Even though there are more and more fast food outlets and less and less old-style delicatessens than when I first arrived in 1977, New York is still the best place for me to live when it comes to the music I play and listen to. Living elsewhere is like cigarettes, drinking, drugs, promiscuity, and “super-size” fast-food: I gave it the old college try, and it’s just not for me.
A thematic thread running through the last month of posts has been the concept of location as a reflexive component in how genre is expressed and understood in musical performance and its reception. A question that emerged early on in the discussion had to do with why some artists, like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard of Indiana, appear to stick with their career trajectories and others, like trumpeter Al Kiger of Indiana, after an initial go in the “major leagues,” return to lives of relative obscurity. Of course, there are many circumstances that may or may not contribute to the decisions these two artists made, not the least of them would have been ethnicity. While some might think that Kiger’s being German American—like Jack Teagarden some twenty years before—could keep him from realizing his full potential in the jazz industry in the 1960s, the attempted resurgence of the Indiana Klu Klux Klan at that time could have been a reason returning home was not part of Hubbard’s overarching agenda. I know that when I relocated to my “Indianie” home for three years starting in 1990, I was surprised at how little seemed to have changed.
(Although it was nothing compared to what I experienced in Clearwater, Florida when I tried to enjoy a drink with two drummers, one black and one not, in a bar after we were done playing the 1991 Clearwater Jazz Festival – we literally had to walk out backwards!) When people asked me why I had returned to New York City in 1994, I explained that I’m not that comfortable with that particular kind of America.
And, even though there are more and more fast food outlets and less and less old-style delicatessens than when I first arrived in 1977, New York is still the best place for me to live when it comes to the music I play and listen to. Living elsewhere is like cigarettes, drinking, drugs, promiscuity, and “super-sized” fast-food: I gave it the old college try, but it’s not for me. While I know that other cities have healthy and thriving music scenes, I have become complacent in a place where one can record new music with Cynthia Hilts’s Lyric Fury, attend an intriguing round-table discussion on the non-African American origins of jazz and play at a premier supper-club with Judi Silvano (on Thelonious Monk’s birthday); all within 48 hours – and for the mere price of two traffic tickets! (Guess you can’t take the Indy out of the boy?)
Concert halls like the Madame Walker Theater in Indianapolis or the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, California are among my favorite places to hear live music, but the sheer number of venues in the five boroughs of New York City makes for a smorgasbord of sonic sustenance that has the potential to quell anyone’s pangs of auditory appetence. One such venue, Roulette in Brooklyn, is celebrating its 35th year of presenting new music and is also the new home for the Interpretations series, which turned 25 this year as well. Two weeks ago, on October 17, they presented the Momenta Quartet (Emilie-Anne Gendron and Adda Kridler, violins; Stephanie Griffin, viola; and Michawl Haas, cello) who performed music by four composers who improvise. These were all relatively new works and were presented in the second half of the evening. The first half was dedicated to two works by Gene Coleman, Sendai Transmissions (its world premiere) and Spiral Transmissions, performed by Ensemble N_JP—Naomi Sato and Ishikawa, sho; Naoko Kikuchi and Yoko Rekano Kimura, Koto and voice; Gene Coleman, bass clarinet; Nick Millevoi, electric guitar; Teddy Rankin-Parker and Hikaru Tamaki, cello (with an additional pre-recorded cello part performed by Alex Waterman); Toshimaru Nakamura, live electronics; and Thomas Buckner, voice. The works included video images supplied by Coleman and Ryutaro Hakamata, edited by Nick Lerman, and with animation by Chris Landau that was projected on a screen at the rear of the stage. While this music was really good, it had nothing to do with improvisation, so we’ll fast forward, so to speak, to the Momenta Quartet.
The name that attracted me to this concert was that of the venerable multi-instrumentalist, author, educator, and improviser Dr. Yusef Lateef. His work as a jazz artist goes back to the early 1940s when he was touring with Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge, and Lucky Millender. He is still best known for his work with the Cannonball Adderley Sextet in the 1960s, but has recorded over 100 albums as a leader and started his own label, YAL Records, in the 1990s. He refers to his improvisations as “autophysiopsychic music.” His String Quartet no. 2 is well-planned, with nothing automatic about it. At 93 years, Lateef is still performing, recording, composing, writing, and teaching.
