Power Stronger Than Itself:
Photography: Lyssa Nielsen for The Guelph Jazz Festival
From its inception, the AACM’s mandate of creating community and fostering individual creativity has yielded music that is readily accessible to a general audience and music that requires considerable commitment on the part of the listener. Respectively, flutist Nicole Mitchell and woodwind pioneer Roscoe Mitchell represent what could be roughly described as the resulting populist and experimentalist wings of the AACM. They are also emblematic of the organization’s ongoing ability to attract and foster wave after wave of emerging artists. These aspects of the AACM’s history to date was brought out in bold relief at a double bill at St. George’s Anglican Church pairing the flutist’s Black Earth Ensemble and the AACM charter member’s first encounter with composer and Deep Listening avatar Pauline Oliveros.
Even though the sets were presented in the same building, they took place in markedly different spaces. The duo began the evening in the cavernous sanctuary, whose acoustics can either be a major asset or liability. For the Black Earth Ensemble, the audience moved to the aptly named Mitchell Hall, which is about the size of a elementary school cafeteria, replete with tables and a full-service, fully licensed kitchen, the most secular setting that can be achieved in a church. Subsequently, the same folks who sat in rapt attention, many with their heads bowed as in prayer, during the duo’s performance, laughed, ate Thai food, and drank beer and wine in Mitchell Hall.
Given her Deep Listening aesthetic, it was initially strange to see Oliveros behind a PowerBook that processed both Mitchell’s saxophones and her various “little instruments” (to use a term coined by AACM musicians in the 1960s). The output was distributed through eight speakers, two in front of the alter area where the musicians were seated, and rows of three on either side of the audience, which placed them in a sonic crossfire. Initially, Mitchell played long tones on soprano; barely pressuring the reed, he produced a phantom-like sound, particularly once they progressively morphed through Oliveros’ program and ricocheted around the space. Oliveros used her sound sources in a way that approximated counterpoint, in that they filled in the spaces created by delays and other effects. As Mitchell began to vary the timbre and duration of his tones, Oliveros’ program rendered a more discernable hall of mirrors-like effect.
Midway through the performance, Mitchell switched to alto, resulting in a heavier low end in the mix, which Oliveros countered with ethereal sounds generated from conch shell and voice, interspersed with jittery rhythmic cells created with a harmonica. Mitchell responded to the latter with rapid arpeggios, triggering an accumulation of sounds into an overwhelming mass, a potential threat to the music’s delicate balance. However, much to the duo’s credit, it was sustained with as much elegance of design as sheer force. This gave the inevitable wind-down an internal logic, as voice, bells and saxophone slowly regained discrete images in the mix as the volume was reduced to a whisper and then to silence.
The interval between the two sets at the double-headers at St. George’s is long enough for some beer, Thai food and talk. It’s a good hang that speaks well of the festival’s community-building mandate. The school multi-purpose room scale is perfect, and the presence of a small proscenium stage is a godsend. The food service area is across the hall, which usually keeps the ambient volume in the room at an oddly conversational level, given the presence of a couple hundred people. Filling the room does wonders for the house sound, while the stage curtains and wings absorb the stage monitors; subsequently, Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble could securely negotiate sudden dynamic shifts or simply red-line the intensity. Enough of the solemnity of the sanctuary set lingers in the audience for them to turn their full attention to the musicians when they take the stage, suggesting the Mitchell Hall scene to be the festival’s real feat in social engineering.
Ultimately, what made Black Earth Ensemble such a great match for the venue was their music. Beyond its sheer pleasures, their concert afforded the engaging brainteaser of considering the chicken-and-egg relationship between Mitchell’s wide-ranging compositions and the BEE’s exceptionally complementary voices. Few AACM groups have moved as effortlessly between as many sub-genres and spaces as BEE: Colson Unity Troupe is one that remains standing upon scrutiny. Taken in the aggregate, Mitchell’s compositions share a rigorous ecumenical perspective with Adegoke Steve Colson’s, in that at no time does she belie an stylistic preference or comfort zone to the diminishment of the other areas in which she works.
To this end, she has assembled what, on the basis of a single set, seems to be the perfect band. Tenor saxophonist/clarinetist David Boykins, guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Chad Taylor can deftly reference the modern jazz tradition with precise diction and emblazon free improvisations with small idiomatic jewels. Their abilities in these regards constitute a ground wire for Mitchell’s compositions. And a necessary one, given the frequent spikes resulting from their solos and interactions. Boykins has something of what makes Sonny Rollins great, a protean energy that is triggered by an associative processing of materials. Within a solo, Boykins can make vivid, even gripping, ecstatic, garrulous and magisterial asides while maintaining an overarching continuity of ideas. Parker has a similar capacity. Yet, it is expressed through in a surprisingly subdued manner, given that he plays an electric instrument and is capable of matching, if not surpassing Boykins on the decibel scale. This is not to suggest that Parker doesn’t boldly assert himself, but that he has no use for everything that is boorish in most guitarists. Abrams and Taylor are engaging soloists; however, the lasting impression they make in this setting is as a tandem, establishing, embellishing and redirecting the forward momentum of the music.
