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Sunday, October 15, 2017

The October Revolution Part 2: Saturday and Sunday

The weekend's festivities kicked off out on the Race St. Pier, which juts out into the Delaware River at the foot of the Ben Franklin bridge. The performance was the work of composer John Luther Adams entitled "Across the Distance", specifically written for a couple dozen french horns.

Saturday afternoon, Race St Pier and Fringe Arts

A member of Orchestra 2001 performing John Luther Adams' Across the Distance
Dozen's of french horn players from Philadelphia's Orchestra 2001 were making their way slowly up and down the Race Street pier. Cars and trucks on I-95 sped by and the commuter rail up on the Ben Franklin bridge passed by with a clatter, but down on the pier a reverential quiet blanketed the otherwise noisy space. Through this atmosphere, at seemingly random intervals, the wandering musicians would play short sequences of notes. Soon, another horn player would begin a similar sequence, and maybe on the other side of the pier, a third voice joined. The overlapping arpeggios and sustained notes created a calming and hypnotic effect, and against the flow of the river, the flow of the traffic, and the deliberate flow of the musicians, a full day of music began.

Son of Goldfinger: David Torn, Ches Smith, Tim Berne
The festival moved back inside Fringe Arts - kind of a welcome reprieve from the unseasonably hot day - and guitarist and soundscapist David Torn took the stage with percussionist Ches Smith and saxophonist Tim Berne under the group name Son of Goldfinger. A small enthusiastic crowd gathered to luxuriate in the guitar tech wizard Torn's live sound manipulations and Berne's obtuse and complex melodic creations. However it was Smith who kicked things off by cuing up an electronic frequency which prompted Torn to unleash the theremin within. Striking, muting, and tapping the strings, he pulled and pried sounds of his guitar and looming cabinet of technology. The group picked up in intensity and Berne, playing a solid stream of melodic ideas, began buzzing in the mid-register of the horn and Torn began tearing it up. The trio interspersed long meditative sections and blistering attacks, of which the noisy parts were the most interesting. Smith took a solo towards the end that wove odd metered and unresolved patterns into a MC Escher like illusion. A rather inconclusive ending came in the guise of a blown amp, but overall a neat set paving the way for Tim Berne's own group, Snakeoil, appearing later in the afternoon.

Zena Parkins and Brian Chase Duo
Harpist/sound manipulator Parkins' harp is much more than a harp - in fact, I wonder if harp is even the right word for it. It's a controller, hooked up to a wild assortment of electronics and finally into an amplifier. As she and drummer Brian Chase kicked off their set, it sounded like she was playing bass. Also to note, she was playing the frame of the instrument, not the harp strings themselves. Chase, with mallets in hand and at a conventional kit, kept it simple, that is until he began to disassemble pieces of his high-hat to get some other percussive sounds. The duo was intense, Parkins provided a mix of tone and attack as she looped her sounds into an impressive stack. Chase's playing was responsive and provided a strong pulse, if not time. There is a bit of theater attached as well in Parkin's lunging and rhythmic swoons at the harp, and here working both the physical and the musical, they reached an apex. They continued through several other improvisations and the range of sounds Parkin's can create is mindboggling: digging into rhythmic strums, pulling out stinging single notes, and scratching out synthesized tones. The two work quite well together and their mid-afternoon set was a highlight.

Tim Berne's Snakeoil
Snakeoil has been Berne's main vehicle for his compositions over the past several years. A spate of albums on ECM have ranged from excellent to even more excellent, the most recent Incidentals is a masterful album, the second featuring the group augmented by guitarist Ryan Ferrier, who was not playing with the group today. The line-up in addition to Berne: reeds player Oscar Noriega, pianist Matt Mitchell, and drummer Ches Smith. Smith again kicked things off, this time with a bunch of small percussion, while Noriega readied his Bb clarinet and proceeded to play a gentle melody along with Mitchell. Only after a good stretch, Berne came in, while Smith provided some contrast on the vibraphone. Noriega switched to bass clarinet and he worked a melody together with Mitchell, the group pulled together in all their complexity. One complaint is that Mitchell's acoustic piano could not cut through the group 's sound strongly and some of the bass' function was lost, causing the music to float a little more than usual. However, the upshot was that Smith's unusual work on the timpani and vibraphone gained some extra prominence. To my ears, the strength of Berne's compositions is how he sets up his musical contraptions, whose components always come together to create beautifully challenging musical jigsaw puzzles.