Yusef Lateef’s String Quartet no. 2 (2012), 1st mvt. Allegro con brio.
Gordon Beeferman (The Rat Land, Habitats) is a pianist and composer who also fronts two groups that play improvised music: Imaginary Band and Other Life Forms. His piece, Quadrille, added a dancer-choreographer (Stephanie Sleeper) as well as the composer on piano to the string quartet. This charming work demanded that the musicians perform from a variety of non-traditional locations and positions on stage, such as: climbing on and off of their chairs, running and walking around the stage’s perimeter, actual dancing with the choreographer, and being dragged across the stage by the feet.
Gordon Beeferman’s Quadrille (2012), excerpt.
Adam Rudolph is an extraordinary percussionist who has performed and recorded with Jon Hassell, Don Cherry, Shadowfax, Ned Rothenberg, Bill Laswell, and quite a bit with Yusef Lateef. He holds degrees from Cal Arts, Oberlin College, and the University of Ghana. His experience with the trance ceremonies of Ghana shows a strong influence in his composing. The excerpt from Morphic Resonance is taken from the middle of the piece.
Adam Rudolph’s Morphic Resonance (2013), excerpt.
Arthur Kampela hails from Rio de Janeiro and holds a Ph.D. in composition from Columbia University, where he currently teaches. His liberal use of extended techniques coupled with a dense, but clear rhythmic concept results in a work that is both stunning and engaging. Although sections are clearly audible, the performance ran continuously for nearly 25 minutes. The excerpt starts at the beginning of the piece. After the performance, Kampela explained to the audience that, although all of the music of Uma Faca Sό Lâmina (A Knife All Blade) has been performed before, this was the first time that it had been performed in one sitting.
Arthur Kampela Uma Faca Sό Lâmina (A Knife All Blade) (1998), excerpts: “Bridges for Solo Viola” and “C-Proposition”.
Because I seem to have been living under a rock for the last eight years, this was my first exposure to the Momenta Quartet, a group that has been presenting new works of living composers for the last eight years. I was curious to know how much of their performance was improvised and my initial contact with the group indicates that very little, if any, of it was. The group’s only improviser seems to be Stephanie Griffin, the violist. But she does that mostly outside of Momenta, in groups with Beeferman, Rudolph, and Kampela. According to Griffin, the idea of Music by Improvisers was to display “how the spirit of improvisation is still embedded” in music where “improvisers write everything down.” All of the pieces were very good and Momenta gave each their best, which is also really good. My observation, which is not at all meant as criticism, was that the younger composers (Beeferman and Kampela) obscured tonality more than their elder statesmen on the program. There was a tendency towards a modular, but masterful, organization in all of the material that highlighted shifts in texture and timbre. But it was interesting to note how the works of the elder composers (Lateef and Rudolph) were more lyrical than those of the younger ones, even in the weighty and intense parts. A lot of this could be attributed to generational influences; what was considered on the vanguard of new American music in the 1930s and ‘40s was very different than what was understood to be new in the 1980s and ‘90s. The unique personalities of the composers were well arranged in Momenta’s program, though, and the entire presentation had a satisfying flow that wasn’t at all overshadowed by the ensemble’s virtuosity, which (in the best sense) left most of the audience “wanting more.”
Music is nothing if it isn’t heard. Most musicians are happy to just play it, so it is a very special group of people who dedicate their lives to making sure it happens where an audience can appreciate it. So kudos to the Momenta Quartet, Ensemble N_JP, and especially Thomas Buckner, the director and producer of Interpretations. I’ve been familiar with his presentations as well as the music he has been making since the early 1970s, when he was running a record label and performance space dedicated to obscure opera singers and avant-garde music, 1750 Arch Street in Berkeley. The first official recording session I was involved with, Syzygy with the Denny Zeitlin Trio, was on his label and featured his singing as well. Tom relocated to New York shortly after I did and I’ve been fortunate to have been exposed to quite a bit of his work, both as a presenter and as an artist since then, also. It’s soul-satisfying to know that his contributions to American new music, which cut across—and often side-step—the generic labels of the Great American Culture Machine with grace and integrity, are still on-going. I thank Tom for granting me permission to record the portions of the concert included above and I suggest to my readers that they make sure to try to attend the Interpretations series at Roulette as often as possible. I doubt they will be disappointed.