The set began with “Cause and Effect,’ which exuded the optimism of the progressive post-Coltrane jazz of the ‘70s. Built upon a driving vamp-hinged theme and a smoothly swinging B section, the tune’s old-school tip was buttressed by Parker’s use of tremolo. Despite their obvious differences in approach, Mitchell, Boykins and Parker all constructed solos that resolved short-lived harmonic tensions with clean-lined melody. It was a brilliant opener in the sense that it opened up the audience to more unusually structured pieces like “Symbology,” which places a bustling, motif-based opening section in apposition with a tranquil second part, highlighted by the blend of Boykins woody clarinet, Parker’s wah-wah, and Mitchell’s vocalizations. “Kyr” was a melding of the abstract and the Afrocentric, a gently morphing soundscape in which Mitchell sang and played the Ethiopian harp that is the piece’s namesake. These three pieces constitute something of an aesthetic tripod on which Mitchell’s music sits. The populist is balanced by the experimental; the American by the African. This provides Mitchell the ability to create music with a panoramic point of view.
Abrams and Taylor’s respective strengths stand out in bolder relief in Sticks and Stones, a trio led by alto saxophonist/clarinetist Matana Roberts, who identifies as an associate member of the AACM. Their afternoon concert at the Guelph Youth Music Center, a well-designed, 200-seat community-built space, placed the construct of populism and experimentalism in the AACM in a different light, largely through Roberts’ stylistic bearings. Roberts’ playing is something of a triangulation between the approaches of Ornette Coleman and Lee Konitz. Her tone is heavier than Konitz’s, and she often has a more visceral blues feeling places her in proximity to Coleman. However, she has a marked preference for the long smooth line that is Konitz’s calling card and she has little to no use for the exclamatory cries that punctuate Coleman’s statements. The clarinet is a decidedly second instrument, though she has real facility and an affinity for the likes of Jimmy Hamilton. Except for a lucid reading of “Isfahan,” the set was comprised of Roberts originals, which tend to have an even-tempered lyricism and the necessary pliancy to be stretched in various directions.
In this context, Abrams and Taylor withstand comparison to Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. They may not have the brilliant idiosyncrasies of the late greats – Abrams doesn’t muscle the bass like Hopkins and Taylor doesn’t quite have McCall’s distinctive spatter. But they are thoroughly in tune with each other and they unfailingly met the Air standard of being equals to the horn player, capable of carrying the music on their own. Taylor is rooted in the modern jazz tradition; owing more to Haynes than Roach, and more to Higgins than Blackwell (though there are occasionally flashes of the latter’s effervescence in his playing), Taylor has the rare gift of being substantive and unobtrusive at the same time. And, when he does move to the foreground, it is persuasive. Abrams strikes a good balance between countering Roberts with well-honed lines and fleshing out the rhythmic information supplied by Taylor, often letting the nature force of the instrument’s low end do most of the work. Throughout the set, even when Roberts is at her most torrential, they maintain the equilibrium that makes the Air comparison apt.
Despite the merits of these concerts, they were only preliminaries leading to the main event: the double bill of Art Ensemble of Chicago and a quartet consisting of woodwind players Douglas Ewart and Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Hamid Drake. Though the concert was held at the unostentatiously formal River Run Centre, whose rake and balconies make it seem much larger than an 800-seat theater, the event was not immune from the festival’s determination to educate. Unfortunately, a verbose MC and a rather generic montage of Lauren Deutsch photographs eulogizing three fallen AACM warriors – trumpeter Ameen Muhammad, best known for his work with Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble, as well as the AEC’s Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors Maghostut, -- made for a lengthy wait.
At the previous day’s Plenary Panel – “Ancient to the Future: Celebrating 40 Years of the AACM” – it was announced that Jarman was suffering from food poisoning and would not be coming to Guelph. This fueled speculation about a possible replacement in the quartet with Ewart, Smith and Drake (it was assumed that the AEC would go on as a quartet). It turned out to be Jeff Parker. Suddenly, instead of two horn-playing elders and two middle-aged veterans, there was now an even younger musician playing an electric instrument, creating what could be construed as a trajectory across sub-generations. It was a change that serendipitously supplied one of the evening’s real lessons.
