined him on the traditional Chinese erhu for an encore. The whole concert was a big grin, played with childlike abandon (but with much greater accuracy). I looked forward to hearing him again, even though on the same night Maria Schneider conducted the Macalester jazz band and Jazz Is Now! was returning to the stage after a two-year hiatus. I picked Lang Lang.

I almost left at intermission, bored by masterworks from Mozart and Schumann that were played with stony precision by a 25-year-old wunderkind on auto pilot. Neither Mozart nor Schumann are so etched in stone that they can’t be brought to life, even for ears grown accustomed to bop and beyond. But the second half of the program suggested a seachange, including six pieces from Lang's album of mostly modern Chinese music (Dragon Songs), Granados, and Liszt. Surely one can not be impassionate playing Liszt. And the familiar connection to Chinese themes promised to stir something from this young man’s soul.

Some have criticized Lang Lang for a sometimes bombastic approach to great romantic scores, but I’ll take bombast over complacency any day as long as it doesn’t defeat the music. The suite of Chinese pieces—now sounding more like a sweeping stylistic overview from Baroque to Tango and ultimately like variations on Aaron Copeland─was purely delightful and Lang’s enthusiasm was unsheathed from the git go. I’d take a recording filled with what can only be described as formalized improvisation. Perhaps to purists of Asian music, this was blasphemy. On the other hand, it was the most creative work of the evening, and the music that seemed to give Lang Lang, not just the audience, the most pleasure. The audience actually was most pleased, it seemed, with Listz’s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 6, certainly a show stopper and Lang Lang pulled out all the stops and flourishes. He was well within his comfort zone—a piece requiring technical wizardry, physical power and arrogant confidence. Lang has plenty of the above. Surprisingly, his encore slipped back into the more detached mild-mannered romanticism of the first segment, as if his “on” button had disengaged.

My friend John snapped a photo from the side tier as Lang Lang took a final bow, and it captured the unease of the night—not a grin but an expression of dark intensity, a stiff gesture. (See the photo on Pamela’s blog at

World-wide acclaim, recording contracts, international touring—all heady stuff for a 25-year-old expected to maintain his technical facility across a broad classical repertoire. But something tells me he might be a lot happier if, for even a few hours, he could trade Carnegie Hall for Birdland.

It’s a scene I hear – or now recognize—more often, classical artists of high technical prowess communicating very little beyond an austere sequence of defined notes that would leave their composers cold and weary. All the more frustrating when one catches flashes of artistic as well as technical brilliance from the likes of a Lang Lang. If I had his address, I would send him some Oscar Peterson.

PR Photo of Lang Lang by Felix Broede.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jazz, Poetry and Sam Sadigursky

I had actually heard of Sam Sadigursky when pianist Phil Aaron mentioned his upcoming gig to me. He appears on Peter Robbins’ Centric recording, which I reviewed last year among a handful of projects from rising stars on the modern edge of the New York jazz circuit. I was not familiar with his Words Project. Sadigursky is in fact one of the most highly regarded of a young generation of composer/performers on the New York jazz scene, playing such venues as Joe’s Pub, Jazz Gallery and Cornelia Street Café and releasing challenging new works that bridge music and literature. His 2007 Words Project (on New Amsterdam Records) brings together his ambition to compose music for the talented singers in his realm while allowing the words of modern poets to retain their centrality to the final work.

Jazz and poetry seem to have a natural affinity, from the work of the late Steve Lacy to Patricia Barber’s Metamorphises and locally from Prudence Johnson’s Millay Project and the recent spoken word/music presentation of the words of Sterling Plumpp at the Center for Independent Artists to the weekly open poetry night at St. Paul’s Artists Quarter and monthly performances of Soul Café. However, poetry as inspiration or presented in tandem with jazz is more common than the efforts to write new compositions using poetry as lyric to be sung. An exception is Fred Hersch’s acclaimed Leaves of Grass project. With a similar goal in mind, New York-based multi-reedman Sadigursky set out to identify modern poems that he could present musically. “I have to confess that I never have been a serious reader of poetry before starting this project,” Sam told MPR’s Maryann Sullivan (Jazz Connections). “I was playing in groups with singers and wanted to write materials for these groups. Much modern vocal material is wordless and I wanted to write something that incorporated words, and I did not feel confident enough to write the words myself, so I turned to poetry.”

