Tag: venues

Double Trio: line upon line and Konk Pack

Funky warehouses are being cleaned up and repurposed at a record pace here in Austin. As the city grows and its rents rise, many artists have found their way to the outskirts of town to utilize spaces in various states of renovation and renewal. Among the most recent additions is Canopy, which houses a variety of sleek spaces for artists of all stripes. I headed over there to check out line upon line percussion’s most recent Austin show, a showcase that featured two new premiers, one classic hit, and one golden oldie. I strolled past several units in which painters and other visual artists were holding court, some actively working on new pieces while others chatted about existing work with patrons. At the end of a line of such units, I found the venue; a large open space with groups of instruments around the perimeter. The setup made for a series of little vignettes, and the audience was invited to grab folding chairs and place them wherever they liked (and move them as they pleased) to experience each piece.

line upon line percussion

line upon line percussion

In recent years, line upon line has been on a real commissioning tear, and their list of upcoming projects is long, stretching over the next few years. This show started with a last-minute addition of one of their earliest commissions, Steve Snowden’s A Man with a Gun Lives Here. I have seen them perform this piece many times, and each performance is spirited, alive, and as full of wonder and humor as the work itself. The three players surround the bass drum and their interaction during the performance goes beyond the simply musical and becomes somewhat theatrical. Brush swoops, stick exchanges, and the passing of a bag of buckshot all serve to visually illustrate the music.  This rendition was no different and these dynamic elements played well with audience members young and old. Following the Snowden was Kate Soper’s In the Reign of Harad IV, commissioned with the support of Chamber Music America. In three movements with no pause, the work featured a sort of fractured speech stuttered among the three players. Each performer engaged their particular kit in fits and starts with each instrumental grouping popping in and out in musical chunks reminiscent of tape splits.

The three-station setup for Kate Soper’s In the Reign of Harad IV

The three-station setup for Kate Soper’s In the Reign of Harad IV

While specific words and phrases were difficult to discern, the small figurations developed their own syntax; some declamatory, others questioning, and all part of a conversation that was at once familiar and foreign. Contrasting the large setup for the Soper, Ben Issacs’s Several Inflections called for each performer to have only the top octave (give or take) of the vibraphone removed and placed on a small stand, arranged on top of a bit of curled rubber tubing. This arrangement allowed for all the attack normally associated with the vibraphone but none of the resonance. The piece was described by line upon line member Adam Bedell (he actually recounted a description from a friend who attended a rehearsal) as “sounding like wind chimes,” which might initially bring to mind a simple, wandering texture, but my impression (while positive!) was anything but relaxed. Fragile, nervous, and anxious were all terms that came to mind, not only because of the aural impression but also because of the performance requirements. An overall extremely quiet dynamic profile (we waited until the AC was shut off before they began the work) coupled with a rapid texture that, while measured, often felt (and occasionally looked) like various overlapping nervous tremolos all made for a very intimate and slightly anxious experience; like chopsticks on tiny deconstructed chimes. It didn’t sound like Scirrano, but there was that “approaching the edge of silence” element that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Ben Issacs’s <i>Several Inflections</i>

Ben Issacs’s Several Inflections

The work can last anywhere from six minutes to two hours, but in this case was closer to the ten-minute mark. The score was highly detailed and specific, and the lengths to which any ensemble would need to go to prepare and present the work are substantial. The show wrapped up with a fantastic rendition of Xenakis’s Okho. Written for three djembes but realized here on three connected drum sets that included tom-toms, congas, and a shared bass drum, Ohko could not have struck more of a contrast to the Isaacs, and the dynamic release coupled with the performers’ physicality felt like cliff-diving after meditation. You know you’ve got a concert on your hands when the Xenakis is the palate cleanser, and the polyrhythms running around that room had heads bobbing and people fully engaged, including a few munchkins outside.


The second stop on my reclaimed warehouse chamber music tour was the Museum of Human Achievement to see the German improv trio Konk Pack presented by Epistrophy Arts. The trio includes analog synthesist Thomas Lehn, drummer Roger Turner, and Tim Hodgkinson of Henry Cow fame whose work with co-founder Fred Frith left an indelible impression on progressive rock of the late ’70s. I’ve seen many improv groups play over the years, but very few exhibited the level of communication on display at the MOHA. Gone were the rounded edges and long transformations often associated with free improv and in their place were crisp transitions, precise timbral choices, and telekinetic, turn-on-a-dime shifts in the music. Particularly impressive in this embarrassment of riches was the impressive exchange of timbre and rhythm between Lehn’s synth and Turner’s drums. Granted, the analog synths have a visceral nature and connection to the primary elements of music in much the same way drums do, but it takes deft manipulation by both parties to connect the two so seamlessly that at times I wasn’t sure who was playing what. It’s worth noting that Turner was not amplified, so everything he played was purely acoustic.

Konk Pack at the Museum of Human Achievement

Konk Pack at the Museum of Human Achievement

Not to be left out, Hodgkinson’s work on the lap steel guitar melded similarly with the synth, especially in the high registers. And while the lappy was not without modest processing, the lion’s share of the sound was coming from his hands, not from stompboxes or other devices. Plucking behind the nut, staccato punctuations, and karate chops to the midsection of the neck resulted in gorgeous reverberations, like gongs rich with overtones. Many of these sounds and textures sat squarely in the same timbral wheelhouse as the analog synth, and I had several, “Where did that come from?” moments listening to the guitar/synth pairing as well. It was less like a typical improv show and more like a concept album that developed right in front of you. One “piece” started with Lehn’s synth chugging along in the lower register, skirting the line between pitch and rhythm. This was picked up by Turner rhythmically in the bass and toms and “melodically” by taking a dowel, striking it against the rim of one of the toms and drawing it towards himself as it rapidly rebounded,  creating a tremolo that had distinct, rising pitch characteristics. As those pitches ascended, Hodgkinson took the cue, coaxing similar pitch and motion from the lap steel. This material developed in a strikingly linear way, with little of the wandering and tangential characteristics of your less experienced improv teams. The term “sound world” is thrown around quite a bit to denote the particular style of a given composer or work, but Konk Pack was able to create several shifting sound worlds, all connected, but each with their own distinct characteristics as well.


I love chamber music. I love the intimacy between audience and performers. I never thought it odd to hear a string quartet in a seven-hundred seat hall, but when I started going to smaller shows I began to see (and hear) things differently. The irony of intimacy found in a giant old warehouse is not lost on me, but the cordoning off of spaces within these huge buildings makes for a very personal and connected experience. (The only tricky part is that I feel a little awkward taking pictures during these shows, but I suppose that speaks to the nature of what we’re experiencing as a smaller audience and performing group.) Whether it’s at a brand new space like Canopy or a somewhat more funky room like MOHA, the chance to sit up close to performers as they work their magic is what chamber music is all about, and I’m glad to see that opportunities like this in Austin are on the rise.

More Stones

It’s almost three weeks that I’ve been in San Francisco with three more to go between my mother’s memorial (tonight) and Jazz Camp West (June 22-29). My foraging through her record collection is a work in progress, but progress is being made!

