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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Polyorchard, part I

By Lee Rice Epstein

Around the time Polyorchard’s new album was announced, we realized we had never properly reviewed the North Carolina collective led by double-bassist and FJB reviewer David Menestres. We decided to take this opportunity to shine a light on one of the more interesting, and less discussed, regions of improvised music in the States. Following the review of Polyorchard’s latest is a brief conversation with David about his background, his music, and the North Carolina scene.

sextet | quintet (Out & Gone Music, 2018) ****

Over the course of three albums, Polyorchard has developed a dynamic and continuously evolving compositional language that inspires bold improvisation from all members. On the current album, sextet | quintet, Menestres presents two different groups recorded on two separate nights in early 2015. The sextet, from February, features Jeb Bishop on trombone, Bill McConaghy on trumpet, David Morris on tuba, Dan Ruccia on viola, and Chris Eubank on cello. From April, the quintet reunites Menestres, Bishop, Eubank, and Ruccia, adding Jacob Wick on trumpet. Each set runs about 30 minutes and highlights the players’ spirited, conversational improvisation. One of the thrilling elements of sextet | quintet is how, similar to some Ken Vandermark projects, there’s not always a noticeable center of gravity. Strings might skitter in horizontal movement, set against vertical brass lines. Or muted pops and slaps might speed across breath-like pauses. Occasionally, the tension of silence fuels the momentum that seems to drive each set forward.

Consider the mixed timbres of strings and brass, without the expected reed or percussion player. Towards the last statement of “1118,” Menestres plays a bowed line that could more typically fall to a tenor or alto saxophonist, while Eubank and Ruccia add a commentary that would be suited to a melodic player, such as Ches Smith or Chris Corsano. On the quintet set, Polyorchard seems to lean into the uncertainty of their sound world even harder, extended techniques and contrasting motion taking centerstage. Wick brings a fiery energy to the group. The result is a performance at least partially defined by its improvisation, by which voices are present when, by the room itself and the atmosphere of those present, but guided by Menestres’s deliberate attempts to push the limits of players’ boundaries.

I’ve enjoyed all of Polyorchard’s albums (as well as the periodic live show that’s appeared in the newsletter) partly because of the unknown factor: which band will I get this time. Again, think of Vandermark and his Stone sets or the Resonance box, with their rotating lineups of small groups. Menestres and his companions merge avant-garde with a kind of baroque (not in the historical sense) approach and performance. On past albums, they’ve presented various lineups and exciting, powerful shows. And on sextet | quintet, Polyorchard burns bright with possibility.


A conversation with David Menestres, with additional questions from Sammy Stein and Eyal Hareuveni

On Polyorchard’s sound world:
[It’s] definitely a mix between composed and structured music. Sometimes there is a basic structure, where I might hand out graphic scores with no introduction or explanation. Sometimes I like the bit of focus from a predetermined structure, which will kick you in a certain direction. That’s usually the goal for me, to arrive somewhere different, and this is part of having a larger group to pull from. It’s easy to be repetitive, even in free music.
A lot of the graphic scores I write, I write specifically to force myself to surprise myself. It’s a weird idea to intentionally try to confuse myself, [but] if you’re doing it properly, the ideal is you’re all composing on the spot, in the moment, and you’re responsible for yourself. In some ways, it’s the ideal form of anarchy: you’re working on your own individual level, on behalf of the group level. That level of freedom is terrifying to some people, especially if you want to do something that encompasses a lot of silence. It’s hard for me to sit there for 20 minutes.

On Polyorchard’s rotating lineup:
Some of it was just that I get bored easily. [Sometimes it’s] low strings and low clarinets, lots of really gorgeous wood, looking for a home. But we also did a set with Merzbow that was really loud and nasty. And I like that we can be all these different things. There’s a consistency to the level of music, even though the sound may differ from album to album.
And because life happens and none of this pays very well, part of the reason I set it up as a collective originally was practical reasons. If someone needs to drive like 150 miles roundtrip, well…

On Out & Gone Music:
Part of the reason we started Out & Gone is to help us pool resources. It was originally started by Dan Ruccia and Chris Robinson. And it widened out now, I’m in it, James Gilmore, Laurent Estoppey, and others. At the moment, we’re the only ones who have released albums, but there’s a wider group that’s involved.

On North Carolina and Dr. Eugene Chadbourne:
North Carolina’s always had a weird tradition of weirdness and outsider music, which can be traced back to bluegrass and piedmont blues. But for a while there’s been an experimental scene. There’s a nice undercurrent of things happen.

The real value of going to music school was meeting Eugene Chadbourne, because he was in Greensboro. He makes the music he wants to make, he has a good time doing it, all the things you’re not “allowed” to do. I would rather work a bullshit job and play the music I want to play. I make no money from making music, but at least it’s music that I want to play.

We were playing Sunday morning coffee shop gigs. And he came in, and I’d been hearing rumors of this guy who played guitar with a block of styrofoam. We would play Louis Armstrong songs, and he would sing as Louis Armstrong, as Bob Dylan. Then, we started playing gigs together. The first gig we played together was all Ornette and Monk tunes, and that was my real introduction to those guys. This was 2000 or 2001, because nobody really talks about Ornette Coleman in music school.

We’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship over the years. I don’t know quite how that came to be, every time he asked I said yes. I started organizing gigs, and he liked that. His idea of acceptable repertory is huge. He does Bach violin partitas on banjo, he plays Waylon Jennings, Sun Ra, Ornette, his originals. It’s nice to have someone who is open to all of this.

[Note: In addition to their many live performances together, Menestres, Ruccia, Eubank, and Bishop appeared on Bugs (The Neptune's Parlour Series Volume One) from 2013.]

On the thing nobody wants to talk about—money:
Everything comes out of my pocket, it’s funded by my day job. So far, everything’s been recorded cheaply in nice spaces. [To book] studio space, I need to apply for grants to afford that. It would cost $500 a day, maybe $1,000 for a single album that won’t make back its money. Everyone in Polyorchard basically works for free. We split the door, and a good night is one where you can cover bar tabs.

On motivation:
It’s this weird compulsion that sometimes feels like a mental illness. It’s what I do at this point in my life, and I like it and I enjoy it. You live in a pretty fucked up world, any way you look at it. But I feel like this is a small thing we can control, and for a few minutes we can make ourselves happy by playing this music. And for the few people who show up, hopefully they’re happier too.
For a while, it was cold and raining and miserable for all the gigs. I still managed to slog through and go, because the gig is the 30 or 45 minutes of fun. I’m a big fan of these punk set times, like 20 minutes tops. There’s always that moment at the free improv shows where it’s like, do you want to do one more?

Now, read Polyorchard, part II.