Saturday, July 24, 2010

Roundup of Recent Live Music, Part Two

Marty Ehrlich (4 Altos) at The Stone

I'd been wanting to catch Marty Ehrlich live for some time, especially after reading about him in Point From Which Creation Begins, the history of St. Louis' Black Artists Group, the crucible/wellspring for so much of the most vital creative music of the '70s and '80s.  BAG has often been overlooked in the shadow of Chicago's AACM, with which it was allied, but if you start tracing its influence and look at all that its members went on to do, its historical importance becomes clear.

Ehrlich was a friend and protege of Julius Hemphill, having become involved in the BAG scene as a - clearly very hip - teenager.  Besides the remaining founders of the still-mighty World Saxophone Quartet, Ehrlich must be considered the primary torch carrier and further-er of Hemphill's work composing for multi-saxophone ensembles - it sounds like a weird niche, but Hemphill, and now Ehrlich, have made it into a legitimate and strong branch of jazz practice.  I'm no composer or scholar of classical music, but I imagine this kind of writing must have similarities to writing for string quartet.  There is a chamber quality to the 4 Altos music (and for those unfamiliar with the group, their name accurately describes their lineup, four alto saxophones and nothing else), something intimate and cerebral but still powerful on an emotional/visceral level.  At The Stone, the group debuted some new Ehrlich compositions, and not having been familiar with any of this group's music, I thought the new compositions might've been the best of the set - one called "Starlets" was a particular standout.

Jason Moran, Mary Halvorson, Ron Miles at Jazz Standard

There's a Willa Wonka boat trip quality to the experience of seeing this trio - a wild ride ("there's no earthy way of knowing/ which direction we are going") in congenial company.  Listing some of the composers that made up their program -  Paul Motian, Bill Frisell, Conlon Nancarrow, David Bowie - only gives a hint of this group's range.  I was thinking before the set that I've heard Moran, either live or on record, play just about everything, from James P. Johnson to Schumann to Afrika Bambaataa (actually, that's all just one album), but I hadn't ever heard him touch on rock (though I suppose "Planet Rock" does have a rock, or at least Krautrock, foundation).  I wasn't surprised to hear him take an excursion in this direction, but wouldn't have expected him to choose as his vehicle the last track on Diamond Dogs. "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family", as it turns out, has a groove well-suited for this group to inhabit and expand, adding dimensions surely never anticipated even by its forward-looking composer, and affording Halvorson the opportunity to engage in what could be described, if one was so inclined, as righteous riffage and shredding.

I was pleased to see the continued proliferation of Paul Motian compositions outside of the drummer's own gigs. The music seems to be spreading in a hand-to-hand way, as younger musicians who have played with Motian (a large and constantly expanding group) add his tunes to the repertoires of their own groups.  The Frisell tune (might've been from Richter 858?), besides being a lovely set closer, was an invitation to think about the distinct places Halvorson and Frisell have carved out for themselves in the realm of contemporary improvised guitar.  Halvorson did play some Frisell-ish reverb-y chords before moving into her more characteristic single-note-dominated attack.  And like Frisell, Halvorson is a skillful and creative user of electronics in her playing, but she uses different effects to different effect, often to warp the notes of her already unlikely lines.  Halvorson's tone can at first sound almost like an anti-tone to ears accustomed to amp-, pedal-, and tube-obsessed, tone-chasing rock guitarists.  It sounds deceptively "natural", just the sound of a big Guild plugged into a clean Fender amp, but the sound is surely tweaked and deliberately crafted for the effect it achieves, which is to make you listen, and to make each note distinct (except when she chooses to digitally twist or smear them).

I feel a little guilty about wrapping this up without even touching on Ron Miles' fine playing (on G trumpet, I believe), but I'll just say that this is another rarely-convening group that I would love to see record, live or in studio.

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