Besides coming across the first recording with a recognized jazz artist I was on (which is not what my discography lists as Syzygy with the Denny Zeitlin Trio, but rather a 1969 University of the Pacific Summer Camp recording with a big band featuring a 15-year-old Jon Faddis), I came across two LPs that are, arguably, turning points in recorded music.

The importance I assign to one of them, Igor Stravinsky Conducts, 1961, might stem more from my own opinion and how that opinion was shaped by hearing the composer conduct his own works. I had been used to hearing his music filtered through the “ears” of the Great American Cultural Machine, a filter that seemed to make every attempt to “elevate” new music into something that resembled the “perfection” of the “great” recordings of the “masters.” In this recording, I heard one of the masters of the musical heritage that the GACM was appropriating create music that he thought typified that heritage. Instead of a musical experience born out of the philosophy of Felix Mendelssohn’s “revival” of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, that demanded editorial cuts and a reorchestration to fit the musical “taste” of the Berlin audience, the album (Columbia Masterworks MS 6272) invokes how a composer, a self-professed neo-classicist, re-imagines what pre-Romantic music could sound like. (Of course, neither ideals address the issue of using modern temperament to perform music that references a time before the modern piano.)

The importance of the other is less about my personal opinion than it is its being a landmark in how the GAMC has made jazz a part of the European art music tradition (at least in how it is marketed). The album, Haydn/Hummel/L. Mozart: Trumpet Concertos, is another CBS Masterworks product and is seminal to its featured trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, who is pitted against a ripieno comprised of the National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Raymond Leppard. Well, there is a personal story I could attach to this recording. I never bothered listening to it until I found out that Leppard was the musical director of the Indianapolis Symphony. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with Marsalis recording the pieces, but because I already knew them well from listening to my father’s recording of Maurice André playing the same works in the 1960s. In fact, my friends and I used the André recording as a model for our own playing of the pieces when we were in junior high school. But the Marsalis/Leppard album has forever changed how the denizens of “highbrow” society look at and understand jazz musicians and the music they make. No longer does a rebellious debutante and her companion(s) need to go “slumming” to hear great musicians who are on the cutting edge of a music that fills the waiting room of a new, and better, world where socio-economic stratification and skin color aren’t the key considerations for determining one’s deportment towards someone else. Now one can go to a special concert hall and hear jazz performed as “equal” to the works of Salieri and Lully. No need to walk through a neighborhood filled with the street life of after-hours entrepreneurs and their vagabond clientele.

This might explain why so many jazz musicians appear to lead “double lives” where their on-stage personae are erudite, articulate, and fashionably genteel, while in the “real world” they might be gas station attendants or winos. One pianist explained to me why he quit his job with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, “I’d rather not be getting $1,000 per trick when others who don’t play as well can walk up the street and make $5,000 a trick.” I know it sounds harsh, but many of the crème de la crème of every artistic stripe freely talk about how they feel “dirty” after playing to the adoration of large audiences of concert subscribers, as if their artistic integrity had to be compromised to placate the congregation in the Temple of the Familiar, a topic that was introduced last week. Before the reader thinks that I agree with any analogy to the so-called “world’s oldest profession” being alluded to above, I want to be clear that I see the whole concert hall paradigm as a way to lease entitlement to a leisure class. Like the restaurant, where diners can pay a nominal to exorbitant fee for being served a repast as if they were royalty, concert goers get an ersatz Esterházy experience where they time share the services of their own orchestra that will give them the same sense of disassociation from the hard work experienced by the rest of humanity.

To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone going to hear live music in a concert hall. My mom spent quite a bit of her hard-earned bucks on her subscriptions to the San Francisco Symphony, Ballet, and Opera. They’re world-class outfits and are worthy of the ticket price to hear them (especially since Michael Tilson Thomas has taken up the cause of championing the music of Charles Ives), but I think of how the current trend to make jazz a concert hall music is gutting the source of that music: the jazz club. Fortunately, the conservatory-to-concert hall pipeline hasn’t entirely supplanted the necessity of the jam session and jazz club as a place to impart jazz pedagogy. This becomes obvious in a city like San Francisco, where the 3,000 plus miles between it and the nexus of jazz, New York City, creates a vacuum that can only be filled by a network of urban griots who bring the news of what’s new with the new. Who knew that I would find myself in this position when, after two weeks of nothing but focusing on my mom’s affairs, I decided Tuesday night to go out on the town? (Actually, I went out a few days earlier, but that will be addressed later.)
The only jazz club in San Francisco that’s within walking distance of where I’m staying is the Club Deluxe. I’ve mentioned it in previous posts and highly recommend it to anyone coming to San Francisco who has the time and interest in hearing representatives of the up-and-coming Bay Area jazz musicians who are determined to be the best they can be. The establishment also has served the royal me some of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten, but since I arrived after 10 p.m., when they close their kitchen for the night, my status is in decline because I only drink their hand-squeezed grapefruit juice.

The musical festivities on Tuesday were led by Smith Dobson, the son of a fantastic pianist of the same name that I used to play with before I left for New York in 1977. It was a jam session that night and I knew the pianist, Adam Schulman, from when I played at Chez Hanny several years ago with him and clarinetist-saxophonist Sheldon Brown. The bassist, a great player named Robert Overbury, was playing an instrument that is easily a carbon copy of my first bass, right down to the height of the strings. He let me sit in on it and, between going through the records and books of my childhood and his beautiful hand-assembled pre-war Juzeck bass, I felt like I was back home. But the thing that brought me back to reality was listening to Dobson play. When I came in, he was playing drums, but by the time I was playing bass, he was playing tenor saxophone. The experience reminded me of Adam Niewood, another son of an old friend who died tragically. (Adam’s father, Gerry, was a saxophonist who died in the airplane crash outside of Buffalo that filmmaker Michael Moore referenced in his movie Capitalism: A Love Story. Smith Dobson, Sr., was killed in an automobile accident a few years earlier.) When Adam decided he wanted to play the saxophone, his father taught him by giving him a set of drumsticks and making him accompany the elder saxophonist for years. Smith, Jr., began his musical career on drums, adding vibraphone and saxophones later on. Both are extremely masterful as percussionists and woodwind players. (The saxophone-drummer model is fairly common. Saxophonists Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, and William Drewes are all accomplished drummers.) After the music was over, I expressed to Smith that I was sorry I didn’t get a chance to play with him on drums. He suggested that I should come by on Wednesday to rectify that.

When I got to Club Deluxe the next night, the group was led by Patrick Wolff, who plays alto and tenor saxophones, with Adam Schulman again on piano, a relatively old acquaintance and excellent bassist Eric Markowitz, and Smith on drums. They were in the middle of a tune which I don’t remember, but joining them was a fantastic young vocalist, Tiffany Austin, and a baritone saxophonist who I thought familiar, but couldn’t place until after he had left. His name is Dayna Stephens, and I know him as a tenor saxophonist who lives in New York. It turns out that he, like Jon Faddis, grew up in Berkeley, California. Stephens was in town visiting family and playing at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival as well as a celebration of the music of Dave Brubeck with the Oakland Symphony. He sounded absolutely brilliant on baritone, and I hope I get a chance to play with him before he and/or I have to leave the West Coast. Although Stevens had left before I played, Ms. Austin led us on a version of Arthur Schwartz’s “Alone Together” that, owing to my avant-garde tendencies, went to very interesting places. I was honored to play with such open-minded and creative musicians. Sadly, though, I’ve learned that Club Deluxe will no longer be serving pizza. So ends the reign of King Ratzo.

