After a two-year postponement, pianist Ethan Iverson and trumpeter Tom Harrell came to Buffalo for their duo concert at Kleinhans Music Hall’s Mary Seaton Room. Originally scheduled for March 2020, this was the first concert on my calendar to be pushed back or canceled outright due to COVID-19 restrictions. (With Chicago’sRingCycle being the second…) Now, more than two years later, it was the first acoustic jazz concert I’ve seen as an audience member since then. This was my first time seeing either musician perform live and hopefully not the last.
(For additional context, a pre-concert interview is here.)
The concert was a compelling 80-minute journey through the The Tradition via The American Songbook and a couple of Harrell originals. An “evening of standards” can go in many directions (good and bad), and the duo deftly navigated the musical waters in a way that was consistently refreshing. On the one hand, their approach was traditional: recognizable tunes, clear melodic lines, alternating solos within the prescribed forms. However, within that rubric there was much variety: harmonic and rhythmic exploration, stylistic wandering (with Iverson occasionally drawing on European classical influences), a wide textural range—notable considering the duo format.
The 11-song set was pretty evenly divided. Each piece was several minutes in length, and I don’t think there was one instance of someone soloing for more than two consecutive choruses. The set ran The Tradition’s gamut, from medium-tempo numbers (“Sentimental Journey,” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” “I Remember You”), to blues (“Philadelphia Creamer,” an Iverson original), to up-tempo swing (“All The Things You Are,” Harrell’s “Improv”), rhythm changes (“Wee”), ballads (“I Can’t Get Started,” “The Man I Love”), and modern fare (Harrell’s “Journey To The Stars”). (Full disclosure: I am missing one title, as there was one tune I couldn’t name.) Many of the tunes are featured on 2019’s Common Practice (ECM), a fun album that showcases Iverson and Harrell in a quartet setting. But the duo format put those same pieces in a new relief, and it nicely highlighted Harrell’s more intimate, understated approach.
Harrell spent most of the evening on flugelhorn, which was a real treat. His full, warm sound complemented the piano nicely. He did play trumpet on two or three occasions in the latter half of the set, but not for a full tune. I appreciated his approach to melodies—straightforward but not plain, providing a nice contrast to his more searching improvisations. His two originals were nice additions. “Improv” was a post bop romp that fit right in with the evening’s standards theme. And “Journey to the Stars” went perhaps the farthest astray from that same theme, with Iverson’s arpeggiated harmonies* and Harrell’s haunting lines.
Given the duo setting, especially when paired with a monodic instrument, Iverson had his work cut out for him and more than rose to the occasion. He was often a one-man rhythm section and sometimes even a one-man horn section. And his melodic approach was diverse, from his borderline shout chorus on “I Remember You” (which sounded like a horn soli) to his crystalline single-note lines and everything in between. His bouncy, bluesy clusters on “Sentimental Journey” filled the hall, and his sparse melodic lines on “I Can’t Get Started” showcased Iverson’s expansive textural range. (And for those familiar with Iverson’s writing, particularly on jazz standards, he practices what he preaches: his playing evinces a keen interplay between the bass and melody, with more emphasis on counterpoint than “chord scales.”)
My only complaint is that the performance didn’t last longer, but it’s better than the alternative. The concert was more than worth the wait. My only hope is that it won’t be another two years until I can see either artist again.
Also, it was nice to briefly meet Ethan Iverson after the concert. He’s just as friendly in person as online (where I occasionally tweet at him, usually about Keith Jarrett).
*I should admit, with apologies to the artists, that Iverson’s arpeggiating briefly reminded me of Collective Soul’s “December,” which proved distracting for a few seconds. Not that Collective Soul invented such arpeggiation—far from it—but that’s where my mind took me. Ah well…
A thought I return to periodically is: When it comes to the saxophone, who are my patients zero? In other words, who are the earliest saxophonists I heard that I, to at least some degree, still listen to?
I’m taken with the question because I wasn’t particularly drawn to the saxophone at a very young age, at least not more so than other instruments. (Or, at least, I don’t recall such an attraction.) A few years before choosing the saxophone for fifth grade band, I took guitar lessons for a couple months. A broken arm ended that brief career just as I was finally learning a couple classics by Buddy Holly, an early musical hero. So, the horn wasn’t on my radar in any notable way beyond the occasional cameo in the rock, pop, and musical theater I was exposed to and a fan of. And yet, a few notable folks planted seeds that I’d come back to in some form years or decades later.