Saturday Night, Fringe Arts

Art Ensemble of Chicago
This was it, the event that everyone had been talking about. The Art Ensemble of Chicago, which had been started in Chicago in the mid-to-late 1960s has grown and changed over the years, and as this concert proved, is still a relevant and important force in finding and pushing the edges of the avantgarde. The current version is founding member Roscoe Mitchell on woodwinds; Hugh Ragin on trumpet, flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet; Tomeka Reid on cello; Jaribu Shahid and Junius Paul on double-bass; and Famoudou Don Moye on drums. 

The group came out on stage and faced east. Mitchell played a single note, they took their playing positions, and Paul launched into an extensive bass solo. He was then joined by Shahid and Moye for a brief interlude, and then the second bassist took over. Ragin took a quick turn on the piccolo trumpet as Mitchell readied his soprano sax. As the focus shifted to Mitchell, he let loose a torrent of squeals and squeaks in the extended range of the instrument. Coupled with circular breathing, the effect was both jarring and soothing in some manner. He kept this theme going after cueing in the group, adding more notes from the lower register. Ragin took over next, for an extensive solo, and then it was Reid's turn. She really stood out as she spun a engrossing fast paced passage full of double and triple stops. In fact in a few conversations with concert-goers afterwards they basically said they were utterly smitten with her playing. The quality of the music only increased over the course of the set. Towards the end, Moye's received some spotlight, and the drummer who had moved between hand percussion and kit over the course of the set, led the group energetically into their closing theme. The group came back for a short encore and the audience was left on a wonderfully disoriented high - the hour set seemed to have passed in mere minutes.

Mike Lorenz Trio
Serving up a sweet digestive after the heavy meal, the Mike Lorenz trio (Lorenz  on guitar, James Collins on organ, and  Kevin Ripley on drums) took over the small corner stage of the Le Peg restaurant located in the front of the Fringe Arts building. With people filtering in an out of the biergarten, the group played music from the book of Sonny Sharrock. An unusual cover band for sure, and they shaped the guitarists woolly compositions into a neat trio format. Quite a night!

Sunday Afternoon, Fringe Arts

Saturday's heat became even more oppressive on this rainy Sunday, and an equatorial (or at least Floridian) humidity saturated the air. A performance on the Pier scheduled for noon was cancelled and the show began inside Fringe Arts with the sax and drums duo of Jim Sauter and Kid Millions.

Jim Sauter and Kid Millions 
Sauter is one of the saxophonists from the heavy noise/jazz group Borbetomagnus and Millions (Jim Colpitts) the drummer of rock band Oneida. The two together were a force of nature - and it was loud - from the opening blat of Sauter's sax, nothing but energy poured forth from the duo. The extreme feedback from Sauter's towering amplifier, to the string of pedals he ran his instrument through guaranteed hearing damage for those without ear plugs, but between the textures of his sounds and the structure in Million's patterns, an interesting - though not for the faint of heart - music emerged. It was certainly a jolt of energy in the early afternoon.

Sunday Afternoon, Old City

After the opening event, the action shifted up into to old city. Just a quick walk up Race St, under the thunder of I-95, the old city is a mix of buildings and homes from the 18th century and modern glass monstrosities from the 2017's. How Betsy Ross' home fits into this changing landscape is interesting to ponder as one walked towards Christ Church - founded in 1695 - through the streets teeming with art galleries, book shops, cafes and tourists attending the old city festival. 

Mike Reed's Flesh and Bone
Drummer Mike Reed's septet Flesh and Bone performed in an attic hall of one of Christ Church's outer buildings. Set up against the backdrop of projector screens, the group played an excellent mix of avantgarde/contemporary jazz laced with passionate spoken word. The group, an assemblage of Chicago musicians featured Greg Ward on alto saxophone, Tim Haldeman on tenor saxophone, Jason Roebke on bass, Ben Lamar Gay on cornet, Jason Stein on bass clarinet, Marvin Tate on vocals, and Reed on drums. The group recently released their eponymous album which was inspired by an incident in Poland where Reed ran into a Neo-Nazi rally. Underscored by the recent unravelling of America, the incident caused a great deal of reflection on life for Reed and he tried to capture it in music (and words) with the group. The concert was an absolute joy - with Stein and Ward possibly taking top honors. Though I have always been a fan of Stein's bass clarinet playing, his solo performed against the backdrop of crude computer animated vectors ran the gamut of the instrument's capabilities and set a bar for the group. Rooted in traditional jazz and blues but searching for new sounds and open to all ideas, Reed has crafted an exciting concept which was brought to life by the group. In fact, in the second piece a deep bass groove over a straight ahead beat and tandem improvisation from Stein and Ward would have been good enough for me the whole show, but bring in the octet and Reed's contemporary, but timeless arrangements, and it was a sensory feast.