I did, however, get to play the role of griot to the musicians of Club Deluxe. I told them of my experiences playing in New York in stories from my past and from recent days, as I’m sure Mr. Stephens did as well. It’s important that this be done, because if all that the musicians in San Francisco know of what’s going on in New York is what they hear from Jazz at Lincoln Center and the “name” clubs, like The Blue Note, The Village Vanguard, and Birdland, then how will they know about artists like William Parker, Fay Victor, Stacey Dillard, or Melissa Hamilton? There’s so much that the GACM doesn’t know … not to mention what it doesn’t want you to know!

This brings me to the night that I said I would talk about earlier, the one where I went out “on the town” to hear music before Tuesday. I had been given a ticket to see the Philip Glass Ensemble perform at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on May 25. They were performing music for Jean Coctaeu’s classic film, La Belle et la Bête, and two things left me scratching my head that I’ll share with you. The first had to do with the people in the seats next to me. They were a well-groomed couple, male and female and I’m guessing separated by some 20-30 years, who were chatting away in Portuguese, a language I don’t understand but recognize. As I was sitting quietly, waiting for the performance to start, the younger of the two leaned across her partner to ask me if I knew “whether the opera tonight is in French or English.” When I answered that I did not know, she seemed to be upset that I didn’t and wanted to point out that I should. I apologized and explained again that I didn’t know. She returned to her chattering without bothering to thank me for answering her. Now I truly believe that I am the exemplification of a stupid American. I am not conversant in anything but English and have to admit that it’s no fault but my own, even though I prefer to blame Ronald Reagan for cutting the language requirements in elementary schools when he became governor of California.

But I don’t believe this means that total strangers are permitted to rub it in, and I had to scratch my head about what the point of it all is. So, as the house lights were dimming, I asked my neighbor, “Wouldn’t it be funny if they sang in Spanish?”, to which they both replied, “No, we’re speaking Portuguese!” All I could say to that was “Muito Obrigado” in what I hope was a Brazilian accent, and hope we could all enjoy the performance, which was as great as Philip Glass performances always are. But the second, and more significant point has to do with the piece, which was listed as an “opera/film” in the program notes. Is music composed to replace the soundtrack of a film truly an opera, especially if the singers don’t move more than to sit down in a chair when not singing? The only staging was the screen to project the film on, and there were no arias, only the melodicization of the movie’s dialog. Because so much of the audience in attendance are probably not music historians, will calling this performance an opera lead the way to a redefining of the genre? Even though the word “opera” doesn’t semantically refer to music or acting or a division of the affects (storytelling to emotive display), isn’t the term as a musical one contingent on those references?

Does the status “highbrow” remove the responsibility of the griot to impart knowledge of culture accurately? And if La Belle et la Bête isn’t an opera, what is it?

Different Spaces: Erewhon and Fusion

About halfway between Austin and Houston along Highway 290 is the little town of Round Top, Texas. You do have to take a brief jog off of 290 along Round Top road, but beyond that modest detour your trip from Austin is a pleasant but otherwise non-eventful one populated by tractors, fields, and the occasional cow; the whole thing is right out of central casting. Then, a few miles from your destination, a change occurs. You’ll notice tent frames as far as the eye can see, the skeletons of a seasonal economy that will shortly come alive as the Round Top Antique Fair, a semi-annual event that transforms the area from a quaint rural town to bustling marketplace.

Matthew Teodori introduces Erewhon

Matthew Teodori introduces Erewhon

This scene was a somewhat surreal prelude to what actually took me down this particular stretch of Texas road. The real attraction and the area’s claim to fame is only a few miles further along at the Round Top Festival Institute where I recently saw the U.S. premiere of Hugues Dufourt’s hour-long Erewhon. Performed by an expanded line upon line percussion, the setup of around 150 instruments fit perfectly in the cavernous Festival Hall. Take a minute and think of every percussion instrument you’ve ever heard of. Now take a few more minutes and really dig deep. Now understand that every single one of those things was up on stage, with a few doublings to boot, and each was used to great effect over the course of the four-movement work.

Played without intermission, the piece began with rolls on floor toms and bass drums which were passed around the stage, with cymbal filigree serving to cut through the thunder. Marimba played with sticks provided timbral contrast while acting as a preface for the thundersheets and gongs that filled out the movement. The second movement was populated with alternating and overlapping washes of woods and metals with marimba and glockenspiel serving to head each choir. Rhythmic unisons rose from this texture and outlined melodic fragments which were in turn swallowed by rolls on cymbals and gongs, all giving the impression of time slowing down. The third movement began with similar material, though here the chimes outlined more distinctive pitch content above the ominous rumbling. The vibes returned, jittering awake and twisting in the shimmering gong wash, setting the stage for the final movement. The pitter patter of the toms in relatively steady and discernible patterns of sixteenth notes coalesced into a huge unison, perking up the whole room as bass drum and timpani joined the fray. This built to another peak, stopped abruptly, and restarted as a “greatest hits” of textures from the first three movements returned.

With all six players going to town for the bulk of the work, it became clear that density was the order of the day, but I was as or more intrigued by the role the location and its legacy played in my perception of the work. Pianist James Dick founded the Round Top Institute in 1971, and it’s well known for its summer festival and presentations of standard repertoire. It was interesting to see such dense music presented to a festival audience on a spring afternoon and frankly encouraging to hear the enthusiastic reaction to the work. Except for the two kids who I believe earned a week of ice cream for sitting quietly for the hour-long presentation, the piece was quite well received.


After leaving Round Top’s ornate hall, I headed back to Austin to check out an experiment.  I’ll admit to some skepticism when I heard about Craig Hella Johnson’s latest project entitled Fusion: Choral Song Meets Slam Poetry. Finding compelling novelty in the combination of two disparate genres (any two genres) is challenging and often simply serves to illustrate the differences in those genres. Further upping the difficulty level, Hella Johnson chose to present this work not in the churches and concert halls where he typically leads the vocal ensemble Conspirare, but at The North Door, the multi-level club where Fast Forward Austin held its festival last year. Of course, audiences come in all shapes and sizes, but in my experience the Conspirare audience does skew towards the traditional. However, they also have come to expect excellence and to accept a measure of guidance in the two decades Hella Johnson has run the show, and as such seemed game to give it a shot.

Hella Johnson took the stage and welcomed the audience to what he described as a “workshop and a work in progress,” the product of several rehearsals during which the three poets and seven singers shared their talents and attempted to see where they might intersect. He then conducted a literal embodiment of that guidance with a brief series of breathing and sound experiments with the audience, asking the members to “shhhh” and “sssss” their way through a centering exercise in hopes of connecting them with the nature of creating sound. Everybody was game and after giving it the old college try, they settled in to hear the pros go to work.

