Tag Archives: ann arbor

Dave Liebman’s Expansions at Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House


Dave Liebman descended upon Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House Tuesday evening with his new group Expansions, officially kicking off the band’s fall tour in support of 2015’s The Puzzle. The ~85-minute set was a shock-and-awe campaign of sound that covered a wide stylistic range.

This was my first time seeing Expansions in the flesh, and I’ll go out on a limb and say that it was my favorite time seeing the maestro live. Expansions features Lieb (soprano saxophone, wooden flute), Matt Vashlishan (alto saxophone, flute, clarinet), Bobby Avey (piano, electric keyboard), Tony Marino (acoustic and electric basses), and Alex Ritz (drums, frame drum). Save Marino, who’s played with Liebman for the last couple decades in DLG and other ensembles, the rest of the members are of a younger generation. And even though this band is only in its third year, the communication and empathy are top shelf.

With Lieb’s mammoth discography and resume that covers just about every style, configuration, and name, he has maintained a series of primary groups over the years. I mention this because throughout Tuesday’s performance I kept thinking that, at least as a starting point, Expansions is in some ways the eventual synthesis of three of those staple bands: Lookout Farm, Quest, and Dave Liebman Group. There was the electric & fusion explorations of Lookout Farm; the tasteful incorporation of the advanced harmonic — almost classical — vocabulary of Quest; and the eclecticism, adventurism, and telepathy of DLG. But of course Expansions is much more than a synthesis of old projects. The addition of a second horn — sax or otherwise — has been part of some of his other projects (e.g., his work with Ellery Eskelin, Terumasa Hino, Steve Grossman, and of course Miles), but Vashlishan’s deft multi-instrumental aptitude helps to greatly expand the ensemble’s sound and palette. This is nicely complemented by the inclusion, at times, of electric keys and electric bass. The flexible orchestration gives this quintet an expansive sound. (No pun intended.) Finally, the more youthful lineup naturally brings with it a new range of musical perspectives, interests, and influences into the fold.

The fiery set featured six pieces, all but the final two of which were recorded for The Puzzle. Getting right to it, the band started with “Off And Off,” in which the quintet gradually entering in canon via a 12-tone row and eventually uniting at the head’s end and catapulting into stratospheric solos. This nicely set the tone for the rest of the evening: Liebman’s slithering, forceful statements juxtaposed with Vashlishan’s more angular declamations; Avey’s equal parts nimble and dense accompaniment and lead playing; Ritz’s command of both rhythm and melody on percussion; all atop Marino’s foreboding foundation. Unlike other times I’ve seen Liebman, there was only one very fast burnin’ section and it was reserved for the set’s end. Instead this group lumbered mightily along, leaving nothing in its wake except for jaws on the floor. “Off And Off” was followed by “The Puzzle,” allowing the ensemble – collectively and individually – to branch further out, with the listener on edge throughout as to what would happen next. Somewhat of an inverse of “Off And Off,” the full band started the tune, eventually thinning out to solo piano in the middle of the improvisations, and building back towards the end.

For “Sailing,” Vashlishan (the tune’s composer) moved to flute and Avey to electric keys, giving the group a Lookout Farm-esque veneer. The soothing flute and soprano lines coupled with the dreamy harmonies offered a quick respite between more intense explorations. With Marino then switching to electric bass and Vashlishan hopping to clarinet, the band performed an inventive arrangement of “Danse De La Fureur” from Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Ritz nearly stole the show with his impressively melodic drum solo introduction. Had Liebman not even announced the piece’s name, I would’ve recognized it by Ritz’s drumming and interpolations alone. It was both that spot on and creative. This gave way to a cacophonous electric romp that continued to anxiously build through the final statement. A furious dance indeed.

Sticking with the electric vibe, Avey’s “Liberian Hummingbird” (from 2014’s Samsara) did what seemed impossible at this point in the program: kicked the band into overdrive. The funk-laden, odd-metered vortex of a vamp swirled with dark intensity throughout, and compounded by both the return to a two-sax frontline and Avey’s use of both acoustic piano and electric keys it provided the set’s densest texture. It was simply enveloping.