The second part of that original question—folks to whom I still listen, at least to some degree—helped provide a good cutoff for this exercise. There are some early examples I clearly remember but chose not to include below. Examples are Danny Flores in “Tequila” by The Champs and Hank Carter in “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & The Destroyers. For the former, it’s a recording I like to this day, but it’s not one that stuck out to me through the years as an active interest for whatever reason. For the latter, I’ve never warmed to Thorogood beyond the singles. That said, I’ve heard the sax solo more times than I can count.
Another one who didn’t make the cut is Ernie Watts for his melody on Glenn Frey’s “The One You Love.” I seem to have been aware of that song and horn line for as long as I can remember, and I actually didn’t know the song’s title until last summer when I finally transcribed it (with utter glee, might I add). While I’ve listened to Watts in other contexts (e.g., GRP Big Band), neither that song nor my interest in his playing specifically seemed to warrant inclusion in the list proper. Still, I have to make a note of it. While “Careless Whisper” and “Baker Street” tend be the invincible force and immovable object of iconic pop saxophone riffs of the late ’70s and early ’80s, for me it was always “The One You Love” that came to mind first. Even if I didn’t know what it was called, I could sing it.
Having occasionally pondered this over the last several months, I’ve narrowed it down to three plus an additional four honorable mentions. Perhaps I’m retconning myself, but I think I’m relatively accurate here. For the first three, It’s worth noting that I didn’t know who these saxophonists were at the time, and it’d be many years before I learned their names. In two cases, it was a matter of learning that someone I was a fan of separately was sitting in with another band. The honorable mentions came later in life, but they were early saxophonists who stood out to me as musicians in their own right instead of just another element in a song.
Junior Walker — “Shotgun” by Jr. Walker & The All-Stars I grew up listening to a lot of oldies music, because both it’s what my mom listened to and I genuinely enjoyed it. At that time, “oldies” consisted of songs primarily from the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s. While a lot of those songs featured horns to varying degrees, one prominent saxophone feature that stood out to me was “Shotgun.” And how could it not? After the syncopated snare drum intro, it’s the first prominent instrument before the verse, with a solo mid-song and again at the end. Such infectious rhythm-and-blues playing by Walker: riffing, roaring flutter tongue, bombast, and the blues. At the age of ~6 or so, I didn’t know that Junior Walker was both the singer and the saxophonist, nor did I know of his Michigan roots and connections (recording for Motown and living in Battle Creek, ~100 miles from my hometown). But I did know that I liked the song and whatever he was doing on that horn.
When I started to think about this topic of my earliest saxophonic memories, “Shotgun” was one of the first songs that came to mind. It’s unique in that the saxophonist and singer are one, and it perfectly distills that rhythm-and-blues approach on the horn. While transcribing a bunch of rock and pop horn parts last summer, I had to include “Shotgun” even though it wasn’t on the song list. I’d been hearing it for over three decades, so I figured it was time. And it’s one I’ve willingly returned to and sought out time and again through the years. Here’s some great live footage of Jr. Walker & The All-Stars showing how it’s done:
Michael Brecker — “Same Old Song And Dance” by Aerosmith I’m guessing I first got Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits on cassette around 1991 (around 8 years old). I listened to it constantly for years. Consequently, “Same Old Song And Dance,” including Michael Brecker’s burning, bluesy solo, was burned into my brain at a young age. The first seed this planted was my affinity for Aerosmith. Eventually I’d graduate from my hits compilation to having all the studio albums (even the clunkers, for completist purposes). Years later I was re-reading the liner notes for Get Your Wings (perhaps my favorite Aerosmith album?) for the brass personnel and put two and two together: the Michael Brecker listed as playing saxophone was the Michael Brecker. Of course, in retrospect, it shouldn’t be a shock, given Brecker’s voluminous studio work. At the time, however, I unwittingly got my first dose of someone who I’d become so taken with years later. When I realized the unintentional continuity, from “Same Old Song and Dance” to Pilgrimage, I thought it noteworthy. To be honest, remembering this fact was the inspiration for this list.
One of the things I really appreciate about Brecker’s playing generally is that, even though he was quite adept at the post-Coltrane vocabulary and calisthenics, he had enough pop sensibility to adapt to whatever style he was called for. For this Aerosmith cut, Brecker eschews jazz conventions and channels the likes of the aforementioned Junior Walker: raucous blues from top to bottom. I’m not a Brecker-phile necessarily. I wouldn’t put him in my personal top 5 favorite saxophonists, but he’s definitely up there. For example, when perusing albums at a store, if I see his name as a sideman I’m more inclined to purchase the album than not. Here, though, it was simply fate.