And go to work they did. Reimagined versions of masterworks by Monteverdi and Purcell were juxtaposed with extroverted slam poetry, which was sometimes delivered alone and other times delivered with Hella Johnson improvising at the piano or with singers providing accompaniment. Poets Kevin Burke, Danny Strack, and Lacey Roop delivered polished and thoroughly engaging performances—with all the trappings, gesticulations, and emotive power of a typical slam performance, including the occasional mid-delivery whoop and holler from the audience in mid-delivery. I suspect that some of these initial reactions were from audience members familiar with the give and take of slam poetry, but as the night went on, the rest of the audience warmed to this interaction, gaining confidence from Hella Johnson’s initial invitation to participate and building on it with reactions to elements of the poetry and music that spoke to them in particular. Among the many poetry highlights of the evening was Lacey Roop’s “Shark Boy,” a poem lamenting the almost certain change a young boy will make on his way to manhood, after which we were all a bit of a mess. The poets also played backup at times, quietly vamping on the lyrics from a wide range of tunes, from the aforementioned concert classics to reworked pop tunes. The physical space was used to great effect, with some music played from the stage and some from other points around and behind the audience, including the balcony. This constant change of perspective and content was refreshing and served to refocus each piece into its own vignette.

Poets Danny Strack, Lacey Roop and Kevin Burke with Craig Hell Johnson and KUT's Mike Lee

Poets Danny Strack, Lacey Roop and Kevin Burke with Craig Hell Johnson and KUT’s Mike Lee

Perhaps what drove my initial skepticism was that I was looking for (or expecting) the wrong thing. I was concerned that a pet project built on an arguably acquired taste was going to be foisted upon an audience that had little interest in the material and even less on the delivery, and one that sure as hell wasn’t going to start whooping during Strack’s vivid descriptions of sexuality. I’m sure there were those who would otherwise take a pass on a presentation like this, but there was no mistaking the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the evening’s proceedings. There was no intermission during which I could casually eavesdrop, but there were many people who lingered after the show and I heard nothing but extreme enthusiasm. The word “interesting” was not used once.

Aside from the spectacular content, these shows illustrated (to me at least) the impact of the venue and how spaces shape the experience and help guide the audience. I wonder what these two shows would have been like had they switched venues. How many whoops and hollers would one have heard in the beautiful and ornate hall, performer encouragement notwithstanding? Assuming that all the instruments would fit, how would the presentation of Erewhon go over in a club just east of I-35? Would an audience sit quietly through an hour of such challenging music in an environment in which hopping up and leaving doesn’t involve a break of protocol and a series of eyes staring you down as you exit the hall? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but in the search to understand what drives contemporary audiences to shows, I think it’s important to keep asking them.

Austin: New Concert Reboot

Big changes often come from the smallest sources. A cough, a rustling of the cough drop wrapper, the realization that the interminable amount of time and noise required by that guy to “quietly” open his cough drop is going to ruin the show for you. The further realization that, while you’d rather not have someone making any noise during the slow movement of whatever is on tap that night, the real issue is as much the forum as it is the noise. Sure, the venue might demand silence with a capital “S” but does the presentation? I’ve taken every creaky door late entrance and unmuted cell phone ring as a challenge to redouble my focus as a listener, though this sometimes makes me feel as though I must look like someone trying to bend spoons with their mind or to communicate telepathically. Then it occurs to me that if I was in a less formal setting, I would naturally take these things in stride and enjoy the show. Jacqueline Perrin has been employing this idea for the last few years with her Classical Reinvention project by presenting interdisciplinary shows in a variety of settings around Austin.

Move On by Shirley Luong set to music by Michael Mikulka

Move On by Shirley Luong set to music by Michael Mikulka

Her first effort took the form of a salon concert. Perrin performed a variety of works at the piano and spoke about the music between pieces. After that initial experience of connecting with the audience through the music, as well as through discussion of the works, she decided to develop a series of shows that have steadily gained in popularity. Her follow up, Music in Real Time, presented five works with visuals addressing the structural aspects of each work as the pieces were performed, including works by Cage and Radiohead. Interviews were conducted between pieces in an effort to bridge the gap between audience and performer. Music Under the Stars was originally scheduled to be performed on the roof of the University of Texas Astronomy building, complete with giant telescope for viewing, but was moved inside to a makeshift blackbox theater as stormy weather rolled in. Audience members created their own art in response to the performances and participated in discussions of the both their own creations and the music that was performed.

In its first move off campus, Disco Classical involved contemporary classical pieces alongside works by Astor Piazzolla accompanied by salsa dancing. Said Perrin, “The show went great, but there were a few patrons who enjoyed the bar access more than we anticipated.” Paint, Play, Plié was a multi-disciplinary endeavor featuring dancers in the FAB Gallery under UT’s Fine Arts Library. Musicians were set up in opposing corners of the room allowing for virtually uninterrupted music as dancers improvised. Artists painted on large glass panels in the center of the room, interpreting works by Paul Lansky, Schubert, Haydn, the Bad Plus, and UT student composer Zack Wilson in real time. I attended their most recent effort, Synthesis, a collaboration between Classical Reinvention and their partner group Dance Action under the auspices of the Cohen New Works Festival.
I know I’ve gone on and on about it in previous posts, but Austin in March is a magical place. Dressed in L.A. weather with blue skies as far as the eyes can see, it is prime real estate for outdoor activities of all kinds and concerts are no exception. Synthesis was conceived as a guided performance originating outside the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus.

Starting with a French horn choir and around a half dozen dancers, the first work, Whispers of a Wall, had the dancers moving on and around the small walls surrounding the pavilion. Though the arrangements (Debussy in this case) were lovely and well rendered, we came upon one of the reasons that performance outside is tricky. The sounds that we are used to having directed into our ears via well-constructed acoustical spaces (or headphones) are disseminated into the air, robbing them of much of their power. Fortunately, though there was a standing-room-only crowd for the show, everything could be heard and arguably the character of the Debussy matched the more modest dynamic. The audience looked up and through the windows to see the dancers on the second floor landing of the interior for the second work Frames, which featured the choreography of Courtney Mazeika and Victoria Mora. It was visually stunning and was beautifully matched by the voices of the UT Collegium Musicum. However, in a “cough drop wrapper writ large” moment, a rock band on the other side of campus had apparently scheduled their “Bud Light Rock Fest Concert” at virtually the same moment. Of course, the singers never missed a beat, and it’s my firm belief that the audience bent every spoon in a ten-mile radius while focusing laser-like on the proceedings.

Inside the Prothro Theater at the Harry Ransom Center

Inside the Prothro Theater at the Harry Ransom Center

Thankfully, the show next made its way into the Harry Ransom Center. Guided by the dancers, the audience walked through a phalanx of singers on its way inside and passed cellist Samuel Johnson as he and two dancers performed Tawny Garcia’s Tether, which while certainly substantial in its own right, served—as the title might suggest—as a connective element between the inner and outer performances. Once settled into the space inside, Ethan Greene’s Inventions and Interludes in Iron began to emanate from the speakers. Broken into several short, distinctive sections, the work featured dance that mirrored the fractured quality of the electronics. Jagged jaw-harps glissed high and low as SOS chirps hopped around a metallic scratching counterpoint. Another section saw regular rhythms surrounded by what sounded like re-imagined car horns, detuned and chromatic. The first movement of Michael Mikulka’s To Summon Rain, Wind, Snow, and Thunder for timpani had a quasi-military quality which matched the choreography as well as the imagery of nuclear destruction projected behind the dancers. The second movement featured glissando gestures mirrored by a solo dancer and was a respite from the initial strength of the first movement. The final movements saw a return to the military character of the first, with matching repetitive, angular moves by the dancers. It was a great closer, and frankly there are few more definitive ways of ending a show than with a guy wailing away on timpani.