After combing through volumes of poems at the Brooklyn Public Library and then turning his search to the Internet, Sam ultimately identified ten short works that suited his vision—words “with a certain sense of mystery” that grabbed his attention within the opening lines, poems that were easily understood and accessible. Sadigursky also regarded this project as a means of connecting with his own roots, as he elected to include works from Russian and Polish poets (Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelshtam, Czeslaw Milosz) after reading about the history of Eastern Europe and the experiences of families much like his own. With the exception of one piece presented as spoken word, the composer sought to use the poet’s words as if working with a lyricist, writing “songs in song forms.” The poem, the words were to be the guideposts to the music, not the other way around. Confessing to being “a closet singer” himself, Sadigursky found himself singing while composing, making adjustments later when he identified the vocalist who fit his vision for the work.

For the recording, he chose vocalists Monika Heidemann, Heather Masse, Becca Stevens, and (on the final track) Noam Weinstein. Heidemann, he notes, is an accomplished vocalist as well as composer busy with her own projects in New York. Recent New School graduate Becca Stevens also composes and leads her own ensembles, while Heather Masse tours with a bluegrass band, the Whaling Jennies. The three women all come to this project with considerable jazz experience as well as classical training (Heidemann and Masse from the New England Conservatory of Music). The ringer was Noam Weinstein, not known for jazz interpretation and the lone male voice.

The result—The Words Project-- is a triumph of concept, composition and execution. The CD a series of medium to longish tracks (running about five to nine minutes each) filled with haunting voices, often dark, sometimes playful melodies, and overall a stunning marriage of word and sound. Sadigursky, although describing his performing role as nonessential (“just icing on the cake”), handles an arsenal of reeds ranging from plaintive soprano sax and emotive flute to deeply melodic bass clarinet and multi-persona tenor sax; Pete Rende provides exquisite piano throughout as well as well placed touches of accordion and pump organ. Bassist Eivind Opsvik’s bass and Tommy Crane’s percussion support both singers and the rest of the instruments with great empathy and personal invention, while guitarist Nate Radley and cellist Robert Burkhart, in smaller roles, bring additional color and texture to a multi-hued whole. And in keeping with the composer’s vision, the voices of the poets are paramount, each an elegant match to words and the melodies, and no track more splendidly executed than Czeslaw Milosz’ “Love” in which Becca Stevens and Monika Heidemann sing as mirror images, a delayed echo. Other tracks include a playful tango interpretation of Penelope Shutter’s “In the Kitchen” (complete with overdubbed accordion); the appropriately dark reading of Sylvia Plath’s “You’re” featuring cello, bass clarinet and explosive percussion; Opsvik’s fluttering ascents and descents on Donald Justice’s “Epitaph for a Pair of Old Shoes,” and the jarring male voice in female perspective that closes the recording, Noam Weinstein’s vocals on “After Love” (Maxim Kumin).

Sam is in town, albeit without the Words Project ensemble. A Jerome Foundation grant brought him from New York, NY to New York Mills, MN, as an artist in residence to the community. He’s provided clinics in schools and concerts in town. Now he’ll be in Minneapolis with the Phil Aaron Trio at the Dakota Saturday night, part of the Late at the Dakota series. When he lived in Los Angeles, Phil used to play with Sam’s dad. Sam remembers Phil from 20 years ago—when Sam was just a youngster. Now he’ll share the stage with dad’s old pal. It won’t be original music scoring the lyrics of acclaimed international poets. It will be arrangements and originals from the best of Minneapolis and the best of New York. It will be the poetry of jazz.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

It's Almost Like Being in New York

I haven’t had time to blog. I’ve been too busy chasing jazz across the Twin Cities. The past two weeks have given me a taste of the life of a jazz fiend in Manhattan. And I’m not sure the grass –or perhaps the brass—is any greener on the far east side of the continent. Our home grown musicians are on par with any, and the finest from around the country are often on stage just down the street. And some nights, there’s too many choices.

Let’s go back a weekend. On February 29th, one could hear the very fine MacPhail Center for Music faculty in their annual recital—a faculty that includes the likes of trumpeter Kelly Rossum, saxman Greg Keel, vocalist Vicky Mountain, guitarist James Allen….and from MacPhail you could hop across the river and hear 88-year-old tenor sax legend Irv Williams celebrating the release of his fourth recording in four years. This guy has a very different take on the concept of “golden years.” I missed both, making the tough decision to attend a mixed media performance at the Center for Independent Artists, a collaboration of poets, actors and musicians putting the words of poet Sterling Plumpp—his ode to Charlie Parker-- together with the sounds of early bop and the instruments (including digideroo) of Douglas Ewart. It was a tapestry of word, music, photography and painting, flowing like a bebop tune with infinite variations of presentation.