Branford Marsalis — “I Love Your Smile” by Shanice This one’s a bit of a curveball. Shanice’s “I Love Your Smile” came out in 1991, meaning this song was in my aural ether around the time of Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits. Aside from some obligatory MTV viewing, the other radio station I listened to at the time besides the local oldies station was the pop hits channel. Shanice’s single was all over the latter station and MTV. I never purchased the single nor the album, but the song was inescapable for years (I don’t mean that pejoratively), and it’d rear its catchy head every so often afterward. It’s one of those songs, for me, that whenever I hear it, I want to listen until the end. It’s catchy with a lot of moving parts, and it’s no surprise that the song made its way into the jazz world, with drummer Jerome Jennings recently delivering an excellent cover that’s worth highlighting here in full:
I can’t really say whether, at a young age, the original recording’s saxophone solo itself made a huge impression on me separate from the song. I definitely noticed and enjoyed it. I do know that the times I heard the song after years of not, I remembered the sax solo was coming and I looked forward to it. If anything, early on, it probably stuck out to me as being different from what I was used to hearing in pop/rock contexts: that aggressively gritty and bluesy archetype demonstrated by Walker and Brecker in the above songs. In hearing “…Smile” regularly over the last few years thanks to SiriusXM’s ’90s on 9 channel, I had another small epiphany: when Shanice says “Blow, Branford, blow,” she’s cheering on none other than Branford Marsalis. Similar to Brecker, Marsalis knows how to tastefully fit inside non-jazz styles (e.g., Sting, The Grateful Dead and its later iterations, and many more). With Shanice he’s melodic, diatonic, and borderline “smooth,” and it’s excellent. My personal interest in Branford is similar to Brecker: a fan but not obsessively so. It’s worth noting, though, that Marsalis’s Contemporary Jazz was one of the first modern jazz saxophone albums I owned in high school.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in roughly chronological order of first noticing them by name) Lou Marini I know I’m not the only one of my generation who saw The Blues Brothers at a young age and fell in love with both the movie and the music. Given my deep familiarity with the aforementioned oldies and my interest in musicals, my mom must’ve known I’d get a kick out of it. (That, and my obsession with Ghostbusters and Star Wars gave me an in with Dan Aykroyd and, via cameo, Carrie Fisher.) Given that, “Blue” Lou Marini was one of the first saxophonists I could identify, even if I didn’t know upon early viewings that I was watching an actual musician (as opposed to just an actor playing a part). Eventually I’d see him on television sitting in with other bands as a session musician, and it started to click that his job was to just play the saxophone wherever needed. It was a treat for me to finally see Marini live as part of James Taylor’s band years back.
Tom Scott Piggybacking off of my interest in The Blues Brothers, I was introduced to Tom Scott at an early age. Little did I know it at the time, but he’s on the film’s soundtrack even though he’s not in the film. He did tour with the group, however, and I remember hearing his name when listening to the band’s live album and thinking, “Who’s that? He wasn’t in the movie.” These days, I’m a big, longtime fan of his, both as a leader with The L.A. Express as well as his prolific sideman work. (His work with Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan are some personal favorites of the latter.) I’ve brought him up here, here, and here (w. the Blues Brothers), among others. As for his time with The Blues Brothers, his bat-out-of-hell solo on “Going Back to Miami” is one of my favorite solos to this day. Bringing it full circle, taken from Standing in the Shadows of Motown, here’s a hard-to-beat recording of Tom Scott with Gerald Levert and The Funk Brothers performing Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun” (in a different key). (When I learned years ago about a Funk Bros. documentary that also included Tom Scott, I had to get it. Highly recommended, particularly if you’re not familiar with The Funk Brothers by name, though you certainly already are by ear.)
(To bring it full circle in another manner, Tom Scott played with the aforementioned Ernie Watts in the GRP Big Band, which I also referenced in my last post.)
LeRoi Moore Roi. What is there to say that hasn’t been already discussed? In short, I disqualified him from the primary list above because of when I started listening to him. I know I heard DMB before 1996’s Crash was released, but not in a way that stuck out to me too strongly. I got Crash the year it came out and was immediately hooked. I listened to that album several times daily for months after I bought it, and Roi’s solo on the studio cut of “#41” was the first saxophone solo I remember really obsessing over. I could sing it from memory. I found his playing so refreshing. Here was a saxophonist playing with a rock band who succumbed neither to the rhythm-and-blues pyrotechnics nor the jazz trappings. After that, the rest is history. Go here for arguably my favorite Moore saxophone solo, with a short flute solo as an appetizer. The opening lick from that solo was one of the first things I transcribed after I started getting into jazz and improvising.