Classical Reinvention is doing it right. By acting as a clearing house for collaborative work and by moving concert music to different venues, Perrin is bringing music to a new audience. She’s also not afraid to try something new in every presentation instead of simply offering a recurring concert series. In each of these shows, musicians, artists, dancers, and audiences create shared experiences that serve to broaden the perspective of all participants. And even when the Gods of Rock make their presence known, the audience is prepped to focus, listen, and bend their own spoons.

Extreme Conditions

It’s been an incredibly hot summer in Los Angeles this year, and it makes my behavior unusually suburban. Proximity to an air conditioner becomes an overwhelming priority, driving beats biking or walking, takeout food beats turning on the oven, and television becomes infinitely preferable to anything outdoors. The exception to this is that I still seem to endure extreme conditions to go to concerts.

I am not really exaggerating here. Many of the new music spaces in L.A., especially the fledgling ones, are not air conditioned. Before the concert, with the windows open and the fans blowing full blast, things are temperate enough. But when the stage lights go up, the windows go down, and the fans go off, before long the concert hall becomes a fiery crucible more suited to doing Bikram yoga or baking a pizza.

Invariably, this makes the musical experience more intense than it would otherwise be. Often, the surrounding warmth makes me nod off for minutes at a time. Maybe this is heresy, but some of my most memorable musical experiences are ones I was only half-awake for, where in my delirium I allowed the music to seep into some previously inaccessible stratum of my consciousness.

After the concert, too, there is generally a strange sense of camaraderie between audience members, having gone through something together. I used to think that extreme temperatures in a venue was an environmental flaw, but I am starting to wonder if it’s not a secret feature of some kind. After all, the phenomenon is not unique to L.A. (as anyone who has been to The Stone in New York City can attest). Why do we tolerate such punishing conditions, and what does it say about new music concertgoers? I am not sure if it is a redeeming quality or a sign of simple masochism.

At any rate, it’s the exact opposite of going to a movie theater just for the air conditioning.

The Soundbridge Project: Classical Music Out Of the Halls

Look, there are plenty of lovely places to hear folks play their fiddles, trumpets, and Macbooks. Concert halls abound, and many of these have been around fuh-ev-uh. For the most part they are thoughtfully designed and perfectly suited for soaking up all the sonic goodness on display, all from the comfort of a relatively plush chair and with just the right amount of attitude adjustment that a frighteningly overpriced glass of chardonnay has to offer.

So why are we always trying to pry classical music out of those cold, dead hands [1] ?

Probably because there is a large contingent of folks out there who would like to hear these pieces sans just about all the stuff above. I do, on occasion, enjoy putting on a coordinated outfit and drinking from something with a stem prior to my fiddle intake, but for me this is more of a Thanksgiving/Presidents’ Day once-a-year deal than a monthly water bill situation. For my regular listening, I prefer smaller, less formal venues, and fortunately I’m not alone.

P. Kellach Waddle has established himself as a composer, bassist, and local impresario (not necessarily in that order), and over the last few decades he has had a hand in a wide variety of multidisciplinary projects involving all sorts of Austin institutions. Live music with film at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, music about wine with Grapevine Market, and Banned Books at Book People are just a few of the projects that Waddle has directed and performed in over the years. His latest is “The Soundbridge Project,” which he developed with flutist Lauryn Gould at Cherrywood Coffeehouse.

The most recent Soundbridge show started with Waddle (Gould could not participate in this particular event) introducing the first of three sets of music. Each set featured something old and something new, and in the case of set one all the new music was written within the last 20 years and some “as recently as eleven days ago.” A few short works for bass were followed by several classical duets for horn performed by Jenni Wieland and Leah Morgan Durrett.

P.K. Waddle and Elaine Martin Barber

P.K. Waddle and Elaine Martin Barber.

After a short break, Waddle returned to perform music featuring bass and harp. The first work, Waddle’s Abandoning The Edge of The San Antonio Sunrise: Impression-Satz for bass and harp made a somewhat disconnected and blurred impression. Ostinati in the bass would form and disappear quickly, while long gestures in the harp performed by Austin Symphony Principal Harpist Elaine Martin Barber would lead to brief moments of consensus between the instruments before they went their separate ways. The whimsically titled (a descriptor which could describe virtually any Waddle tune; the guy does not simply write “Sonata for Bass”) Cereal Music: Sonatina in Three Movements after K. Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions made a play on serialism/cerealism with very subtle nods towards Arnie’s school in the harmonic content and a few towards Kellogg’s camp in the movement titles. Movement one, “Blueberry Morning,” featured driving arpeggios in the bass trading with bright chords in the harp. The multi-stops in the second movement, “Frosted Flakes,” played nicely against the loping arpeggios in the harp, and the hidden gigue in the third movement, “Lucky Charms,” was quite attractive, though both were hidden at times in the rise and fall of the sounds surrounding the performers. This conflict was an issue from time to time throughout the show. The performance space at Cherrywood is located on one side of a large rectangular room and is separated by a low wall which reads a bit like a long breakfast bar. While this provides a great physical separation for the performance space, it does little to facilitate the separation necessary to hear music with a wide dynamic range; a characteristic that describes most “classical” music. I was torn at times between the charm of the venue and its patrons and the combined volume of the two.

Seetha Shivaswamy, P.K. Waddle, and Rebecca Marie Fairweather Haskins. Photo by Chris Bieter

Seetha Shivaswamy, P.K. Waddle, and Rebecca Marie Fairweather Haskins. Photo by Chris Bieter.

The last set for flute, oboe, and bass featured Waddle joined by flutist Seetha Shivaswamy and oboist Rebecca Marie Fairweather Haskins in the world premiere performance of Waddle’s KaffeeTraumen; Dreams of Coffee: Trio in forma di 6 Impression – bagatelles for Flute, Oboe, Bass, an ode to the black stuff, as well as a variety of trio music by L. Mozart, W. A. Mozart , and Stamitz. KaffeTraumen was in six movements, the first moody and shifty with subtle interplay in the winds and with the bass in its traditional role, the second peppered with quasi-neoclassical quirks—rhythmically engaging and harmonically inviting. The fourth movement loosely described the nightmare of a house without coffee and was followed by the relief of coffee returned. In the final movement, Shivaswamy and Fairweather Haskins ran a relay race in slow motion, trading lengthy lines back and forth while Waddle maintained his supporting position.

It was a well portioned show with sets of a length (approximately 15, 30, and 30 minutes respectively) that held the audience’s attention while providing the occasional break. The traditional 60 minute first set, 15-20 minute intermission, and 45 minute second set that you often find in concert settings has never sat well with me. I always feel like the long intermission takes me too far out of the experience. The set organization for this show shared a certain kinship with the pacing of television (gasp!) with the shorter breaks reading more like commercials. I’ve lately been of the opinion that one long set is the way to go, but the shorter multi-set arrangement allows for breaks and shorter concentrated shots of music while also giving the audience an opportunity to show up after the first set or leave before the last set. And while presenters naturally want the audience to stay for the whole show, the multi-set concept does perhaps take the pressure off someone whose dance card might be a bit full that night and who would otherwise have to bow out altogether. Of course, this isn’t really an option in the larger and more opulent halls, but venues like Cherrywood are more flexible. As long as Waddle and Company continue presenting compelling shows that combine music with the character of the venue, I suspect people will keep coming out to check out the performances.