Returning to an acoustic instrumentation, whatever stops remained were pulled out and disposed of with a heavy rendition of Coltrane’s “India.” Ritz began with a frame drum solo, eventually giving way to the primal cries of Liebman on wooden flute and Vashlishan on straw. This arrangement featured a slightly off-kilter take on Trane’s famous melody over a plodding wall of sound. After Vashlishan’s final solo and Avey’s largely a capella, almost impressionist solo, Lieb and Ritz poured gas on the fire and offered up a barn-burning sax & drum duet, eventually leading to the group’s final statements to close the show.

I’ve done my fair share of gushing about Dave Liebman on this site, including album reviews, live reviews, and more, and I suppose this entry is no different. However, it’s certainly justified. And, as Tuesday’s performance demonstrated, Lieb of course shares the spotlight with his four collaborators. Yes, collaborators — not just band members. Expansions is clearly a group effort, with the whole being greater than the sum of its considerable parts. I look forward to seeing the group again sometime.

Expansions is currently on a Midwest tour, so I strongly encourage you to catch them if they’re in your area. I’d catch another performance if I could. To paraphrase Nathan Hale, I regret that I have but one night this week to give to Expansions…

Pat Metheny Unity Group at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater

On Monday evening I was fortunate enough to see Pat Metheny‘s Unity Group at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater. I had originally waffled on whether or not to attend for various personal reasons – none of which were a lack of interest – but a last-minute invitation from my new friend (and longtime fellow tweeter) Mark Jacobson kept me from missing out on a top notch performance. (Thank you again, Mark!)

I’ve been a fan of Metheny’s for a number of years but I’m by no means a completist. (Although, everything I have of his I quite like.) His current ensemble, the Pat Metheny Unity Group, is the quintet incarnation of the four-piece Pat Metheny Unity Band, which I saw at the 2012 Detroit Jazz Festival. The Band consists of Metheny, saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist (and fellow Spartan) Ben Williams, and drummer Antonio Sanchez, with the Group adding multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Giulio Carmassi. 2012’s self-titled Pat Metheny Unity Band is a really solid and often hard-driving jazz quartet album, including a little orchestrion treatment here and there. The Group, however, which just released Kin, explores vastly more sonic terrain. What was a quartet is now a five-piece orchestra, with the orchestrion regularly and tastefully integrated, and Carmassi providing varying instruments and textures. (Full disclosure: I hadn’t yet picked up Kin despite my intending to, but I surely will after seeing Monday’s show.)

The Michigan Theater’s vibe had more in common with a rock show than jazz, between the orchestrion-adorned stage and Metheny’s ecstatic fans. Kicking off Monday’s 2h45m set was, as Metheny described, an “opening set” of just the quartet, which features Band tunes “Come and See,” “Roofdogs,” and “New Year.” Don’t let the “diminished” forces fool you, though, as it’s a burning quartet. Potter and Metheny are intense, melodic powerhouses, with Williams and Sanchez providing and nimble but deep and grooving pocket. After about 40 minutes, Metheny addressed the audience and welcomed Carmassi (on piano, vocals, and percussion) to the stage, at which point the Group launched Michigan Theater deep into the sonic cosmos for two hours of exploratory, psychadelic, and at times face-melting jams that transcended genre. The set largely featured material from the new album, and the quintet almost sounded like a completely different ensemble from the quartet. Kin‘s tunes are compositionally more complex than its predecessor (which featured a more “traditional” jazz approach of head-solo-head, etc.), with each piece traversing various themes and textures. Later on in the set, Metheny featured each of his sidemen via an extended duet. His show-stopping and jaw-dropping rendition of Trane’s “Countdown” with Chris Potter was one of the night’s highlights. Like the original Coltrane recording, they waited until the very end to tease the melody, with the preceding minutes causing this saxophonist – and likely all other musicians in attendance – to question his existence and purpose. The Group ended end their main set with a rockin’ “Have You Heard” (sounding great with the added saxophone) followed by a full-band encore “Are You Going With Me” and a solo acoustic encore of an improvised medley of various tunes including “Last Train Home.”

