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Review of Autumn Uprising, October 16-18, 1998
by Michael Rosenstein
originally appeared in the December 1998 issue of Cadence Magazine

Last year, Boston-based musician Dave Gross took it upon himself to organize a three-day festival of local improvisers. At the time, many of the local musicians were struggling with the disappearance of regular venues to play and a fragmented sense to the local scene. If there was any overriding goal to the first Autumn Uprising festival, it was to galvanize the community of local musicians working on the fringes. This past October, the festival (again under the guiding force of Dave Gross and aided by many of the musicians) celebrated its second anniversary with 17 performances over three days. It was fitting that again, the festival took place at Eliot Hall in Jamaica Plain, which is ostensibly the oldest community theater in the U.S. If the focus of this year’s edition changed at all, it was to broaden the scope of the fringes it drew from and to welcome a few musicians from outside Boston. The results played out over an exhausting three days, celebrating the diversity and tenacity of Boston-based improvisers.

With few places to play and nominal recognition, it is remarkable that groups manage to stay together over the years. But the handful of working units represented at this year’s festival showcased the results of dogged perseverance. Totem (Neil Leonard, as, el; Dave Bryant, el kbds; John Turner, b; Eric Rosenthal, perc; Curt Newton, d) delivered a set of freely lyrical intertwined abstractions. Leonard’s snaking alto extended melodic kernels, shadowed by a computer program, which he used to trigger sheets and fillips of electronics with his horn. Bryant’s hammered flurries and hyperactive torrents echoed or crashed against Leonard’s reeds, driven by Newton’s propulsive free rhythms and Rosenthal’s percussive colorings. Turner’s resounding bass acted as a solid anchor. The improvisations leveraged a tension between acoustic instruments and electronics, layering individual parts into intertwined density with pulsing momentum. Kobold (Steve Norton, rds; Tom Plsek, tbn; Craig Schildhauer, b; Laurence Cook, d) has been developing their collective approach to improvisation for several years now. Their performance offered a concentrated opportunity to hear their edgy blend of brooding energy, wry humor, lithe interaction, and propulsive flow. Trombonist Plsek (one of Boston’s unheralded masters) effortlessly sprayed swooping, whispering, and whinnying lines with masterful understated control against the darting linearity of Norton’s reeds. Cook and Schildhauer rounded things out with flayed, scrabbling bass and fragmented percussive fragments cobbled from a kit built around gongs, electric keyboard often played with mallets like a marimba, and rototoms. Norton’s reed playing, particularly his effective use of bass clarinet and baritone sax acted as a focal point for the churning free momentum.

Lowbrow (Jeff Song, cel, el b; Dean Laabs, tpt; Michel Gentile, flt; Curt Newton, d) and Cheap Suit (Peter Warren, g; Jeff Hudgins, rds; Mike Bullock, b; Newton, d) were more focused on the writing and improvisational organization of their leaders. Song’s pieces for Lowbrow provided warm melodious chamber-like lines for each player, effectively blending the warm woodiness of cello, Laabs’ round brassiness, and Gentile’s breathy flute, which was often tinged with the buzzing overtones of a shakuhachi. Newton utilized a subtle, delicate touch to propel the music with an open sense of flow. (He displayed remarkable diversity and adaptability in the various settings he played in throughout the festival.) With Cheap Suit, guitarist Warren has been evolving a group concept with pulse-driven improvisations built around rhythmic motifs. The current quartet features Hudgins’ rounded articulation paired with the guitarist’s jazz voicings and percussive phrasing colored with a burred rock edge. Their set unfolded as a suite that moved through a variety of rhythmic movements. Alto arced over a driving free pulse; soprano and guitar sidestepped over slowly modulating rhythms; and a section of flowing trios and duos emerged, featuring Hudgins’ clarinet stepping over Newton’s angular stabs with the delicacy of a cat. The four drove the set to a stirring conclusion, gathering momentum into a heated free squall. Saturnalia (Jonathan LaMaster vln; James Coleman, theremin; Vic Rawlings, cel; Mike Bullock, b; Tatsuya Nakatani, d; Liz Tonne, vcl) delivered a set of hushed microtones, harmonics, and wafting details that slowly morphed through sections of blocked densities, subsuming individual lines into a somewhat monochromatic collective voice.

