Umbrella Music Festival 2013 Day 4

Umbrella Music Festival 2013 Day 4
09 Nov 2013

Tipping the Hat, Leather and Petals: Day Four of the Umbrella Music Festival

Longtime playing partners and current UCSD faculty members Mark Dresser (doublebass) and Anthony Davis (piano) started the night off with duo versions of several tunes from each other’s extensive catalogs. I didn’t have very high expectations for this set as Dresser’s recent projects have stunk of an unfortunately typical academic tepidity. The thing is, though, he generates some extremely unique sounds from the bass, extracting an almost electronic double harmonic by seeming to pluck each string simultaneously in two places way up close to the instrument’s head. Wood creaking as a ship capsizes. The sounds are really interesting, I just can’t tell what he’s doing with them, whether he’s going through the motions, or I am. And hey, sometimes the music is right, but not right for you. I saw a trio of young women with lipstick and makeup excitedly taking pictures, clapping fervently, and leaning in as close as they could get to this set. And shortly after it was over, they left, seeming superfans for these two particular old dudes exclusively. Perplexing. But I’m glad it worked for some folks.

The set wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t compelling either. The campy comfort of thematic vacation-rental furniture: cartooned aquatic life on the couch cushions, sunglasses and surfboards on the bedsheets. Music doesn’t have to be revolutionary to get my attention, but I wasn’t in the mood for something so firmly polite, all the groceries fitting just right into two recyclable sacks, aww. Ugh. I tried to be a bird making a nest in this music, but I was never able to get that last lynchpin twig to fit.

Trumpeter Russ Johnson is a relatively recent transplant to Chicago; judging by this set, he’s found a special kinship here. The rhythm section of Tim Daisy (drums) and Anton Hatwich (doublebass) wove tightly together while moving so fast that every direction of these compositions felt secure and exciting. I loved Johnson’s writing, and I could imagine women across the city scrawling “Russ Johnson – a great guy and an even better lover!” on bathroom walls across the city. He mentioned that several of his tunes don’t yet have titles, and is taking suggestions, so here’s mine: the one that began with the muted trumpet solo and built out from Daisy’s single-chop funk cracks could easily be “The Thrill of Mint.” Bass clarinetist Jason Stein played a series of lines combining gorgeous, fully articulated pure notes with others that were bursting at the edge with growl, every release an animated––and animating––charge. The tune ended with the opening trumpet lines, now very very soft, and exquisitely bare mallet accents from Daisy. Such sure-footed composing and playing, with a bold group sound to match.

His “Number 5” I’d rename “Bouncing Back from the Third Rail,” its poised ricochets reminding the audience that bop is good, bop is nice, bop is here to stay. And breed. I heard a hearth of warmth and hospitality in this music, and it filled me with pleasure and self-esteem, grateful for the ability to appreciate such thoughtful sounds. With a smorgasbord of food in front of you, it’s nice to air the intuition and good sense to stop before you take that extra mouthful that would prove unnecessary.

AACM legend Amina Claudine Myers, playing piano, Hammond C-3 organ and singing, capped off the evening with a solo set. Her opening number on organ displayed an astonishing virtuosity in the service of profound evocativity. Long runs across the length of the keys evoked the psychedelic underpinnings to all spiritual force, while the rhythmic back and forth of the practically Jimmy McGriff-ish groove basted the room in funk and color. Like being in public and having your lover lean their head onto your shoulder, and it fits right in. Festival musicians and audience-members alike could be seen tapping their feet and shaking their head to these complex yet soulful and immediately accessible hymns.

She has a bluesy sound that I am not typically so attracted to, and when she emphasized that aspect more while playing piano, I lost something. In her composition entitled “God,” she sang many of God’s names then broke into speaking in tongues like a river of scat. I actually have a strong penchant for vocal music, but the pleading nature of these enunciations stretched too widely for my ears to be enfolded. She returned to the organ for the final number, and I was glad to hear the swirling spiritual ballast echo all the way from the hall to my pillow as my ear hit it, and I could say ‘goodbye’ to yesterday with bucolic gusto.

– Andrew Choate



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