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Friday, August 28, 2009

Dave Bryant and friends at the Outpost

For some reason, as I listened to the amazing sounds coming from keyboardist-composer Dave Bryant and his band Thursday evening at the Outpost 186 in Cambridge, I felt the presence of Adorno.

Theordor Adorno (1903-1969) was a German-born philosopher, musicologist, and composer. He was an advocate of modernist music. He was part of Schoenberg's circle, and studied music composition with Alban Berg. He was not a fan - at least initially - of American music. In 1936 he scripted an infamous essay for the journal Zeitschrift titled "On Jazz" ("Über Jazz").

Adorno viewed the United States as a cultural wasteland in which people's minds and opinions were formed by "the music of slaves." Über Jazz was a polemic against the influence of the commercial entertainment industrial complex. Popular music was in his view the product of a repressive system by which record executives exercised total control over the market and dictated to society in precise terms what it should consume. According to him, pop music standardized culture and created a commodification of artistic expression. In a nutshell, Adorno thought that American music is the "worst of worst" of commercial inventions, designed solely for the purpose of profit and financial gain.

If Adorno could have been there last evening, I think he would have changed his views about American jazz. Watching Dave Bryant perform with his collaborators was inspiring on many levels. It is complex. It is largely improvised, and it is as rich and rewarding as any work of fully-notated new music that we might hear in concert at a classical music venue. It is art music. It is also non-commercial, uniquely American. Most important, it stems from - and is inspired by - "the music of slaves." Adorno was flat out wrong, at least about American jazz.

Assisted by Tom Hall on tenor sax, John Voigt on electric string bass, and Eric Rosenthal on drums, Bryant has devised a system of musical expression that captures the energy of the universe and redirects it back to the listener with laser precision and expressive clarity. He manages to put order to chaos, and uses chaos to create larger structures of musical form.

Before the musicians sat down to begin their initial set, one of them joked about the NASA-like configuration of Bryant's synthesizer equipment. They wondered if he would be exploring the rings of Saturn. Then everyone plugged in, turned on their amps, and blasted off.

The set began with the tune "Sleeprunners." Bryant started off with an introductory solo which rapidly shifted gears between divergent modes and key centers. Then drummer Eric Rosenthal injected a grid of incisive rhythm, and the band was off.

Tom Hall really ripped on his tenor sax solos, drawing upon synergistic energy from his fellow band members. Hall has performed with "Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet" and "Club d'Elf". He is a long-time friend of Bryant, but this is the first time they have collaborated musically.

Bassist Jon Voigt is a musician that I first met at Berklee in 1973. Back in those days he had a split personality: On one hand he was a soft spoken and mild-mannered music librarian wearing a black turtle-neck sweater. On the other hand he was a raving avant garde-inspired musical anarchist subversively plotting revolution. He was one of the few people at Berklee who understood where I was coming from and sympathised with the aesthetics of new music - in all of its constantly evolving guises. Jon volunteered to play bass in a piece of mine, but unfortunately I had second givings about its' musical value after conducting the first rehearsal, and canceled the scheduled performance. He was a good sport about it.

Now retired from Berklee after nearly 30 years of library work, Voigt is hitting his musical stride. His bass playing is simply awesome. Watching Voigt in action, I noticed that his right hand often attacks his instrument like a crazed spider on LSD. His rapid-fire arpeggios and walking bass action provide both support and inspiration to his colleagues. I was shocked to learn that Voigt is 70 years old. It's impossible. They guy is a walking repository of Beat-culture and a staunch ambassador for the merits of artistic chaos. It's an honor to be in a room with him.

Dave Bryant, the leader of the pack, is a certified bebop-on-steroids player. At least two of the tunes the group performed in the first set are featured on his CD "The Eternal Hang." It's available commercially on Accurate Records (AC-5035) and can be digitally downloaded from Amazon. Bryant is a unique musical phenomenon, and has to be seen to be believed. He finds the notes to play, real time, from within - and rarely plays a wrong one. I have no idea how he does it, shifting between several different planes of musical discourse while interactively cherry-picking the best ideas from each. You can hear elements of traditional jazz interspersed with 20th and 21st century harmony, cross-references, internal associations, embedded quotations, and occasionally a light-hearted digression of playful doodles.

Bryant developed his chops over the course of a decade playing in Ornette Coleman's band Prime Time. He continues to bring music to new levels, and is constantly exploring the range and possibilities of free jazz.

After the ballad "Little Back Dress" (also on the Accurate Records CD) the band ended the first set with Bryant's tune "Years Per Minute." He got the title from an old EC Comics science fiction story by Harvey Kurtzman, and it was fast. Really fast!

"Years Per Minute" was transcending. It took me to places that I didn't know existed. As my life flashed by in front of me at warp speed, I thought, "Adorno, are you listening?"


The Outpost is located at 186 1/2 Hampshire Street in Inman Square, Cambridge (follow walk on left to the Gallery in back).

Dave Bryant is scheduled for a return show at the Outpost on Monday September 14th at 8 PM ($10 or B/O).