What happens when you take nine of the world's deepest improvisers, (four at UCSD--five at NYU), plus one forward leaning composer/conductor--outfit them with Star Wars level video and audio transmission capabilities--and turn them loose on three adventurous pieces composed specifically for that occasion?
Well, if you're lucky, what you end up with is what happened last night : Inspiraling Telematic Jazz Explorations was a huge success on multiple levels.
The San Diego ensemble, featuring Mark Dresser on contrabass, Michael Dessen on trombone, Nicole Mitchell on flute and Joshua White on piano constituted a righteous unit on their own--that they were joined, on the NY end, by saxophonists Oliver Lake and Jane Ira Bloom, trumpeter/vocalist Amir ElSaffar, cellist Tomas Ulrich, laptop artist Ikue Mori and conductor Sarah Weaver was icing-on-the-cake. Sumptuous, fulfilling and ultimately vital, icing on the cake that is.
The concert began with Ulrich bowing a declarative statement while Mitchell's flute joined as composer/trombonist Dessen's "New Flowers In Old Tracks," unfolded. ElSaffar's trumpet took a lead position, and his tart, grainy style reflected a Don Cherry approach. Dessen and Mitchell held long intervals while White set waves of crashing chords and powerful fragments in to motion. While the NY ensemble built long steady streams of oblique harmony, Mori's laptop erupted with chirping, sputtering iterations.
The ensemble drew down while White emerged, layering constantly shifting chromatic repetitions and jangling clusters into the air. Ulrich and Dresser combined for some somber arco melody making, and the horns from both coasts seesawed celebratory orchestral washes on top. Mitchell surfaced with some furious trilling and yelping vocalizations--defying the limitations of the flute--bending notes with wide and muscular vibrato and gurgling multiphonics. Dresser took over with a wild display of unexpected harmonics and jittery overtones, then flute and trombone combined for a gloriously tonal melody--one that beckoned equally joyful commentary from the East Coast improvisers.
The most challenging piece of the evening came next, Weaver's "en-s(o)," which began with both groups eliciting harsh intervals that raised the tension quotient. Despite the discordant nature of the harmonies, there was an organic component that made this piece flow-- its irregularity was like a desert wind--it came in gusts from unfamiliar angles that rippled like stones on a corrugated roof. Mori's laptop led for a brief section that sounded like jangling keys--or a lit fuse--then Mitchell came on, with wicked split-tones and curlicues of pure sound.
Bloom dazzled every time her soprano sax came to the fore--she has mastered the tone and timbre of her instrument, and her improvisations orbited around the efforts of her associates in equal measures of consonance and chirping mayhem. The ensemble engaged in long exchanges of moaning, sighing glissandi--then ElSaffar began a long and beautiful vocal improvisation utilizing the tight, undulating vibrato associated with Iraqi music.
Dresser opened up with some startling, asymmetrical "walking" bass lines that lurched and stutter-stepped along its own design --while White laid down some classical-sounding melodic variations over some sci-fi Mori laptop wizardry. Lake sprung forth with long strands of angular skeins and abrasive honks, and the other horns jumped into the fire--better to stir the boiling cauldron.
The finale, Dresser's sprawling "Nourishments" combined all of the music magic and technologic heroics into a tour-de-force of collaborative discourse. The melody began with an off-centered almost cabaret theme which yielded to a conjoined series of ostinati directed by the bassist which lit the path for the expanded ensemble.
The music was extremely balanced, in every possible sense throughout the evening. Everyone got a solo spot, but no one dominated. The sound was superb, it truly seemed that everyone was in the same room. The two video artists involved, John Crawford and Sarah Jane Lapp sampled various visual components from the groups of performers and, sometimes with serious manipulation sent them flashing across the ingenious screen locations devised by set designer Victoria Petrovich. On Dresser's piece the center screen was devoted to a short video by Lapp that fit the cinematic arc of the bassist's composition perfectly. While the musicians played, projected notes on staff lines of music manuscript paper morphed into dinner cutlery, and suddenly knives, forks and spoons danced across the screen in time to the music.
Dresser's tune broke down into wildly creative duets and trios featuring White and Bloom, Bloom, Dresser and Mitchell and Mori, Mitchell and Dessen .
There were moments of celebratory harmony that seemed as rich as a full orchestra, and spots where one musician would shine and sparkle.
The late, iconic tech-guru Steve Jobs would frequently wax poetic on the convergence of technology and art, and Wednesday's concert was a bold step in that direction.
photo of Joshua White, Nicole Mitchell, Michael Dessen and Mark Dresser by Vince Outlaw