Dick Parry Similar to Roi, I disqualified Parry because of getting into Pink Floyd (with whom he most notably played) at a later age—around the time I got into DMB, actually. It’d be a couple more years still until I bought a Pink Floyd album, but the classic rock station was part of my sonic diet at this point, and I knew his tenor solo on “Money” well. I doubt I noticed such qualities early on, but eventually I found that Parry’s rhythm-and-blues style (a la Walker, etc.) is an odd fit, stylistically and sonically, with Pink Floyd. I mean, it ultimately works within the songs in question (“Money,” “Us and Them,” “Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Pt. 1),” etc.), but his approach is a bit of an anachronism when compared with the albums at large (The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, etc.). Still, he left an impression.
I spent quite a bit of time and effort last summer learning scores of new (for me) standards—listening, transcribing solos and parts, and making charts. These were all for tunes I’ve known as a listener for years but never learned on my instrument. It was enjoyable, frustrating, and rewarding work. These tunes weren’t jazz standards, however, but rather a broad cross-section of pop songs.
Last year I began playing with a working cover band in the area. (Like many others, we’ll resume performing as soon as it’s safe to do so.) After the initial meeting and introductory sit-in, I went to work on putting together my book based on the band’s repertoire, and I’ve continued to add to it as the band has further expanded its song pool. With few exceptions, the band’s catalogue really covers the bases as far as horn-based pop songs from the sixties onward. Selfishly, part of my wanting the gig was to have an excuse to play these songs—cheese and otherwise—live with a band, if nothing else to exorcise those demons a bit. I played with a cover band in the year I lived in Houston a decade ago, but hadn’t done so since and had been feeling the itch for a while. As a saxophonist, it’s one thing to hear Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street” or Glenn Frey’s “The One You Love” in passing and either chuckle or cringe, depending on the recording. But it’s quite another to learn and then tackle them in performance. It’s not dissimilar from finally getting to play a jazz standard like “Stars Fell On Alabama” on the bandstand after putting in the work in the practice room. There are differences, of course, but in the end it’s about knowing the song and the style.
Style is key. Rock and pop can be deceptively difficult, particularly when approaching them from a jazz perspective. I’ve long felt comfortable as a saxophonist in a rock setting, be it covers or originals, as it’s the music I grew up listening to. It’s not that I always try to think like a guitarist, but it’s easy for a saxophone to stick out like a sore thumb if not careful, especially if it’s the solitary horn and not part of a horn section. Of course, that’s a consequence of nearly always being an auxiliary instrument—a novelty. After rock graduated from its rhythm-and-blues roots in which horns were common, only a handful of rock bands with full-time solitary saxophonists have hit the mainstream. And I mean full-time as in always playing the saxophone. For example, Mark Rivera plays a mean horn with Billy Joel and is a full-time member of the touring band, but he also plays guitar and percussion and sings a significant portion of each show because the horn solos aren’t so frequent. Seger, Springsteen, and Dave Matthews Band have done it with varying approaches, but they (and a few others) are the exceptions that prove the rule. (Of course, I learned parts for the former two for the current cover band gig.)
In keeping with style, there are myriad possibilities, especially for original music. But if you’re talking the notable horn solos of yore, it’s a narrower scope: an extension of the rhythm-and-blues flavors such as a big sound, growling, prolonged altissimo, a brash or honky timbre, and melodically sticking to pentatonic scales and the blues. One or more of these qualities are apparent in such saxophonic hits as “Money,” “Touch Me,” “Turn The Page,” “Bad To The Bone,” “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” and on and on. I wrote a bit about this “rock sax” phenomenon here.) Alto Reed (Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band) and the late Clarence Clemons (Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band) are of this lineage. Even on a soft-rock ballad like “The One You Love,” Ernie Watts‘s fat tone makes his pentatonic melody a force to be reckoned with (and it’s great!), and ditto Jim Horn‘s outro solo (still great!). It’s a smoother, easy listening extension of those more rough-and-tumble forebears.
I should note that DMB‘s LeRoi Moore was of a different breed, as, at least in the first nearly two decades of the band’s run, the saxophone (along with the violin) fulfilled the role typically filled by a lead guitar. Consequently, the saxophone was more of an organic part of the band’s sound instead of the aforementioned novelty. And, coming from a jazz background originally, Moore eschewed many of the more obnoxious so-called “rock sax” trappings. The band’s sonic architecture changed after his death, but I covered that elsewhere.