Trio settings provided a fertile meeting ground throughout the festival. Impromptu changes in personnel brought an exciting edge to the Dull Thud Trio (James Rohr, p, cl; John Turner, b; Curt Newton, d.) Newton was brought in as a last-minute replacement, which seemed to set the music up a notch rather than to hold anything back. Rohr is an exciting young pianist, charting out a free approach to trio music that puts each player in an equal role. The three-way interplay between piano, bass, and drums was built from the pianist’s churning turbulence and jabbing lines that spilled across Turner’s bounding linear bass and Newton’s roiling cascades. One piece featured Rohr on clarinet, with crying, free, bluesy lines cracking and breaking over the spare free pulse of bass and drums. Their set was full of interchanges of clarity with precise free articulation and building insistent energy. The festival’s piano was problematic to begin with, and by final day, when the trio of Dan DeChellis (p), Tatsuya Nakatani (d, perc) and Phil Tomasic (g) appeared, it had little life left. Still, DeChellis managed a fiery set, switching back and forth from the acoustic instrument to an electric piano to drive the trio with massed clusters and hammered flurries. Their interplay was structured around the development and control of density and velocity rather than harmony and meter. The three developed a conversational counterpoint between the percussive pointillism of piano, broad swaths and scratched textures of electric guitar, and Nakatani’s voluble flurries ranging from quiet small instruments to battered salvos on kit. The trio of Bhob Rainey (ss), James Coleman (theremin), and Nakatani (d, perc) offered a stark contrast to the exuberance and density of the piano trios. Their set proceeded with a hushed formalism, quietly doling out microtonal improvisations of tiny details, modulating textures and overtones, and hushed nuances woven through with moments of almost excruciating silence. Rainey is a player who displays extreme control and thoughtful expression, showing increasing abilities with each performance.

The festival was extended this year with the invitation of musicians who had ties to the Boston scene in various ways. One of the highlights of the festival was a trio led by Sabir Mateen. The New York-based reed player has formed a working trio with Boston players John Voigt (b) and Laurence Cook (d) and their Boston debut was a set that built from driving intensity to searing splendor. In their hands, the tradition of Free Jazz sounded like a radical step. Mateen started on alto, shooting off lines tinged with shades of Jimmy Lyons and built with waves of energy over the driving pulse provided by Voigt and Cook. The bass player was the rhythmic anchor here, allowing Cook to open up his playing while still propelling the music with coursing momentum. Mateen played an extended section on clarinet, showing off an amazing control of the instrument as he leaped from round woody tones, to crying accents. After a section of lithe flute over lyrical arco bass and quiet brushwork, the set worked to a torrid conclusion, driven to bristling intensity by Mateen’s tenor playing. The three players displayed mature voices able to artfully shape the scope of extended free improvisations.

Reed player Jack Wright closed the first night with a solo performance of focussed power and intensity. With one piece each on alto, soprano, tenor saxes, and piano, Wright’s improvisations created a palpable presence, filling the large hall with improvisations of forceful control, and extended techniques that explored the entire range of his instruments. His leaping lines and emphatic phrasing was punctuated with stuttering percussive pops; muscular, vocalized growls; and braying blasts of overtones. At times, it seemed as if his horns could barely contain his playing, sounding as if they might explode at any moment. For the conclusion Wright was joined by Bhob Rainey (with whom he has struck up a friendship after playing together at various venues around the country over the last year) and trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum. The skittering lines of the two sopranos and trumpet joined into a unified mass, like hovering atoms joining into a molecule. Flurries and cries were passed from one to the other with free hovering chords forming as the three moved in and out of synch. Trumpet player Raphe Malik’s has long-standing musical roots in Boston where he lived for many years. On the closing night, he played a solo set, weaving together a sprawling personal narrative out of simple melodies and themes that drew from anthems, spirituals, blues, and the Jazz tradition. Though the set meandered at times, it was invested throughout with an emotional directness and passionate energy.