In the process, Smith became the fulcrum of the ensemble. Smith has a rigorous approach to improvisation as the instant assessment of the moment and what one’s contribution should be to it, as distinguished from what one can do or wants to do, since the moment has its own requirements. He also adheres to the idea that laying out is a pro-active option that is as assertive as playing. These characteristics contributed to the music’s deeply mulled, occasionally stentorian tone. Ewart exerted a countervailing presence for most of the performance, his bassoon, wooden flutes and “little instruments” generating vivid colors. He also brought the type of razor-sharp humor that was one of the early hallmarks of the AEC into the performance with a poem about plants petitioning the US Supreme Court to force George W. Bush to change his name. Drake and Parker were generally deferential to Ewart and Smith for the general drift of the set, but their respective ears for detail were made evident through their responses to every shift of momentum and tone throughout an unassumingly compelling set.
During the intermission, Ewart graciously subjected himself to an onstage interview. He smilingly endured the convoluted questions, adeptly rejecting and revising their premises, and succeeding in being substantive and good-humored. Regardless of the elucidative intent of the exercise, it was terribly unfair to an artist who had just left it all on the bandstand.
The sight of Joseph Jarman taking the stage with the Art Ensemble approached the miraculous, given reports about his illness, His garb and face paint reinforced the iconic image of Jarman as warrior; only his reading glasses tipped his age and frailness. He stood ramrod straight as the Art Ensemble went through its pre-performance ritual of standing in silence, facing east, until a gong is struck. Often, that silence can seemingly go on forever. Arguably, there is a rough correlation between how long that silences lasts and how the performance takes shape. Generally, if the silence is short, odds are the AEC will come on fast and strong. Of all the performances I’ve heard over nearly thirty years, the preparatory silence of the Guelph concert was the shortest and their initial salvo was ferocious. The short jolting theme launched a reassuringly strong Jarman tenor solo. Though it did not have the explosive power of his early work, it nevertheless had a determined focus and a brawn that is closer to pre-Fire Music tenors like Booker Ervin and Eddie Harris.
Corey Wilkes was up next, and delivered a solo that should forever remove “new” or any other qualifier from reference to the trumpeter’s AEC membership. Not only did he display a thorough understanding of Lester Bowie’s distillation of the jazz trumpet tradition, he applied it with the forcefulness of a Hannibal Marvin Peterson. Whenever Bowie got out on a limb, chops-wise, he could always rely on a smear of a bleat if his intonation or attack failed him. A technical juggernaut, Wilkes uses such devices solely as an aesthetic choice. Most importantly, there’s a spirit to his playing that was obviously inspired both Roscoe Mitchell, who then stepped up with a blistering statement that punctuated streams of notes with plangent cries, and Famoudou Don Moye, who was simply masterful throughout the concert.
The music downshifted into a collage, with Jarman playing birdcalls, conch shells and percussion, and Wilkes squawking softly. It may be a well-worn path for them, but the AEC nevertheless creates extraordinary momentum using tactics that leave many ensembles hopelessly mired. The fragments soon coalesced into long tones and sinewy melodies stated by Jarman on clarinet and Mitchell on soprano, supported by Moye’s brushwork and the arco bass lines of Jaribu Shahid, whose tenure with the AEC is even shorter than Wilkes’. Whereas the late Malachi Favors Maghostut provided a Wilbur Ware-like foundation, Shahid’s sense of bottom and line is more rooted in Paul Chambers.
Jarman’s “Lifetime Visions (For The Magnificent Human)” emerged unobtrusively from this soundscape. Initially, Jarman sang the tranquil melody accompanied only by bells. Heat was slowly applied in a subsequent Jarman-Moye flute-congas duet until a tumultuous, circular breathing-fueled Mitchell alto statement ripped off building until the lid. He was soon enjoined by Jarman’s screaming soprano and Wilkes’ riveting trills. As the music approached the boiling point, Jarman laid down on the stage, pumped his legs in the air as if pedaling a bicycle, while continuing to play tenor and little instruments. In the meantime, Mitchell and Wilkes both began to play two horns simultaneously, creating a bracing mass of sound.
When all hell seemed certain to break loose, Shahid and Moye triggered a killin’ funk groove and the AEC launched into Mitchell’s rollicking “Big Red Peaches.” If there was any doubt that Wilkes is jazz’s next rising trumpet star, it was dispelled by his final solo, which referenced Lee Morgan’s tangy soul-jazz, Freddie Hubbard’s full-bore hard bop and a whole bunch of stuff that is clearly his own. Steadily, the AEC ramped up a mighty crescendo and then plunged into “Odwalla,” the initially soft-spoken anthem that is stoked over the course of several choruses to a simmer. Usually, “Odwalla” ends the evening; but on this occasion, the AEC played a short encore, a slightly melancholy, sing-songy tune, the type Mitchell occasionally pens. It was, in fact, William Parker’s “Malachi’s Mode.”