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Monday, October 27, 2008

Concert Review: Dave Bryant Quartet

So called "free jazz" has always been something close to my heart. As a teenager in the late 60's and early 70's I'd hop on the commuter train and head into NY city with my friend and musical associate Floyd to get our musical fix. We ventured into standard and obscure jazz venues all around the city. For example I remember the hearing a young Dave Liebman at a mid-town loft, Don Cherry in the East Village (a concert attended by poet Allen Ginsburg), Yusef Lateef at Slug's, The Bill Evans Trio at the Village Vanguard, Carla Bley with the Jazz Composers Orchestra at Cami Hall on 57th Street, composer/arranger Gil Evans run through some new pieces at the artist colony Westbeth (with my guitar teacher Steve Khan playing in the orchestra), and violinist Leeroy Jenkins uptown at the Harlem Music and Arts Center.

I would also take home stacks of albums from the NY Public Library at Lincoln Center, and listen to contemporary classical works (e.g. Ives, Bartók, Schoenberg, Varese, Carter), and some really "far out" experimental jazz recordings too. There was a lot of cross fertilization happening between the avant garde movements of jazz and composers from the classical tradition. Gunther Schuller actually created a whole new movement called "Third Stream" that epitomized the fusion of these two musical worlds. In a way, both jazz and classical composers were flirting with the same ideas, as if there was a common goal or a need to express the same violent outrage. Charlie Parker and Edgard Varèse greatly admired each other. Before them it was George Gershwin and Alban Berg who grooved on each other's works. This cross-fertilization continues even today.

One record that I borrowed from the library in the 60's was by avant garde pianist Burtan Greene. Greene played the piano - inside and out, and would actually climb inside of the instrument to bang on the strings with a felt percussion mallet. It wasn't clear if he was a "jazz" or "classical" musician, but ultimately it didn't matter. The recording also featured a female singer who would respond to his rather violent improvisational gestures with a kind of singing that resembled the guttural screaming of a tormented psychotic. As I'd play this recording at home at high volume, my mother (who was trained as a singer in the bel canto operatic tradition) was rather perturbed. This only made me more interested in this rouge and dangerous music. In the "six-degrees-of-separation" category of life, it would turn out that my future wife Willemien would be Greene's neighbor in an apartment building in Amsterdam.

Later when I studied music in Boston, jazz pianist Cecil Taylor (who had attended the New England Conservatory) came to Berklee to meet with students for a colloquium. It was great to meet Taylor, whose intense and personal brand of "atonal" piano playing attempts to synthesize elements from a lot of diverse influences. Taylor plays like a bull in a China shop.

But I think that my very first exposure to free jazz was in a 1967 album by Ornette Coleman titled "Out of the Foxhole." My brother Larry had found it somewhere. I can't explain it even today, but the way that the music holds together without relying on any of the obvious traditional rules of order is an important lesson of music and life. Coleman's playing and his associated compositions are fascinating to listen to. They have a magic and spirit that forces the listener to get involved and participate in the process mentally, and in real-time. It's not mainstream music for the masses by any means, but something about it clearly perks my sonic imagination and makes me smile from ear to ear with delight. At its best, free jazz contains the rawest elements of the essence of musical expression. Composers of fully notated contemporary musical compositions can learn a lot from the visceral energy and loosely constrained musical chaos of free jazz. The result in live performance can be hit or miss, but when it hits - it hits really hard. That's the nature of improvisation. It's risky business, but the payoff can be extraordinary.

So it was with great pleasure and a sense of personal nostalgia that I attended a concert by Dave Bryant (on keyboards), Neil Leonard (reeds and electronics), Jane Wang (amplified acoustic bass), and Curt Newton (drums and percussion) at Zeitgeist's Outpost 186 in Inman Square in Cambridge Saturday night.

I can report that "Free Jazz" is alive and well in the hands of these talented musicians. It appears that this brand of jazz has survived and evolved fully from its' initial period of infancy and experimentation in the 1960's. It's incredible for me to think of "free jazz" as a now standard music genre with a dedicated following of supporters. It clearly has an established performance practice and has been adapted into the curriculum of major music schools (e.g. Bryant teaches his craft at the prestigious Longy School of Music).

The group began their set with an untitled composition by Neil Leonard. Unfortunately we were a little late and missed the beginning, but it is a work that flirts with tradition without adapting it. Leonard plays the sax with a full-range of expressive power and color. He can find the right notes at the right time, and interacts with not only members of the band and his electronics, but the audience at large.

The second piece, entitled "Check Your Lid" by Dave Bryant stems from the Bebop tradition. It has a tight quirkly tune at its head and reminds me a little of his mentor and former band-leader Ornette Coleman. (Bryant played in Coleman's band for about a decade). It's not surprising that Bryant inherited some of Coleman's musical sensibility and creative energy. He plays with ferocious tenacity, and has more than ample technique to back it up. I found his solos to be physical, imaginative, convincing, and the expression of an unapologetic modernist. Yet, it is clear that jazz is at the core of Byrant's roots, as he often lapses purposely into musical fragments that are connected to - and stem from - his traditional background.

The third piece was an open improvisation that featured everybody, including Jane Wang on bass and Curt Newton on drums. Everyone got a chance to solo alone, and real-time sound processing from software and hardware controlled by Leonard with his Macintosh notebook allowed them to interact with their own playing as well - especially Bryant, who's solos began to reflect on and respond to the content of his previous gestures and utterances.

Jane Wang played on an amplified acoustic bass, and was very skilled in exploiting various extended bass techniques to achieve her musical goals and objectives. Her technique draws upon not only pizzicato and bowed notes, but non-pitched percussive sounds which support the ensemble and underline musical process. She would at times tap with a percussion mallet on the strings and wood to make her bass speak.

Curt Newton contributed significantly to the overall sound scape by playing sensitively on the drums with an assortment of implements as strikers. He used drum sticks, fingers, brushes, and at one point whacked his instrument with a piece of cloth. I noticed that he played the spaces as well as the notes - meaning that he understood the power and musical significance of silence.

This was the second of a new series of concerts curated by Bryant and held monthly at Outpost 186. Last month renowned tabla player Badal Roy appeared as a special guest artist with his group. We look forward to future events by Bryant and his ensemble, who dedicate themselves to the long-established tradition of playing free jazz.

Dave Bryant – keyboards
Neil Leonard – reeds and electronics
Jane Wang – bass
Curt Newton – drums

Saturday, October 25, 2008
Outpost 186
186 1/2 Hampshire Street
Inman Square