Umbrella Music Festival 2013 Day 5
10 Nov 2013
Erotic Flares, Beastly Zen: Day Five of the Umbrella Music Festival
The duo of Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet/tenor sax and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on doublebass graced Constellation’s main room to begin the final night of the festival. A large room, with dark-stained wood, I liked how closely they stood next to each other despite the open, available space around them. Longtime musical partners, these two made this unique instrumental combination seem basic, obvious. I heard a Rollins-like sense of rhythmic phrasing from McPhee that I hadn’t noticed before, and was wooed by how seductive his tone is without being sleazy or sentimental.
At one point in their improvisations McPhee played a short R&B-ish sequence from his classic Nation Time that segued into a single note synchrony with Håker Flaten. After the fifth repetition of the note they both knew it was time to augment the sequence, and did it with driving bluster. They didn’t have to look at each other to signal the change: it was clear in the music and in their relationship. That’s the level of intimacy and comfort these two share: more than understanding: complete communion.
I also heard Johnny Dyani’s sense of soaring flight from Håker Flaten’s doublebass, which he compounded with the most delicate landings. The relief of homecoming and the reappraisal of home vs. all the other possibilities. The music made me think of the strain and harmony of making all the right decisions and not being materially rewarded, but instead gaining peace with oneself–– however coarse, however questioning, however constantly negotiated––and how much more valuable that is. A lush spikiness of bristly, blistered tendrils swept across my body from Håker Flaten’s strings. As a duo, these two move instantly and naturally between the loud and the soft, making it appear that there is no contrast between these realms.
McPhee put so much tension into the pads of his tenor that the notes bled in a way that had the effect of Roland Kirk’s multiple-horns-at-once action. Håker Flaten took a solo featuring muted plucking that sounded like an envelope swish, building into a sequence using the click and clack of string against wood just as much as the resonance of the chamber. When McPhee entered demurely with clicking pads and inquisitive flares, Håker Flaten had to snap a string hard against the neck of the instrument to amp up McPhee’s intensity, which boiled immediately. They have so much to say, not to each other, but with each other, that even after playing for 45 minutes it seemed like they were just getting started. When someone you love breaks something, there is laughter; when a stranger does it, anger. But sometimes it’s the exact opposite: forgiving the stranger more readily because we expect nothing from them, and resenting the lover because we expect so much. This was music for getting better at navigating the spectrum of our responses. Spine.
The finale of the festival featured a ten-piece band (eight from Chicago, two from Holland) playing Duke Ellington’s music. Here’s the lineup:
Eric Boeren – cornet
Josh Berman – cornet
Nick Broste – trombone
James Falzone – clarinet
Greg Ward – alto saxophone
Cameron Pfiffner – tenor saxophone
Ken Vandermark – baritone saxophone
Paul Giallorenzo – piano
Wilbert de Joode – doublebass
Mike Reed – drums
Have you ever been in a room with ten high-caliber musicians playing Ellington? My god it sounds good; it gets right into your joints, your soul, your frolic zone. What is there about this music that satisfies even the most demented quest for expressing the extremities of the human condition? That’s rhetorical, cuz the music surely ain’t.
They opened the set with “Such Sweet Thunder.” Of course. Because that’s what music is to Shakespeare. So lively while containing darkness. There’s a tapping-into that this music does, somehow nurturing that all-elusive, ample-but-succinct vitality that comes from the knowledge of our inevitable catastrophe, death. Drummer Mike Reed made the most seemingly simple cymbal crashes meaningful, following them with soft yet chewy flourishes on the toms while the band throbbed on. Giallorenzo had the difficult task of playing Ellington’s piano parts, but the responsibility that comes with that assignment seemed to inspire him to find more of himself while playing someone else’s music. Falzone’s clarinet playing also stood out to me, as he channeled the plaintiveness, desperation, and glee that mark the origins of jazz in all its facets. Not only that, he incorporated the advances of contemporary tonalities, feeding the music with present-day weight.
If I had a criticism of the performance, it would be a desire to hear more re-imagining of this music and less re-creating of it. Of course, if they had done that and not succeeded, I would have asked why they had messed with it. Catch-22. Or its opposite: all tacks toward this music carry inherent value. Ken Vandermark made the most significant effort toward pushing this music forward during a baritone solo that unleashed a surprisingly machinic whirr, an hydraulic agglomeration making you feel every curve of the instrument and the complex industrial processes that make its manufacturing possible. It was also beautiful. And alien. A properly contemporary contrast that was more fitting to the spirit of Ellington than a traditional rendition.
A lovely section featured all the brass plugging away in perfect time with the rhythm section, everyone hitting the downbeats as definitively as a turtle-snap. And amidst the most languid seduction too. A compact clasped shut before a much-anticipated date. Nick Broste played trombone like someone trying to tell you he loves you: a little embarrassed and also a little proud because he’s so openly vulnerable.
I say “Ellington.” I say “love.” I am equating Ellington with love. And I know what I mean by each of those words, but everybody’s got a different experience of them. And we continue to try to talk about the same thing. I loved this set––it was fun, affirmative, and luxuriously gorgeous. A ravishing festival, my oblivion finally adequately caressed.
– Andrew Choate