On March 1st at the little performance space at Studio Z in St. Paul, the avant garde quintet of Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty celebrated its debut CD release with an overflow crowd, an event that would have fit in perfectly at such New York venues as the Stone, Jazz Gallery or 55 Bar, but we got to hear amazing music from five Manhattan-worthy musicians for a mere $10 and free on-street parking, no traffic, no tollways. (See my blog entry for March 5th.)

Along came the annual Twin Cities Winter Jazz Festival on March 2nd, held this year most thankfully at the new MacPhail Center for Music building, making good use of every performance space, fabulous acoustics and a line-up with something for everyone, from snappy big bands and edgy brass ensembles to a revolving line-up of hot vocalists, student bands and clinics, and the best nightcap, the Sonny Fortune Quartet. The food, catered by local chefs, matched the high standards of the music with urbane flair (and a lot of garlic).

Including funkmeister Maceo Parker in this mix may be a stretch musically; while I don’t doubt he could play some hot jazz licks, at this point in time Parker is a performance package in slick wrapping, and he would probably bring in an SRO crowd even if he left his sax at home. He’s gone to James Brown Marketing School and it works—the Dakota was totally sold out even for the late set on March 3rd. But with the strutting and honking and grinning came a sound system best suited for Target Center or even Yankee Stadium. Maybe it would sound great through the Dakota’s own audiophile system. I’ll never know. The ear plugs barely preserved my hearing for the rest of the week.

The rest of the week? Even Manhattanites would drool. Northrop Jazz brought in a unique double header, starting out with a legend’s legacy and ending with a legend and his brood of will-be stars. Ravi Coltrane spent years avoiding his father’s shadow, only to come out and cast a spell of his own, brandishing the instruments that were mythic props for John Coltrane. His very tight band—Luis Perdamo on piano, Drew Gress on bass, EJ Strickland on drums-- does justice to both the son and the father, blazing through a mostly original repertoire that ended, surprisingly, in “Giant Steps,” perhaps a symbolic gesture hinting at young Coltrane’s journey.

Then it was time for the Giant himself, drummer Roy Haynes. Days shy of his 83rd birthday, Jazz’s Energizer Bunny might be a good foil for Irv Williams, but these days he nourishes a “Fountain of Youth” on tour and in the studio. Two years ago he recorded live sets at the Artists Quarter, releasing the result a year ago (Where As), and on March 6th brought his quartet to Ted Mann for a 90-minute meltdown. The stage barely cooled from Ravi Coltrane’s efforts, Haynes quickly peeled off his brocade jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and drove through his familiar, passion-filled book of bop magic. Keeping up with Roy is not for the faint-hearted, and only the likes of such young lions as Martin Bejerano (piano), David Wong (bass) or award-winning alto sax master Jaleel Shaw could meet the challenge. Yes, I’ve heard this band raise the roof with “Trinkle Trinkle,” “Summer Nights” and “James” several times over the past three years, but somehow it never seems tired, and Roy’s take on “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” is simultaneously bright and dark.

One of the treats of the evening at Ted Mann was the preview showing of Jaleel Shaw, who moved to St. Paul for the weekend at the Artists Quarter, this time with a band of local legends—Chris Lomheim on piano, Billy Peterson on bass, and AQ owner Kenny Horst on drums. Kenny seemed inspired by mentor Roy Haynes, taking apart the trapset in a very Haynesian fashion that drew smiles and then cheers. And Jaleel, who won our ears with his performance at the AQ last spring, was both charming and disarming, one of few young saxists today who not only takes you on a thrilling ride throughout the range of his horn but also has a destination in mind. Each phrase has a purpose, each note belongs. He was spirited and playful on “Bemsha Swing,” a power house on “Oleo,” soulful and sweet on “Darn That Dream,” and exquisite on his own lullabye, “Muna’s Sleeping.”

The switch to Daylight Time notwithstanding, the temptation to take in a really late set was too strong, and from Jaleel and the AQ it was just a ten-minute dash to the Dakota for one of the best of its “Late at the Dakota” series of mostly new music. This weekend’s closing band –the Kelly Rossum Quartet—expanded to include Houston-based tenorman Woody Witt and his long-time collaborator, pianist Joe LoCascio. I first heard Woody when he came to town a couple years ago to record with old college pal Kelly. In fact Woody provided my first encounter with the bass saxophone. But on the Dakota stage, in front of an audience largely left over (and perhaps soon to be hung over) from the more conservative sounds of the prime time show, Woody stuck to the tenor and the band scattered the club with original compositions and Woody’s deconstruction of “Footprints.” It’s also a standout, 16-minute track on his Live at Cezanne’s, one of my favorites of the past year. Live at the Dakota, the Wayne Shorter classic emerged from another tune (actually a trilogy of Witt-icisms) with bassist Adam Linz leading a dirge as each musician found his own “footprint” and cut his own path in the sonic sand.

