Review of Autumn Uprising, 1997
by Michael Rosenstein
originally appeared in the December 1997 issue of Cadence Magazine
Thirty-three years after Bill Dixons October Revolution, musicians banded under the categories of Free Jazz, spontaneous improvisation, or new improvised music are still struggling to find an audience. The struggle is compounded for local musicians, who have to fight against the notion that out-of-town headliners are somehow superior. For three days this last October, a series of concerts in Boston, titled Autumn Uprising, proved to the lucky folks who ventured out, that Boston has both a venerable tradition of creative improvised music, and a group of world-class musicians. Most of the 14 ensembles and 57 musicians represented over the three nights are used to playing in Boston in storefront galleries, bookstore basements, and odd loft spaces to audiences of a small handful of people. Local reed player David Gross assembled and produced the event to provide a spotlight for the players and to provide a focus on the quality and diversity of music being produced on a regular basis. The adventurous series, set in a large, open auditorium, offered a chance to hear from players who have been active in the Boston area for over three decades; a literal A (Aardvark Jazz Orchestra) to Z (Eric Zinman) of the local scene.
The first night kicked off with a performance by the Eric Zinman Trio (Zinman, p; Craig Schildhauer, b; Laurence Cook, d). The three built from the scraping of piano strings, scrubbed bass overtones, and stuttering drums. They wove spare hammered notes full of sharp-edged clusters and pummeling runs with buzzing swarms of bass overtones and Cooks spare, focussed propulsive freedom. The set extended over three long improvisations, finishing with a piece of quiet turbulence, which slowly gathered energy to dissolve into the vaults of the high open ceiling.
While just a trio, Fully Celebrated Orchestra (Jim Hobbs, as; Timo Shanko, b; Django Carranza, d) hit with a force and energy of a unit many times its size. Over the course of a thirty-minute set of concentrated fervor, Hobbs tore off phrases with a heated ferocity, his keening cry diving over the loose pulse of Shanko and Carranza. His fervent lines propelled the trio, drawing bass and drums along in his wake. Shankos fat tone and prodding lines anchored the rhythms here, while Carranzas ragged drumming danced around the meter with wanton abandon.
While most of the festival participants presented regularly working ensembles, one of the true highlights was a spontaneous collective improvisation between Joe Morris (g); Neil Leonard (as); Hans Poppel (p); and Jerome Deupree (d). Though Morris is now gaining an international reputation, his groups and collective projects have been a high point of the Boston scene for the last two decades. Always looking for challenging settings for his music, he spearheaded this performance. The four voices melded together as lines were collectively started and passed from one to the other. This was improvisation about listening at the highest level. Morris would start a phrase, and before he could complete it, Poppel had grabbed it and spun it off in an angular tangent. Leonards round, insistent legato played off percussive piano lines spattered against clipped guitar runs. Deupree responded with tuneful restraint, punctuating the musics flow, or playing around the odd phrases. It took the four a bit to adjust to the quirky acoustics of the room, which tended to swallow the high end and create a boomy quality to the low end. The room ended up being a fifth participant, often joining guitar and piano into one voice, as Morris scraped cascades and pouncing runs seemed to draw out sympathetic harmonics and chiming overtones from the piano.
The evening finished with the churning maelstrom of Dennis Warrens Full Metal Ensemble (Warren, d; Raphe Malik, tpt; Tor Snyder, g; Mike Sealey, g; Steve Walton, b). Maliks clarion trumpet cut through the massed wall of electric guitars and booming bass, driven by Warrens thundering, insistent tattoos. The single long improvisation offered massed textures and momentum slashed in broad strokes which became a bit monochromatic and overwhelming.
Starting in the late afternoon, the Masashi Harada Trio (Harada, d; Bhob Rainey, ss; Mike Bullock, b) played a series of three improvisations that built from quiet overtones to crashing waves and percussive salvos. Haradas small drum kit filled out by bongos, frame drum, chimes, gongs, cymbals, and bells shaped and guided the pulsing free collective improvisations. Raineys twisted, swallowed lines seemed to erupt mid phrase, dancing over the percussive force of Bullocks bass. At times their improvisations became a fit diffused, but overall, they created a music about gesture and the physicality of sound.
Another highlight was pianist Hans Poppels Trio (Poppel, p; Nate McBride, b; Curt Newton, d) set of angular atonal melodicism, full of cascading runs and filigreed detail. Poppel is a phenomenal player who moved to Boston from Munich in the late 80s, but is just now starting to establish a local presence. The pianists torrential flurries and architecturally blocked clusters joined with McBrides darting lines and Newtons tuned cascades for propulsive improvisations. Each of the independent voices in the trio participated equally in music of muscular delicacy shaped by a three-way, dynamic push and pull.
After an hour-long dinner break, the evening performances began with a set by Leap of Faith (Dave Pek, bsn, bari s, ts, cl, b cl, contra b cl; Glynnis Lomon, cel; Craig Schildhauer, b; Syd Smart, d). Peks range of low reeds wove around the low strings and shadings of light, limber percussion to create improvisations of open, free pulses full of dark churning colors. Peks swooping and stuttering runs and the amplified electric crackle of Lomons keening arco and sliding glissandos played against Schildhauers dark, woody, buzzing drones, pummeling pizzicato, and sawed overtones. Smart, a leading figure in the Boston improvisation scene for over two decades, deftly shaped the improvisations from behind his kit with implied pulses and shifting layers building momentum and density.