The above is by no means a comprehensive survey of the horn’s history in rock. It’s barely a taste. However, it’s worth setting the stage to compare it to what most saxophonists do when learning standards: listening to and absorbing the nuances of the jazz greats who came before. Often when learning a jazz standard, once you have the melody and chord changes, many recommend learning the lyrics (if any) and a solo (often of a like instrument). That’s because the style is perceived to be inherently more demanding, and it is in a number of ways: harmonically, melodically (in navigating improvisational lines), chromatically (how to extend the existing harmonic and melodic structure), and rhythmically (degrees of swing, etc.). That said, there’s an almost religious devotion that’s expected when learning jazz standards. Not that I really disagree—I still regularly work on standards even though I haven’t had a steady jazz gig in years.
And yet, I feel that such preparation and reverence for The Great American Songbook, though justified, can often lead one to dismiss the inherent nuances of pop and rock, material that appears on first blush to be simpler, particularly in terms of harmony. The harmonies may be simpler on net, but that certainly presents its own challenges. For example, during a solo, running a flurry of notes riddled with chromaticism doesn’t really fit. It’s best to think more like a rock guitarist than a jazz horn player. I’ve witnessed and heard of this numerous times, a jazzer sitting in to solo with a rock band on something besides a blues and they just don’t gel. (I’ve heard rock guys complain more than once about saxophonists playing too many notes, followed by a version of “this ain’t a jazz gig.”)
Does that mean that a jazz musician should sit and learn all the rock and pop solos they can find? No. But a few wouldn’t hurt, particularly in terms of picking up the nuances that are sprinkled in. Even something like “Rosalita” that doesn’t even have a saxophone solo can be eye-(and ear-)opening. Clemons’s prominent saxophone melodies and countermelodies throughout are rife with those more traditional characteristics: big and brash sound, growling, scoops, and more. And though it may not seem like much, it can be a workout, especially if realistically playing loud enough to be heard in an amplified setting.
My digging into this other set of standards last summer and since has been a nice learning process. One notable aspect is just how gratifying it was (and still is!). Sure, the work itself was legitimately rewarding and good for the ears and fingers, but getting inside of the tunes and then being able to perform them with such a good band was and remains just plain fun.
PRISM Quartet‘s April 2016 release The Curtis Project is a collection of strong, mostly recent additions to the medium’s repertoire that explore many aesthetic avenues. The album is the product of PRISM’s 2012 residency with The Curtis Institute‘s composition department. All seven compositions are from Curtis-affiliated composers: two from faculty members (and Pulitzer Prize recipient) Jennifer Higdon and David Ludwig, and five from then-student composers Kat Souponetsky, Daniel Temkin, Gabriella Smith, Thomas Oltarzewski, and Tim Woos. All works were performed during the residency, at which time all but Higdon’s were premieres. The Curtis Project is PRISM’s debut release on XAS Records, the ensemble’s new record label.
These seven pieces are stylistically distinct from one another, all of which branch in different directions. And with three of the works having multiple movements, none of the album’s nineteen tracks are overly long. (Of course, multi-movement works are larger collectively. That said, the longest individual selection or movement is just over seven minutes, and it’s an outlier.) The musical diversity and brevity is noteworthy, as it can often seem that (speaking from experience) “New Music” recordings are geared towards like practitioners — new saxophone music is largely for other composers and saxophonists, etc. The Curtis Project, however, would be equally suitable as a performance program on a university campus, a concert hall for a general audience, or as part of a community engagement or school outreach setting.
The album begins with Higdon’s Short Stories, a collections of six programmatic movements lacking a defined order, which serves as a nice microcosm of the album as a whole. From the calm “Summer’s Eve” and serene “Lullaby” to the frenetic “Chase” and Pollock-inspired “Splashing the Canvas,” the quartet shines in the movements’ more traditional writing. Also, like much of the album, all four voices are given their time to shine both individually and as part of PRISM’s organ-esque blend, such as in the haunting “Coyote Nights,” or the energetic “Stomp And Dance,” featuring key-clicks and slap-tongue.
