Thursday, March 24, 2011

Joe McPhee & Ken Vandermark: A Meeting in New York

The Stone is a vanguard not-for-profit music venue, founded by composer/musician and MacArthur Genius Award winner John Zorn. The space is located on the corner of Avenue C and 2nd Street on the Lower East Side in New York City. Described by some as a hole in the wall, it is a pretty well-designed one. The interior walls are brick but they are covered with black velvet curtains that fall from a high ceiling to a concrete floor. The room is about two and a half times as long as it is wide. At one end of the space, brick is still exposed; a small room with a white door has been built in the corner. Black plastic folding chairs fill the room. The wall seen on entering is covered with sheet-rock, painted white, and on it are displayed Peter Gannuskin's black and white photographs of the musicians who have curated performances throughout its six year history.

On March 18, 2011, a landmark event occurred...landmark, because Joe McPhee and Ken Vandermark have never played in a duet before, except on those rare occasions during their tours with Peter Brรถtzmann's Tentet, when these two musicians can and have.

Before the music began, McPhee told the story of how he and Vandermark began their musical relationship. In his written words, the story goes like this:
In 1993, there was an interview in "Option" magazine with Ken Vandermark in which he had really marvelous things to say about my music and its influence on him.  When he began playing the saxophone his dad gave him a copy of my Hat Hut recording Tenor and told him if he was going to play tenor, he should check it out.  For better or worse he took the advice. It so happened that I was in Vancouver, B.C., for the jazz Festival as was Ken and I ran into him as he was boarding a bus en route to his concert and I thanked him for his kind remarks.  He invited me to the concert and his band proceeded to play one of my compositions from Tenor, "Goodbye Tom B."  I was not only impressed at their version, but it was the first time I had ever heard anyone play my music, and it was obvious that Ken was seriously into it for some time.  This was not done to impress me.

In 1995, Ken invited me to Chicago for my first visit there. I arrived, we met, went into a studio and recorded our first CD, A Meeting In Chicago, all in a single take with no rehearsal, before playing our first concert later that night at The Empty Bottle.

With that preface, the musical interchange between these two reedsmen commenced. It was almost as if a father and his son were playing together. Vandermark seemed to soften in volume on his tenor deferring to McPhee, when, in fact, he provided a strong assured backdrop in front of which McPhee could launch himself on soprano sax. Instrumentally, the match was perfect. The high and the lows. The sparkling with the blustery. McPhee held forth with distinct phrases that became one entity, which Vandermark complemented harmonically, often merging with McPhee's sound. They did not imitate each other but carried strikingly different weights and interwove musical lines that created a whole densely packed body of abstract song.

Witnessing the two men listen consciously to each other was thrilling. McPhee kept his eyes closed the entire time; Vandermark did as well, though at times cast a meditative gaze towards the floor. Both were concentrating on the togetherness of their mutual sound; both were exercising their sensitivity to each other.

After each break, they changed their instruments. With those changes came the explorations of new integration of other timbres.
After playing the soprano, McPhee switched to a silver Holton pocket trumpet, which was his Father's. This was the first time he had ever played it. Vandermark picked up his clarinet.

McPhee then revisited his soprano while Vandermark continued on the clarinet. This pairing was the most exquisite of all; the two instruments seared the air. The musicians played round and round each other. Vandermark turned red in the face, he was blowing so hard, not only to support his circular breathing, but also to maintain his dedicated presence, which was more than significant in response to McPhee's endlessly curving phrasings.

McPhee sought out the resonance of the space with his horn. Back on tenor, Vandermark refrained from playing with an extreme forward motion, where his instrument is so far in front of him in the metaphorical sense that he needs to expend an overabundance of energy to keep up with himself. Rather, he demonstrated an extraordinary awareness of how McPhee drew the lines, as they flickered, and popped, became boisterous, lyrical and melodic, even at one point introducing the theme from Coltrane's "After the Rain."

The passion they both felt was palpable. McPhee shone in his ever-present capacity for varying the extent to which he presses forward or quiets down, repeats his phrases or invents new ones. The rhythm maintained by the two was introverted. It existed as an inherent factor, an underpinning, in the structure of the improvisation. Only once, when McPhee tapped the mouthpiece on his pocket trumpet, was an overt rhythmic gesture detectable.

In visual art terms, the music simulated Cubism and Post-Impressionism at the same time. The two musicians contrasted each other with drastically opposed elements and directions or they completed each other, just as a bright yellow swatch of paint juxtaposed with one that is blue on the same surface fools the eyes as being green from a distance.

The music that McPhee and Vandermark played with the bassist Kent Kessler, in A Meeting In Chicago, in 1995, was inspired, evoking the sparks that occur when a warm collegial relationship begins. The blending was so fluid that the musicians shared only their compatibility. At the Stone, the contexts had changed. Since 1995, McPhee has become well-known in the United States because Vandermark removed him from his purely European audience by bringing him to Chicago; and Vandermark's career has skyrocketed not only in Chicago, but internationally. The music at the New York gig exuded confidence, and an evenness of expression that the Chicago recording only hinted at.

This concert displayed a camaraderie and intimacy rarely seen in the improvised music world. It is a well-known fact that McPhee is a romantic and the truest of friends. Yet, Vandermark guards the projection of his feelings and is not effusive. His feelings transfer to the fixed vigor within his playing.