Beer Concerto anyone?

1. Their hands are neither cold nor dead, so lighten up people.

In the Garden of Memory at the Chapel of the Chimes

Jaroba and Keith Cary

Welcome to Garden of Memory 2012 – Jaroba (playing the reed instrument) and instrument maker Keith Cary (pedaling) at the entrance to the Chapel of the Chimes.

The Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland bills itself as a “Columbarium, Crematorium, Mausoleum and Funeral Home,” but on the summer solstice each year it comes alive as a concert venue as well, with a four-hour celebration of experimental sound and music-making called Garden of Memory.

Sarah Cahill (standing) and Regina Schaffer performing a work by Terry Riley in the Chimes Chapel

Sarah Cahill (standing) and Regina Schaffer performing Terry Riley’s Cinco de Mayo, in the Chimes Chapel.

The brainchild of organizer Sarah Cahill, this inimitable event, which is presented by New Music Bay Area and the chapel, features several dozen Bay Area artists scattered throughout the labyrinthine and photogenic facility, which was designed in 1926 by Berkeley architect Julia Morgan (with additions added by other architects through the years).

Taken as a whole, Garden of Memory can be seen almost as a site-specific sound installation. Cahill places the performers in rooms large and small on all three floors of the building, and even outside on terraces and at the entrance. Since the event lasts from 5 to 9 p.m., most performers do sets intermittently throughout the evening. Some share their allotted space, taking turns with other musicians.

Motoko Honda

Keyboardist Motoko Honda in the Garden of Ages, working with sampled toy sounds.

The performances are generally isolated from each other, but not entirely; there is always an awareness of more music happening nearby. The ambient electronic music of Wobbly and Thomas DiMuzio mixed with the Cornelius Cardew Choir intoning Pauline Oliveros’s Heart Chant in a chamber one floor above.


Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker) in the Chapel of Tenderness, with a mic set up for audience members to use as they wished.

While a burbling fountain triggered pitches from a Morpheus synthesizer in Maggi Payne’s installation, Laurie Amat’s soprano voice drifted down the hall like a siren call.

Laurie Amat in the Chapel of St. Luke

Laurie Amat in the Chapel of St. Luke.

As an audience member moving through the spaces, there is a constant sense of discovery. With so many performers, there’s no chance of running out of new things to hear, and with the enormous diversity of artistic styles among the musicians, it’s impossible to anticipate what you’ll find upon rounding the next corner.

Stephen Kent and Beth Custer, in the Sanctuary of Dawn

Stephen Kent and Beth Custer, in the Sanctuary of Dawn.

Expectations are continually confounded: walking down the stairs from the room where Beth Custer is playing a slow groove on clarinet with Stephen Kent, who’s playing a didjeridu with a cello strung over his shoulder like a guitar, you happen upon Albert Behar introducing through a megaphone the premiere of his Book of Five Waltzes on accordion. It’s a joyful evening, celebrating the multifarious ways that people can play with sound.

Albert Behar, in Benevolence West

Albert Behar, in Benevolence West

There are a few larger rooms that can accommodate some of the more well-known performers taking part. Paul Dresher and Amy X Neuburg traded sets throughout the evening in the Julia Morgan Chapel, as they do every year. (This year was notable, though, in that their set-up time in the chapel was delayed because an open-casket viewing ran long. “That’s what happens when you take over a mausoleum,” Cahill noted.)

In the main chapel, one could hear the Del Sol String Quartet, or Cahill and Regina Schaffer performing a four-hand piano piece by Terry Riley, or the eight-voice women’s vocal ensemble Kitka singing Bulgarian love songs. These larger spaces have rows of seating and allow for a more concert-like atmosphere, removed from the milling in the passageways.

Kitka with guest Tzvetanka Varimezova, in the Chimes Chapel

Kitka with guest Tzvetanka Varimezova, in the Chimes Chapel

But the social interaction in the common areas is also an essential part of the Garden of Memory experience. Friends run into each other and share their musical discoveries, before heading off to peer into another room.

Miya Masaoka and Larry Ochs, in the Garden of St. Matthew

Miya Masaoka and Larry Ochs, in the Garden of St. Matthew.

And the smaller rooms provide audiences a rare sense of intimacy with the performers. Sitting on the floor or leaning on a wall, it has the feel of listening to someone make music in his or her living room—in a crazy house with three dozen living rooms.

Theresa Wong, in the Chapel of Palms behind gauze on which images were projected

Theresa Wong, in the Chapel of Palms behind gauze on which images were projected.

While some performers left the fourth wall intact between them and the audience, others casually interacted with them or invited participation in the performance. As a result there’s a real sense of a musical community, gathering to take pleasure in making and listening to sounds.

The Cardew Choir

The Cardew Choir, which invited audience members to participate in the performance of Oliveros’s Heart Chant: Place your right hand over your heart and place your left hand on top of the left hand of a person in the circle. That person will open the circle and place her/his left hand on your back behind your heart.

New Music Capital

Atlas Theater

I’ve always empathized with underdog cities. I’ve resided in Second Cities for nearly all of my adult life, including Chicago (the official Second City), Philadelphia (which often feels like New York’s small stepbrother), and now Baltimore. Whenever non-locals refer to Baltimore, it’s often as part of the Baltimore/Washington metropolitan area, but to these same people Washington, D.C. is simply the Capital or the Beltway. While Washington might boast the better museums (with the notable exception of Baltimore’s much treasured American Visionary Art Museum), a wider variety of restaurants, and greater notoriety in general, until recently Baltimore reigned as the undisputed regional champion of experimental music.

Even though Washington, D.C. could claim excellent ensembles like the Verge Ensemble and nationally recognized venues like the Kennedy Center, the city lacked good medium-sized venues committed to presenting experimental sounds. Without such homes, it was impossible to seed the grassroots development that would allow for a local scene to develop beyond this upper layer of excellence. Meanwhile, for years organizations like Mobtown Modern and the Evolution Music Series have been taking advantage of Baltimore’s wealth of welcoming venues to reach out to the audiences steeped in the traditions of embracing the unusual, embodied by local legends like John Waters and Frank Zappa. I could rest easily knowing that Baltimore’s new music scene far outstripped that of our larger neighbors to the south.

No longer.

Recently, the Atlas Theater concluded the first season of its New Music series, as curated by Armando Bayolo, and announced plans for their 2012–13 season. In the first year of this new concert series, the Atlas hosted such luminaries as ICE, Kathleen Supove, D.J. Sparr, and the Janus Trio, while continuing to bring all types of experimental music and art together for the third annual Intersections Festival. Next year their offerings will expand to include visits from So Percussion, Newspeak, Prism Saxophone Quartet, Maya Beiser, and Cornelius Dufallo, local favorites Pictures on Silence, and performances by their ensemble-in-residence, the Great Noise Ensemble.