I may not be a Metheny expert, but I’m familiar with his various projects over the years. And, from what I do know, the current PMUG is a near ideal synthesis of Metheny’s catalogue. It not only features new compositions that can be held up to its predecessors, but the band’s intense live sound also includes hints of Pat Metheny Group (especially with the use of voice – one of my favorite Metheny qualities, actually – and thick orchestration) and the Orchestrion Project (though tastefully used as a means and not an end). Shame on me for almost missing out on such a tremendous show. If the Group ends up in your neck of the woods during this year’s mammoth tour, I highly recommend attending. Not to be missed.

MTH-V: ‘Einstein’ 2012

“Would it get some wind for the sailboat?”

It’s been about 4.5 months since I was fortunate enough to attend the final “preview performance” of Philip Glass‘s Einstein on the Beach. Just as the opera continues to shock and intrigue almost forty years after its premiere, I myself remain utterly fascinated all these months later. And it’s not that I’m simply taken with the work per se, but rather just what I experienced in person on that lovely winter afternoon in Ann Arbor in January. That night’s immediate reaction is detailed here. (If you don’t know about this piece, do reference the above links.)

Now that I’m beyond jotting down my immediate thoughts, I can safely said that I truly was moved by this experience. Without being hyperbolic I feel as if my “aesthetic self” can be measured in some ways as “before Einstein” and “after Einstein.” It resonated with me deeper and more profoundly than I had anticipated. As my wife can attest, I frequently bring it – either the work in general, my seeing it, or what it means to me – up in conversation. Frequently. And since January I can specifically remember three separate occasions in which I tossed and turned throughout the night because it raced through my mind. (The most recent was this past weekend, hence this week’s “MTH-V.”) Although I’m sure this weekend’s episode was partially in thanks to the tweeting of the entire libretto. (Which I of course enthusiastically followed.)

What I wouldn’t give to see experience it again on this (final?) world tour. There are so few chances, and I have either competing travel plans (as is the case for this weekend when it’s in Toronto) or a full slate of gigs lined up (September in Brooklyn) to contend with. Yet I continue scheming to try to make it work. Who knows…

So why the fascination with a 4.5-hour intermission-less, plot-less opera “about” Einstein? Well, Albert’s own words perhaps sum it up best: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.” -from The World As I See It And it was both mysterious and beautiful.

Because Einstein is easier done than said, this week’s video is of abbreviated footage of “Train” (Act I, Scene 1). An audience member captured pretty good footage from the Montpellier performance (the next stop after Ann Arbor’s “previews”). And I say abbreviated because it occasionally skips to “condense” the scene down to 10 minutes. The actual scene is over twenty minutes in length, though you wouldn’t know it sitting in the audience. (You lose all sense of time and place if you allow yourself to get lost in it.) This person has posted condensed versions of most all of the scenes and knee plays (interludes), but I chose the opening scene because this is what sucked me in. During the introductory knee play I was still just thinking this is so cool. But a few minutes into “Train” I was far from Earth and didn’t return until over four hours later.


The official trailer for the Brooklyn run features 2012 footage from Ann Arbor, I believe…


For fans of the LEGO parodies, check out these two videos: here and here.


Reflection: ‘Einstein on the Beach’

(Disclaimer: I don’t intend for this to be a “review,” but rather a stream of consciousness way for me to gather and digest my immediate thoughts and reactions. Also note that I am not an EOTB expert. I’m simply a fan.)

It was very fresh and clean.

This afternoon, I was fortunate enough to see Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s mythic Einstein on the Beach. It’s been nearly a decade since I first learned about this work (and saw a clip) in Music History III, and since then seeing it performed live has been on my bucket list. I remember most of my classmates’ initial reaction upon first hearing of a 4.5-hr, intermission-less and plotless opera in which the only singing is that of solfege and numbers, along with senseless spoken text (not to mention modern choreography and stage design): “That’s cool.” Then we saw the video clip of “Trial/Jail” (AKA “The Supermarket Scene”), and many of the cheers turned to, “Eh, nevermind.” I, however, was one of the few converts, and have longed to see it since.