Improvised music in Boston has always had a place for musicians who skirt around the edges, defining themselves by their individualism. Woven throughout this years’ festival, were performances by musicians who presented sets that flew directly against convention, often incorporating a sort of DIY, dadaesque theatricality. Multi-instrumentalist Masashi Harada stuck to piano this year for a solo recital displaying a loquacious, abstract, romantic lyricism. His playing roamed in a spontaneous stream, wandering across shifting harmonic centers with a percussive attack. Percussionist Laurence Cook proved to be a multi-faceted cipher throughout the festival. His enigmatic solo opened the festival, which juxtaposed his brooding percussive thunder with tinny electronic drum pads, rattling chains, a contact-miked ride cymbal, and a mumbled monologue into a telephone. (This was a sharp contrast to the forceful drive he provided to Sabir Mateen’s trio.) Organizer Dave Gross assembled Thickmind (Gross, Jeff Hudgins, rds; John Voigt, b; Cook, d; Steve Norton, turntables, tapes, electronics) as an aggressive assault and theater-of-the-absurd that juxtaposed garrulous blowing with looping poems, samples, and sonic detritus. MamaShöe (Jeff Pooser, Matt Samolis, g, vcl) cobbled together a set of mutant cabaret that recast everything from American standards to Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” with skewed jump-cut irony. And there was even room for the sonic onslaught of Major Stars (Wayne Rogers, Kate Village, g; Tom Leonard, b; Dave Lynch, d) that rocked out with waves of feedback and swirling slabs of electric guitar that freely buffeted against the charging undertow of crunching rock rhythms.

The final set of the festival brought an apt close to the preceding three days. Mass Eye and Ear was started this last summer by the diverse members of the Boston improvisation community to develop a collective approach to free improvisation in a large ensemble setting. The 17 players (Bhob Rainey, Dave Gross, Jeff Hudgins, Jack Wright, Steve Norton, rds; Masashi Harada, flt; Mark Harvey, Taylor Ho Bynum, tpt; Tom Plsek, tbn; Hans Poppel, p; James Coleman, theremin; Vic Rawlings, cel; Kenta Nagi, g; Bob Ross, Mike Bullock, b; Curt Newton, Tatsuya Nakatani, d, perc) managed to effectively balance orchestral freedom and anarchic bluster for a long improvisation that grew out of quiet rolls of brewing percussive thunder to slowly mass into a churning wall of sound threaded with detailed layers of lines that would emerge and then flow back into the mix. Sections of players would gather in constantly changing formations as the piece developed a dynamic flow. The lack of a formal leader only became problematic in the final section, as the collective search for an ending became a bit of a meandering sprawl.

Over the past two years, the Autumn Uprising has proved an invaluable opportunity to catch up on new players, and to establish new bonds within the community. But in many ways, it is even more important to realize the galvanizing effect that the festival has had. Venues like the Zeitgeist Gallery are host to weekly concerts of local musicians; musicians organize special events in concert settings at a variety of places with growing regularity; and a number of musician-run labels have sprung up including Tautology, Sachimay, Day Job, Sublingual, and Twisted Village. One can bemoan the ongoing lack of support from local clubs and an audience that is often no more than a handful of people, but the momentum seems to be there. In a note in the festival program, Dave Gross said “Now, it appears that something is happening to make people aware of our music. This, I think, has led to a higher level of confidence among musicians here… Boston’s community of improvising musicians is experiencing a renaissance.” And musicians like Sabir Mateen, Jack Wright, and Raphe Malik prove that this renaissance is not just happening in Boston. Though the audience is still small and the exposure limited, this sense of independent artistic community celebrated throughout the festival, is still the vital force behind creative improvisation.

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