Home at nearly 2, suddenly nearly 3. In New York we might be flagging a cab and recounting the fabulous music of the night, or of the past week. And so it goes in the Mini-Apple. Maybe it’s on a smaller scale, but there’s still only so many venues, so many gigs one can attend at a time.

I love visiting New York. But I love living here. The music is nonstop.
Photos: 1) Spoken word and music provide a tribute to Charlie Parker at the Center of Independent Artists. 2) Sonny Fortune headlined the Winter Jazz Festival. 3) Jaleel Shaw at the Artists Quarter with Billy Peterson. All photos by Andrea Canter.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Seeing the Sound of Forward Energy

Last spring I received an email about a gig in town featuring visiting musicians from California and Chicago. Trumpeter/percussionist Dan Godston was looking for some promotion for his Stir Trio project, and after posting some information on Jazz Police, I decided to check out the performance at the Acadia Coffee House. With Dan on trumpet, Joel Wanek on bass, and Jim Ryan on sax, they carried on a far-reaching conversation through the language known as “free jazz.” You never knew where it would go next, and some of the sounds were jarring, but it was fun to watch, to see the musicians interact.

Off and on during the spring and summer, Dan, Joel, Jim and various cohorts performed throughout the Midwest and east coast, recording bits and pieces wherever they went. In January, Jim put it all together on CD as The Ghost Dog Tour. Stir Trio was one ensemble represented on the tour, along with Jim’s Forward Energy. Dan, Joel and Jim typically form the core of whatever band is designated. Eager to tour the Midwest again, Jim Ryan summoned Forward Energy for a series of gigs in the Twin Cities, Chicago, and Champaign. This time he brought in another saxophonist, Alicia Mangan, from Los Angeles, and local prophet Steve Hirsh served behind the trapset.

The band opened at the Black Dog Bar in St. Paul’s Lowertown, closed its weekend at the Clown Lounge beneath the Turf Club in St Paul’s Midway district, and in between performed in a small concert hall setting at the Center for Independent Artists in south Minneapolis. Free jazz doesn’t often attract a large crowd, and not in a market where even pure straight-ahead rarely fills a small club. There were maybe a dozen eager listeners at Black Dog, which has a small performance space that allows about a dozen listeners. In the small theater at CIA, on a cold Sunday night, maybe two dozen watched and listened. There was enough energy on stage to fuel a full house.

Free jazz, as Jim puts it, is “music you have not yet heard”—created in the moment with little if any prior consideration. It requires the utmost in listening among the musicians to avoid total chaos, and sometimes chaos seems to be the goal. Just listening, I am easily lost, distracted by one sound or another, confused in my effort to impose structure where none exists or where none aligns with a familiar form. My first encounters with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman were frustrating. But in the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to see free improvisation as well as hear it. I watched as Bill Carrothers, Gordy Johnson and Dave King engaged each other in a spontaneous exchange that was recorded and released as Shine Ball. I attended a ten-piece ensemble performance by Anthony Braxton’s band at the Iridium in Manhattan and found myself watching the musicians with far more intensity than I usually apply to mainstream groups. Suddenly the cacophony of sound made some sense because I could see the resource, appreciate the interaction.

Forward Energy, like the Stir Trio six months earlier, had to be seen to be heard, at least for me. The communication among musicians takes the call and response concept to the outer edge, maybe beyond to a soundscape without clear edges or signposts. And always the energy moves forward. Steve Hirsh must burn a thousand calories per session, the rhythmic drive never ceases although it shifts like the rearranging of tectonic plates beneath the continent. Joel Wanek keeps the heart beating but with an arrhythmia that fuels the ensemble body like a constantly charging pacemaker. The two saxophones play yin and yang, honking and fluttering and at times offering melodic interludes that dissolve into bird calls and foghorns. Jim Ryan, the true Renaissance Man who exhibits watercolors on the walls of CIA and offers spoken word stanzas that could be leftover from the era of beat poets, pushes and prods. Mangan could go head to head with the likes of James Carter, epitomizing “forward energy” with every phrase.

My eyes focused on Dan Godston most often, perhaps because he had the most diverse arsenal of all, his trumpet of course but also an array of percussion tools and mutes, and a short attention span, blowing a phrase, grabbing a mallet, directing his menagerie of aural eccentricities in response to his cohorts.