This past season, I was able to attend three of the Atlas New Music series concerts: two as an audience member and one as a performer. Each presentation was hosted in the 262-seat Lang Theater, which features a proscenium stage that allows the audience to fan out around the musicians in a configuration that’s very wide and shallow so that every seat is in close proximity to the performers. The theater boasts acoustics that are very true and dry, and that project even the smallest sounds from the stage to all corners of the hall. The overall effect created by this space is an intimate feel that is excellent for chamber music, that allows for ample communication between performers and audiences, and for smaller crowds to provide a great deal of energy.

Last week’s visit by the Deviant Septet was a good example of what one can expect from performances on this series. Configured in the instrumentation of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, this new ensemble features some of the best new music performers around, veterans of such renowned groups as Alarm Will Sound and Signal. On this concert, they presented only two works: Histories, a collaboration between the ensemble and the composer collective Sleeping Giant, and The Rake, a “hip-hopera” by ensemble member Brad Balliett and Elliot Cole.

The performances were first-rate throughout. As one would expect from an all-star group like this, the individual players projected improbably complicated lines with ease and conveyed both usual and unusual instrumental sounds with conviction. Even more heartening was the cohesion they displayed in performance, a quality that could not be assumed from a relatively new and relatively large group performing densely constructed music without a conductor. While all the composers utilized the ensemble well in order to convey a variety of effects and affects, a personal favorite moment was the section of Histories penned by Christopher Ceronne. In this movement, the wind players exited the stage and dispersed in order to surround the audience literally with gestures that grew organically from breath sounds enveloping us like waves into grandly undulating chords, while accompanying lovely vibraphone chords and sparse string effects developed unpredictably and satisfyingly.

With such a promising season finale, I am very much looking forward to Atlas’ 2012–13 offerings. They are proving to be a very welcome addition to the region’s new music scene.

Another Night In the Big City

The most valuable performance tradition in American music—more important than subscription orchestra concerts, new music series, musical theater, rock concerts, and the opera—is the jam session, where musicians of any age, stature, and stylistic bent will agree to improvise at least one song together with the intent of making the best music possible. The audiences at jam sessions are mostly musicians, aspiring musicians, or music aficionados, so the pressure to please a non-music savvy clientele is minimized, while the pressure to play well enough to attract musicians who want to play is maximized. I should mention that I’m talking about public jam sessions—where a musician can walk in off the street, put their name on a list, take care of the required cover or minimum charges levied by the hosting establishment, and, when called to play, play for as long as they’re permitted—and not the private sessions usually held in a pianist’s home or at a rehearsal studio, where a clique of musicians might audition new members, practice improvising on new and familiar material, or just try out new ideas. The latter is valuable for building relationships and for working out strategies for the artistic infiltration of the Culture Machine, while the former has a much more subtle role in the shaping of what we call music in America.

These sessions originated in American ghettos, especially early-to-mid 20th Century Harlem, as places where professional jazz musicians could play together without the stylistic restraints imposed on them by their work in “mainstream” American musical establishments (i.e., dance halls). It’s important to remember that jazz music of the ’30s and ’40s was different than what is called jazz music today and that socioeconomic restrictions based on skin color and national identity were more panoramic as well. It was the restrictions on place that made the public jam session an important part of the American musical landscape. In these sessions, musicians could play for as long as the audience would allow and, more than occasionally, they would turn into “cutting contests” where a few players would go toe-to-toe in an attempt to outdo each other. It is in these sessions that America’s National Treasure, jazz, developed stylistically as well as having the bar of technique raised to new standards. This was the inspiration for director Gjon Mili’s film, Jammin’ the Blues, the Oscar-nominated short released May 5, 1944. On July 2 of the same year, the film’s technical director, Norman Granz (who was also dating the film’s female lead, Marie Bryant) presented the first of his famous Jazz At The Philharmonic concerts. Granz (who also founded Pablo Records), kept the series touring in the United States and Canada until 1957 and in Europe and Japan until 1983. The JATP concerts were basically all-star jam sessions, with little or no rehearsal of material and a wildly varying artistic success rate. In a single tune one could hear Roy Eldridge, Flip Philips, Illinois Jaquet, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Herb Ellis and Jo Jones extemporize on a blues.

This week I have the honor of taking pianist and scholar Monika Herzig on a short tour of some of the jam sessions I (in)frequent. (To use Bob Russell’s explanation, “I don’t get around much anymore.”) Dr. Herzig is a professor at Indiana University; after earning her doctorate in jazz education there in 1997, she has been engaged in producing and organizing jazz-related concerts and educational programs. She is currently working on a project with her mentor, Dr. David Baker, about the jam session, its history, its protocols, its influence, and (I assume) its future. One of the topics that their project will be surveying is the repertoire of the jam session; what tunes are used to improvise on. Although I’ve been playing at sessions as either a house player or an attendee since 1970, I had never really given this subject much thought until Dr. Herzig brought it to my attention. She was explaining how Survey Monkey works. The names of the tunes can be correlated to demographic markers such as socioeconomic status, sex, region or age. I realized that when I was starting out, my friends who attended those sessions and I never “called” tunes; I never called a tune at a private jam session until I moved to New York in 1977 and at a public one until 1989. I imagine that is explained by protocol issues that involve age, familiarity of persons, and type of instrument. (Since I play the bass, and am rarely expected to play melodies, the main concern would be whether or not I knew the tune being called.)

At the time of this writing (Thursday), we went to the jam session at Cleopatra’s Needle, a restaurant and bar that has been presenting jazz seven nights a week since at least 1989. We might go to the sessions at Smoke, Small’s and/or Somethin’ jazz clubs, or not. (We are, after all, improvisers.) I’m pretty sure I’ll be interviewed at some point, since I was a house bassist for three relatively high-profile jam sessions in New York during the early 1980s: Barbara’s, led by Jimmy Lovelace and Monty Waters; Joyce’s House of Unity, led by Mark Elf; and The Lady’s Fort, led by George Braith. These sessions were attended by the likes of Leo Mitchell, Junior Cook, Mike Gerber, John Hicks, Tom Rainey, Steve Coleman, Rashid Ali, Herman Foster, Ricky Ford, Fred Hersch, and Jack Walrath. The playing that occurred at these and other venues helped to shape the way jazz has been played ever since. The influence was subtle. We played with and listened to each other work on presenting what we thought were our best efforts. Sometimes a single tune would last over an hour because everyone was inspired by what was going on. Sometimes one soloist would chase everyone else away after five minutes.

Needless to say, this will have to be continued next week.

Another Night Out In New York

One of the reasons I live in New York is so that I can always hear quality music. The weekly listings of musical events in The Village Voice would, in any other city in the world, be called a major music festival.

Wednesday was the birthday of Betty Carter, one of the best American musicians of the 20th century, whom I had the honor of working for in the late ’70s. My wife and I celebrated by going to hear two fantastic singers: Fay Victor (with guitarist Anders Nilsson and bassist Ken Filiano) at Barbés in Brooklyn and Teri Roiger (with pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist John Menegon, and drummer Steve Williams) at Kitano in Manhattan. While the two vocalists are superficially, in terms of style, as diametrically opposed as the venues they performed in, they both delivered command performances that expressed the profound influence of Carter, although neither were commemorating her birthday.