The Larry Roland Ensemble (Roland, b; Raqib Hassan, ts; Waldron Ricks, tpt; Rumas Barrett, d; Syd Smart, d.) masterfully represented Boston's Free Jazz loft tradition. Their set started with a slow groove of coursing polyrhythms on congas and hand percussion, which built with heated energy. Rolands full-toned, bounding bass lines and the thundering power of dual drummers delivered a rolling energy of palpable force. Hassans gruff-edged, crying incantations filled with honking blasts and overblown frenzy was countered by Ricks clear round tone and pealing lines built of sort, insistent phrases. The music featured a quiet interlude where Roland chanted a poem over roiling percussion, celebrating the force of music, and concluded with a searing bass/tenor, drums trio.
Over the past ten years the band Debris has been honing its quirky, individual blend of skronking improvisation, composition, and all points in between. This performance was their first as a reeds-based quartet (Jeff Hudgins, rds; Steve Norton, rds; Bob Ross, el b; Curt Newton, d) and the absence of guitar opened up their sound and changed the focus of their music. The arrangements intertwined the four players in song-like themes and snaking melodies. The two horn players negotiated the hair-pin turns, propelled around quirky meters, free grooving rhythms, staggering stomps, and open dub shuffles by Ross melodic 6-string electric bass and Newtons dancing, tuned drumming. They were clearly working out arrangements for the new group dynamic, but this is a band that has always grown from its changes.
Reed player Joe Maneris fame has finally begun to spread beyond Boston, through his recordings on Leo, ECM, and HatArt. His trio (Maneri, ts, cl; Mat Maneri, el vln; Randy Peterson, d.) closed the second night of the festival with a set of dark, brooding pieces tinged with a sense of pensive sadness. For most of the set, Maneri stuck to tenor, his sliding microtonalities filled with a vocal edge. He took simple themes and stretched them through variations and restatements; his phrases shaped by flowing breath, pausing and breaking off at odd angles. Mats 6-stringed violin filled both melodic counterpoint and bass voice. His lines drifted into the tenor themes, then seemed to arc off only to snap back at the last moment. Petersons drums played around the meter, perfectly synched with the other two while serving to define the speech-like phrasing. The set ended with Maneri on clarinet, starting from hushed short phrases and building to a cascading, joyous wail.
Bassist John Voigt has been an avatar of creative music in Boston since the late 50s, resolutely exploring music on the fringes with local luminaries like Mark Harvey, Laurence Cook, and Lowell Davidson as well as on the international scene with Bill Dixon and Jemeel Moondoc. The Bowed Metal Ensemble (John Voigt, b; Carolyn Wilkins, vcl; Greg Kelley, tpt; Matt Samolis, Peter Warren, bowed metal objects) extended improvisation into performance, ritual, and theater. The visual focus was on the bowed metal object, an invented instrument with a large sheet of metal, which acts as a resonator as steel bars and cymbals mounted on it are bowed. The atmospheric improvisations hung in the air as Wilkins free scat vocals and plaintive wails, and Kelleys trumpet fillips and smears floated over the buzzing bowed metal overtones and Voigts resounding bass lines. The long improvisation proceeded at a slow pace, gradually gathering density and spatial depth.
Though sharing the same bass player and drummer as the Poppel trio on Saturday, the Pandelis Karayorgis Trio (Karayorgis, p; Nate McBride, b; Curt Newton, d) showed just how different piano trios can be. Where Poppels trio dealt in collective abstraction, Karayorgis worked from angular compositions that bring to mind free extensions of Monk and Nichols. The pianists splayed clusters and looping sinuous runs pulled flowing lines from free harmonic development. McBride responded with resonant lines that worked from the kernel of the pianists themes, extending them into darting melodic comments. Newton built tuned comments around pianists driving momentum, pulling apart off-center rhythms and reassembling them into free swing. The result was a captivating collective synthesis.
The Charlie Kohlhase Quartet (Kohlhase, as, bari s; Matt Langley, ts; John Turner, b; John McLellan, d) hit with a vengeance, barreling through a set of the leaders quirky themes with a focussed stampeding energy. Insistent heads were tossed back and forth between bari and tenor over Turners pummeling bass and McLellans thundering fusillade. Kohlhase moved back and forth between bari and alto, ripping off wailing solos full of wild fiery passion. Langleys hoarse tenor cut broad swaths, anchored in the pedal points of the odd meters. The set ended with a blistering romp as the two horns started from a unison theme and ripped it apart into heated improvisations.
The festival ended with a rousing performance by Mark Harveys Aardvark Jazz Orchestra. Harvey has provided a focal point for Boston both as presenter and organizer, and as leader of Aardvark Orchestra over the last 25 years. His writing for Aardvark draws on the entire history of big band writing, from Ellington on, all shaped by a searching modernist sensibility. The 16 instrumentalists were arranged across the stage in a large arching semicircle, with reeds and brass intermingled. Harvey built and blocked out orchestral forms like a painter building abstract layers out of scumbled and blended colors. Themes twisted in and out as lead voices emerged from the mix. Harvey constantly picked up on threads from individual voices and wove them back into the blustering mass for a music of wit and controlled energy, along the way delivering some searing trumpet lines himself.
After being immersed over the three days of the festival, there was no question of the diversity and quality of adventurous music based in Boston. Speaking to Dave Gross after the festival, he was exhausted but optimistic about trying to make this a yearly event. Bringing together the music community has already had an effect, as musicians who hadnt previously known each other were introduced, and (if only for a quick minute) the musicians got some well-deserved visibility. The Boston Autumn Uprising drew on the spirit of Dixon and his festival, which was appropriate, as many of the players studied with him and Milford Graves at Bennington before moving to Boston. Like that festival, everyone proved that personal, idiosyncratic improvisation is not only alive, it is thriving.