I’ve listened to Ghost Dog Tour and it takes repeated encounters for me to come close to recognizing what is obvious live, that the energy roils up from a deep well of invention times five, that anything goes in extending a musical conversation that provokes response not only from each musician but from the audience as well, silent perhaps but nevertheless engaged by the energy of artistic creation that unfolds without rules, without compromise. And maybe you have to see it to hear it.

Photos: Jim Ryan (left); Steve Hirsh and Joel Wanek (right) at the Center for Independent Artists in February. Photos by Andrea Canter.

Kelly Rossum's Horn of Plenty

It’s been hard to keep up with the local jazz scene lately. But one way to ensure high quality experiences is to keep you ears on the “bouncing ball” – or rather the bouncing bell of Kelly Rossum’s trumpet. If you only followed one local musician for the past few weeks, Kelly would have taken you for quite a ride—the far-reaching original compositions he presented with his quartet at MacPhail in early February, the invigorating energy of the high school all-star Dakota Combo, which under his direction visited three area schools in late February; a return engagement of his combo at the Artists Quarter a few days later; the often haunting, always challenging, accessible yet avant garde sounds of the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quartet at Studio Z in St. Paul last weekend, and the arctic jazz blowout known as the Twin Cities Winter Jazz Festival, held for the first time at the new MacPhail Center for Music where Rossum heads the jazz program and provided artistic direction for the one-day event. And if that was not enough, this weekend Rossum turns up for the late show at the Dakota with two outstanding Houston-based guests, saxophonist Woody Witt and pianist Joe LoCascio.

Kelly Rossum keeps good company. His own quartet features a handful of the most creative (and accessible) musicians in town—make that any town. The bass chair fluctuates some, usually Chris Bates and sometimes Adam Linz, both of whom fit Rossum’s compositions and arrangements perfectly while bringing their own personalities into the mix. They both have a tendency to dance with their acoustic boxes, Adam usually adding a layer of vocalizing that seems to add rather than distract. In their hands, the bass solo is never an afterthought or mere interlude, but its own oratorio. Chris’ brother JT handles the drumkit with the energy and inventiveness that has made him one of the most in-demand musicians locally and expanding outward—he appears on Woody Witt’s latest recording, tours in Europe with the locally-based Fat Kid Wednesdays, and seems to turn up on stage whenever something exciting is brewing. The addition of young pianist Bryan Nichols has infused the Rossum Quartet with a daring and original rush of sonic pleasures, as Nichols has chops to match his expansive imagination.

My first introduction to the Ellen Lease/Pat Moriarty Quartet was just this past weekend when the band celebrated its first CD release with a crowd packed tightly into the oblong box of Studio Z in St. Paul’s Lowertown. The room maybe held 100 and there were perhaps 150 in attendance. When avant garde music is standing room only , you know something special is going on. Ellen and Pat teach in Roseville Schools—otherwise one can imagine them holding down regular gigs in New York at places like Stone and 55 Bar. As it is, their public performances are few and far between, one of the most serious crimes of local music. With Kelly Rossum, Chris Bates and drummer Dave Stanoch, the quintet evokes the creative spirits of Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor and Eric Dolphy, the original compositions (most from Lease and Moriarty) swelling with orchestral power, ebbing with beautiful melodies, resurging with polyrhythmic motion, and always interweaving off-kilter yet aurally pleasing harmonies. Lease attacks and caresses the keyboard like another local hero, Craig Taborn, but in an all-acoustic framework. In fact the entire evening was acoustic to the point of no amplification at all—what we heard was solely the music as created on stage. I wished from my vantage point near the back wall that I could also see the music as created in the moment, particularly the antics of Dave Stanoch. So many sounds came from his corner of the stage, and examining the kit after the show, it was clear that he directed his own little orchestra, literally filled with bells and whistles, a pocket trumpet, and a large set of drums supported by a relatively small bass drum.

Kelly Rossum spent much of December in New York, catching a lot of music and sitting in. We were a bit worried that the never-ending opportunities would entice him to the city that never sleeps. (Perfect for Kelly who seems to never sleep himself.) But on his return, he confessed that he was happy to be back in the Twin Cities, because “it’s all here.” The quality of the music, the Twin Cities jazz scene, more than holds its own in comparison to the Big Apple. We have fewer venues, fewer musicians, a much smaller audience. But any night of the week, you can find music that is easily on par with the best of New York. Or anywhere else. And if you aren’t sure where to listen, just find Kelly.
Photo: Kelly Rossum at the Artists Quarter in February, photo by Andrea Canter