At the end of the evening, the two musicians embraced just as they had at the beginning, after McPhee's verbal introduction when he described Vandermark as one of the greatest guys on earth. The night had revealed that Master and Apprentice may part ways in continuing the development of their own voices, their own groups, their own sounds; yet, they can always reunite in unparalleled splendor.

Text and Photos: copyright 2011 Lyn Horton

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Matthew Shipp Trio: The Art of the Improviser Live

I have been writing about improvised music for close to fifteen years. A few times, I have made mistakes in technical language or citing the wrong composer's name for a standard. Even though it gives me a minor headache that these errors passed me by before I let go of the articles to be published, I realize that, in the long run, these mistakes are no big deal and they do not override the content of the writing-only put a scratch in it that can usually be rubbed out by an editor or by a vigilant musician.

I trust myself to open my ears fully to take in the music well enough to describe my feelings on how I hear. I am nervous though every time my fingers hit the computer keyboard to start this process, because, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, you have to rid yourself of all distractions by stashing them metaphorically in jars so that the mind can calm down.

Within the last few weeks, I have been to several concerts. A couple of years ago, I decided that it was tedious to take notes at concerts and then review them, under time constraints that put me on edge. Honestly, I just wanted to enjoy the music.

But, on March 7, 2011, in New York City at (Le) Poisson Rouge, the Matthew Shipp Trio played in celebration of Shipp's new release, a double CD called The Art of the Improviser, on the Thirsty Ear label. This concert was so good that I was compelled to write about it.

The gig sang out its singularity; it was incomparable to any other concert I attended recently, where the groups' numbers ranged from one person to seven or more. The trio simply works so consistently and tightly that its impact as one organism defies criticism and invites only praises. And for an improvising group to have formed a web that is so closely knit is indeed rare and notable; in fact, kind of remarkable.

Shipp is indubitably the leader. He strikes the match that initially lights the fire. The pianist forges ahead in a state of consciousness that is apart from any that, collectively, we can know. Bassist Bisio and drummer Dickey board this plane of burning energy with equally as much fervor, supplying Shipp with the support he has earned and deserves.

Shipp has acclimated himself to chordal structures; yet, those structures find new definition, new positioning between more rhythmically nuanced and less intense, subtly arranged, phrasings. Those phrasings become the breathing room for the blasts that follow, whether in renderings of a jazz standard or gospel tune, towards which Shipp leans, or of a childhood song like Frere Jacques, which he once described as a "means to get out his frustration by pounding" the keyboard with double-handed chords.

An inappropriate word to describe Shipp's music is abstract. He has developed his own musical language and logic, which bows substantially to the history of piano-playing, but is not exclusively riveted to that history. The music rallies around his spirituality as it paradoxically merges with his intelligence, itself invested in the awareness of the stars, planets, intergalactic gases or dust and the unfathomable mystery of the way in which totality and beyond works. His music is a means of demonstrating that he just does not care about everyday drudgery and would rather be breathing fresh air than standing in a subway car. His music operates as poetry; the shifting in and out of formalized repeated resonance to lullaby is intentional. That he has been touched by a Yogic master is Shipp's gift to his audience.

The bold broadness with which Bisio performs, either using pizzicato or arco technique, clearly shows his passion for his instrument and the music he plays with it. As he looks up with his eyes closed and his lips un-pursed, his facial expressions tell of a deep sensitivity to weaving his sound throughout the large picture painted by Shipp and Dickey. When he solos, he wills himself as a one-man orchestra. It isn't the separate notes he hits that matter; it is how he connects from pizzed pitch to gliss to bowing. The imaginable throbbing of the vibrations that surround him resembles how force fields can exude from any radiant form.

Bisio has an amazing sense of rhythm that does not wane for a second as he progresses in a tuneless mode of stroking the strings. Often he stomps his right foot - a manifestation of an inner pulse wanting to free itself from his body as well as from his instrument.

His neck at a measurable angle from the static trunk of his body, Whit Dickey produces a steady stream of restrained percussiveness from his drumset that nearly becomes the axis around which the trio rotates; his drumming acts almost as a drone. His arms could not possibly flail uncontrollably because of the way in which the sound comes off the cymbals more than from the skins of his drums. Yet, when he solos, he lets go of the restraint that penetrates playing with the trio and his arms dance more and the sticks go higher into the space above him and they descend onto the drums more often. The sound is clean and strong. His sitting position remains the same. Dickey does not lack momentum; he is total momentum, inexorably so. With that momentum, the trio is buoyed in streams that ripple into rivers and oceans that rock with swelling waves.

At this gig, Shipp listened as Bisio and Dickey soloed. With his arms and elbows on the edge of the piano above the keys, Shipp's listening pose was stunning. His pause provided as much music as his playing would have. Shipp did not play a solo; his interaction with the band was his solo.

As Shipp's music has evolved so his capacity to create a distinctive statement has increased. But his maturity has always existed because his motive to make music never disappeared. Critics fuss and fume about his verbal overstatements and liken him to every pianist they recognize within his playing, but Shipp is only Shipp. Just like Kandinsky is always Kandinsky. Believe it and believe in the inspirational embrace which their art imparts.

Text and photos: copyright 2011 Lyn Horton

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