Cortex:  Gard Nilssen, Ola Høyer, Kristoffer Berre Alberts, Thomas Johansson
This quartet of bad ass Norwegians have released several albums on Clean Feed, one of the more recent ones was from a concert at iBeam in Brooklyn from a few years back, and it caught the band's energy well, but nothing compares to seeing them in a several hundred year old church with its aged acoustics and connotations of freedom and revolution. Trumpeter Thomas Johansson, saxophonist Kristoffer Berre Alberts, bassist Ola Høyer, and drummer Gard Nilssen did not let the concert goers down, their precise playing and concise melodic heads gave way to fierce improvisations, showcasing some rare talent - Alberts playing seems to embody the spirit of Brotzmann coupled with jaw-dropping technical proficiency. While Alberts and Johansson are powerhouse improvisers a lot of credit should go the writing - crystalline and punchy, it features the exciting interplay and somehow has a synergistic effect where the two horns can fill a room - a church even - with sound. Nilssen and Hoyer root the group. They are dependable and never let a beat slip, providing a solid underlayment that no doubt lets the two horn players do what they do best.

Burton Greene  (press photo)
Hunched over at the baby grand piano at the front of the church, Burton Greene played a lovely, albeit short, set. His playing was excellent, energetic but patient. Moments of calm and placid notes were punctuated by bursts of rapid tonal clusters. The 80 year old had a youthful air, introducing compositions and pieces with stories laced with details and still had a lot of fight left in him for exploited musicians, yuppies driving up the cost of housing, and the state of politics in the US (as seen from an Ex-pats eyes). His impromptu lecture after the set was as riveting as his song dedicated to Sun-Ra ('Space is Still the Place') and a Monkish be-bop piece he's been working over for 60 years dedicated to Bud Powell. Greene also performed at the original October Revolution festival in 1964, making his appearance here of both historical and musical importance. A real treat.

Ballister: Dave Rempis, Paal Nilssen-Love, Fred Lonberg-Holm 
I was highly anticipating Ballister's set. The trio of Chicagoans Dave Rempis (sax) and Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), and Norwegian Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) is powerhouse of noisy jazz. In fact, from the first hit, Rempis tore into his sax and PnL was thunderous presence, nearly drowning out Lonberg-Holm's effect laden cello work. That is, until a sudden break where Lonberg-Holm's non-cello sounding cello sounds erupted into electronic shards and splinters. Ballister isn't all power however, dropping the dynamics, Rempis pulled out some yearning melodic lines to play with the cellist, whose instrument's acoustic properties mixed with the crunch of his pedals congealing into a sharp and delicate sound. The band spent a but of time tossing about small interactions in reserved tones, which helped make the next time they went full throttle that much more intense. Between the ebbs and flows, Rempis and PnL slowly brought the music back to boil, while Lonberg-Holm rearranged the audience's ear-drums. When Rempis switched to the baritone sax, the next storm was approaching. 

Perhaps drawn to the pleasures of the old city festival or exhausted from the incredible stretch of music starting on Thursday night, it was a smaller but dedicated crowd. After the Balllister show, the festival returned to Fringe Arts for the performance of local artist Moor Mother and then So Percussion. However, after bidding goodbye to folks outside Fringe Arts, I too headed back to my car and to the reality of the coming week. 

Overall the festival was an incredible survey of of experimental and avantgarde musicians and music. Curated with care and attention paid to details, the whole event was a pleasure to attend and I look forward to seeing how Ars Nova builds on its success. Long live the revolution, I'm looking forward to it coming around again!


Martin Schray said...

I wish I'd been there. Especially the Art Ensemble of Chicago plus 2 is something one might not see again. The mixture of old warhorses like Burton Greene, Anthony Braxton, the Arkestra and the AEoC with younger musicians was well curated. Great write-up, Paul.