Teri Roiger was, in fact, celebrating the music of one of Betty Carter’s close associates and colleagues, Abbey Lincoln. Roiger and the above mentioned group (along with saxophonist Greg Osby and guitarist Mark Dziuba) recently recorded a CD, The Music of Abbey Lincoln, which is in the process of being produced through an indiegogo campaign. Roiger and her husband, bassist John Menegon, live and teach in the New Paltz area, so hearing her perform in New York City is rare and worth the trip. Although a student of Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan, Roiger’s interpretation is more strongly attached to the melody of her material than her mentors. However, like her mentors, she accesses a total understanding of the structure of the songs she performs as well as the extemporizations of her accompanists. Roiger’s natural phrasing is similar to Lincoln’s, but smoother, without Lincoln’s trademark edge. Also, her voice is suppler and expresses itself through a subtle and stunning use of register and syllabic manipulation.

The Kitano jazz club is rapidly becoming one of my favorite rooms to hear music in. They moved from the second floor to the first floor of the Kitano Hotel, which is a welcome change. The room is better lit, has a bigger stage that is easier to take in from the audience’s vantage, and sounds better than the upstairs room. Unfortunately, being on the first floor attracts some of the less musically inclined clientele who come to the Kitano to stay in the rooms, which meant that Ms. Roiger, her band, and the audience had to put up with a table of yakety drinking buddies. My (as well as others’) best efforts to politely request conversational restraint were, of course, only respected until the next bass solo. Hopefully, a quiet policy can be negotiated between the club’s and hotel’s management, which would go a long way to packing the place. Also, Kitano is not a cheap music venue. The only reason I didn’t spend more than $100 is that I don’t drink alcohol. But the food is almost as good as the music presented there, so I recommend it.

My wife and I missed Roiger’s first set because Barbés in Brooklyn is one of those back-room performance spaces that book two or more bands a night and Fay Victor only had one set. The trade off was that the small room is set up as a concert venue and there were no distractions from listening by the entitled jet-set elite. Their music room is clean, well-lit and someone came by only two times to ask if we wanted drinks from the front bar. I find it a little upsetting to have my attention jolted away from live music that I’m involved in listening to. I understand that rooms like these have to make money to stay in business (I do, too), but it seems that there should be some kind of training that could be offered to their wait-staffs so that they’re not making the audience miss the music they’ve paid a cover charge to hear. For instance, The Mrs. and I went to the Cornelia Street Café on Tuesday to hear Mark Dresser’s group play their first set (I had to work the late set at the Garage with saxophonist Danny Walsh, guitarist Joe Cohn, and drummer Marcello Pellitteri) and we were interrupted no less than six times to have orders taken, be served, and then presented with a bill. Fortunately, I love this group and will put up even with the mildew and mold that permeates this basement venue, and the clientele there is as serious about listening as I am (the antithesis of the situation at The Garage). But I really hope that management at Cornelia Street addresses the mold issue.

If you haven’t guessed that I’m driving at opposites saying pretty much the same thing and are wondering why I brought up Tuesday’s outing, I’ll explain:

Mark Dresser and Ken Filiano are two of my favorite bassists (along with William Parker, Mark Helias, Ron Carter, Jon Burr, Hilly Greene, Mary Ann McSweeny, and a host of others). But Dresser and Filiano are both deeply dedicated to using extended techniques and playing music that, while steeped in improvisation, challenges the definition of jazz suggested by documentarian Ken Burns. Both perform extensively with jazz musicians (such as Jane Ira Bloom and Connie Crothers) and both use electronic equipment to enhance their acoustic basses. They even are both German bowers, yet their approaches to playing are diametrical opposites. While Dresser is an inventor of elaborate and soulful grooves in modulating meters, Filiano espouses what he calls a “no control” approach to playing. He uses multiple delays to set up random short-lived loops that he must interact with on the spot. And, while Fay Victor’s music (like Dresser’s) uses free improvisation to frame through-composed pieces, Filiano will go beyond the traditional role of the bass as laying the harmonic ground that is improvised over. Actually Dresser does this also, but in a very different way, such as his trio playing with pianist Denman Maroney and drummer Tom Rainey.

The comparison of these two bassists suggests a similarity in comparing the two singers, Teri Roiger and Fay Victor. While Roiger gives a performance that holds very close to the Great American Songbook approach to jazz singing, Victor gives the illusion of almost losing the connection to the genre. Her songs (which she composes with her husband, Jochem Van Dijk) are angular, filled with complex, but motoric, rhythms that access the intensity of alternative rock. She acknowledges that one of her tunes, “Absinthe and Vermouth,” quotes Frank Zappa (“Chunga’s Revenge”?). The diametric opposition of the two singers, though, is in approach, not in spirit. Listening to the two singers reveals a common core based on Lincoln and Carter that is much like Dresser and Filiano’s core of Charles Mingus and Bertram Turetzky.

Although she was referred to as a jazz singer during her 50+ year career, Betty Carter was also a composer, arranger, and bandleader. Her music (whether it was something she wrote or if she was performing the work of someone else) always had her stamp, a stamp that often forced the listener to rethink what music is in the most basic sense. Listen to her performance of Kurt Weill’s “Lonely House” and try not to judge her intonation, yet it’s clear that she meant the pitches she sang. Then compare her performance to the original and it all makes sense. In the eight months I played in her band, my 23-year-old sensibilities were challenged to the breaking point. I quit twice. (I know I was fired according to William R. Bauer’s Open the Door: The Life and Music of Betty Carter, but that’s not the case.) I just wasn’t ready for Ms. B. To be blunt, Betty Carter was blunt and her music was just as blunt. Maybe direct conveys a better sense of it. When I think of Charles Mingus, I think of Debut Records, the label he and Max Roach formed to keep their work honest. Carter did the same thing, forming Bet-Car Records in 1969. Part of her honesty was an insistence on not resting on one’s laurels. She always listened to what was going on and to what her sidemen were into. She would listen to me practicing multiple harmonics and remind me that saxophone players had been doing that for years. She was blunt, but she never said anything that wasn’t true. She also believed that improvisation was key to making music. As controlled as her music could be, very little of it was written out and she wanted her sidemen to create their parts. Her scat-singing was never contrived, either. I remember on our last performance together in Oslo, she and I modulated through different meters on “My Favorite Things,” including 5/4. She also insisted that her musicians never just “called it in.” She wanted us to give 100% to the performance of each tune and to treat each tune as if it were the last time we’d ever play.

So it was very nice indeed to hear these two singers, Fay Victor and Teri Roiger, carrying Betty Carter’s flame in their very different ways on her birthday. It was as much an honor to hear them as it was to work with Ms. B., although I’m a lot more ready to hear it now! While I know that the struggle I went through to understand her music is nothing compared to the struggle she went through to play it, I know that I’m a better listener because of that struggle. It’s why I truly believe that the most important thing in making music isn’t necessarily to have fun, but rather the reward of making good music. Betty Carter said it well—and I include this for anyone who feels discouraged about music—when I was complaining about how difficult it was for me to work on her music and my own and still keep my sense of identity (which wasn’t yet formed!). After hearing me out, she looked me in the eye, smiled, and growled, “who the f—k told you this was gonna be easy!”

Thank you for that, Betty.