As you’ve likely seen online or elsewhere, Einstein is being revived this year and into 2013 by the originators – Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs – and Pomegranate Arts both in celebration of Glass’s 75th year and simply because they see this is being their last chance. It’s been 20 years since the last production and international tour, and, with one exception, the one before that was the very first in 1976. And while this tour will feature many international hotspots, including runs in Berkley, CA and New York City, the tech rehearsals, dress rehearsals, and “preview performances” occurred in Ann Arbor, MI (!) over the last month (with the preview performances this weekend). (The University Musical Society board should be given some sort of medal…)

I could give a blow-by-blow account of what I saw, but it’s not as if I saw a new storyline or interpretation. (After all, how could one effectively re-interpret something that has no plot?) Instead, I’d rather attempt to capture some of the feeling. I hadn’t been as excited for an individual concert/performance as I was for today’s Einstein in at least a couple years. Concerning classical/contemporary music, only my excitement for attending Chicago Lyric Opera’s 2005 Der Ring des Nibelungen compared. However, the main difference between the two is that I knew I would one day get to see a major company perform Wagner’s magnum opus; it was only a matter of time and resources. On the other hand, I chalked Einstein up to a pipe dream – something I’d only realize via DVD.

Well, today was the day, my friends. Not only did I see the opera, but as it was conceived and realized by the original creative forces, including the Michael Riesman-directed Philip Glass Ensemble. I sat through the 270-minute behemoth (minus a couple minutes for a quick dash to the restroom – did I mention there’s no intermission?), not once thinking Are we done yet?. Much of the time, to be honest, I wasn’t even on planet Earth to ask the question. I was in instead in Bern, Switzerland. And in a laboratory-cum-courtroom. And a jailhouse. And a prematurely air-conditioned supermarket. And a spaceship. And even a park bench. I lost myself in an endless barrage of numbers, syllables, and mind-boggling, repetitive text. While the music alone is quite something, the Gesamtkunstwerk is absolutely mind-altering. (Thank you, Alex Ross, for aptly noting, “It all goes back to Wagner.”) Between the trance-inducing music, the minimalist-but-still-a-three-maybe-six-ring-circus action, set designs, costumes, and props, every subtle nuance – from a quick wink to the tossing of a paper airplane – commanded attention. Some specific thoughts:

• I quite enjoyed the way in which the production started. Instead of the typical “light down, mouths shut” procedure, it was a gradual transition from the time the audience entered the theater until the entrance of the chorus.
• Kate Moran kept me on the edge of my seat with the supermarket text, never quite saying it the same way twice (despite repeating it for ~15 minutes…).
• I expected great things for the “walking bass” portion of the Spaceship scene. What I didn’t expect was to be overwhelmed. Definitely the climax.
•  After returning from my jaunt to the restroom three hours in, that’s when it really hit me that the cast and crew gets no break. (Yes, individuals may come and go, but the show continues nonetheless.) Hats off to them, especially the Philip Glass Ensemble’s soprano.
• There was much more subtle humor (as compared with the toothbrushing bit) than I had expected. It of course helped that the audience was so willing to dive in.
• I appreciated the narrators not always being prominent in the mix. It was particularly effective in “Knee Play 1.”
• The extended dance numbers left me exhausted when complete.
• Although I felt as if I roughly “got it” while I stood applauding afterward, whatever “it” was vanished in an instant. I still couldn’t tell you what it’s about. 🙂 Much like a dream, which is as clear and real as anything while it occurs, it’s a blur once awake. Unless you’ve seen it or know it well, my rambling descriptions would make little sense.
• While I won’t be so bold as to say I was a part of history, I can safely say that I witnessed history – at least artistic history – in the making this afternoon. And that was truly special. (Simply see the bottom of this page for a list of all its performances. Ever.)
• This was one of my most unique musical experiences.

I gave the full recording one final listen on Friday in an attempt to get myself in the right frame of mind, but nothing could have properly prepared me for what I witnessed this afternoon. I left the theater feeling many things: giddy, emotionally and mentally exhausted, thankful, awestruck, somewhat confused. One thing was for certain: I needed more time to digest what I had just experienced (and still do). I drove home in silence (one hour), and haven’t listened to anything since walking in the door. I just keep replaying hundreds of auditory and visual snapshots in my mind, most of which I’m sure I’ll remember forever. Fervently… 🙂