Ludwig’s Josquin Microludes offers a clever and sonically-intriguing reworking of Josquin’s Mille Regretz, with each of the five differing, near-schizophrenic movements being based on subsequent lines of text and melody. Listening in order, one eventually goes through the (barely recognizable) original. The sixteenth-century source material is interpreted through a twenty-first-century vocabulary, and in doing so Ludwig honors the stylings of both time periods. The fourth movement “Quon Me Verra Brief Mes Jours” highlights this juxtaposition, with hard-driving rhythmic sections alternating with a dream-like processional, giving way to the calmly soaring and dissonant finale.
Although the faculty’s larger works constitute half of the album, the students are by no means also-rans here — each of the pieces have something different to say and chart territory theretofore unheard. Named for a river in the composer’s hometown of Moldova, Souponetsky’s The Dniester Flow depicts the rushing rapids through hard-driving rhythms in the piece’s first half. These give way to more lyrical fare in the second half, during which the tenor, alto, and soprano seamlessly pass the ascending melody to one another until the rapids return at the end. As a matter of programming, this gives way nicely to Temkin’s Blossoming, for which the sound really does blossom out of silence. A full minute of blowing air gradually gives way to soft saxophone tones that build to full ensemble chords and cries of both woe and hope, eventually fading back to nothingness. The use of both “dead” air and semi-tones are tasteful throughout, giving Blossoming a fluidity that’s not often highlighted in keyed instruments.
Smith’s Spring/Neap programmatically engages the “extremities of tidal ranges”1, beginning with cacophonous runs and glissandi, likely depicting the competing gravitational forces between the sun and moon. This later gives way to deep, rich chords and blowing air, giving one the impression of calm night tides before the gravity pulls the levels higher once more. Olterzewski’s Toccata is somewhat reminiscent of its centuries-old keyboard namesake, at least in character, although the composer likens it to the twentieth century works for wind ensemble. The aggressive and accented mixed-meter “left hand” of the tenor and baritone saxophones provide a nimble motor atop which the “right hand” of the alto and soprano saxophones playfully melodize. It’s not completely segregated, however, as the tenor saxophone occasionally tags into the melodic fun. Woos’s whimsical 4 Miniatures closes the album. Though concise as the title suggests, the four brief movements are full statements in and of themselves, covering much terrain. The first movement is full of swelling phrases and restful chorales, while the second miniature features beautiful “glass-like”2 harmonies that I could put on repeat for hours. (Selfishly, I would love to hear a larger work from Woos in this style.) The aggressive bomb-like glissandi of the third movement jolt the listener out of the second movement’s placidity, giving way to the jocular closing polka of the fourth movement. Here, over the course of just a few dozen seconds, the saxophones seemingly grow annoyed with one another, stumbling along until closing in what amounts to a tantrum. Humor can be difficult to notate and execute, and both are tastefully done here.
The Curtis Project continues PRISM Quartet’s proud tradition of amassing new works for both the ensemble and the instrument’s repertoire at large. It includes a number of musically interesting and accessible works that display a range of styles and compositional approaches, offering both breadth and depth. The Curtis Project is an excellent first step for XAS Records, and I’m already looking forward to what’s next.
Pat Metheny‘s Hommage à Eberhard Weber received its North American debut Monday evening in the Motor City. The new work, a mixed-media tribute to the German bassist featuring big band and sampled video, closed out the 2015 Detroit Jazz Festival on the main stage. Hommage was premiered in Stuttgart, Germany in January 2015 at a concert honoring Weber, which he attended, and also serves as the title track of the upcoming ECM release due out this Friday 09.11.15.
Pat Metheny, particularly over the last decade or so, has been treating listeners to new sonic adventures, be it with his symphony-length The Way Up for the Pat Metheny Group, his orchestrion project (both solo or incorporated into the Unity Group), and now this inventive big band composition. Weber, who’s been unable to perform since a 2007 stroke, sounds and feels musically alive and well in this new work.
On a selfish note, I was happy to have Metheny bring the name, image, and sounds of Weber to the Detroit Jazz Festival, which is often North American-centric (understandably so, to a degree) and doesn’t often feature the Northern European jazz aesthetic. I made the trek with friend, collaborator, and fellow ECM fan Matt Borghi. (We recorded some pre- and post-show comments and discussion for a forthcoming episode of his Sound Traveler Podcast due out this week. Link here.)
The piece is unique and its performance was unlike anything I’ve seen in a jazz setting. Analogous attempts have been made in other styles, particularly in Zappa Plays Zappa, which has featured Dweezil Zappa playing transcriptions of his father’s guitar solos visually accompanied by projections of his father executing the original. But that’s in more of a reproductive, canonical context. In Hommage, Metheny uses samples of Weber’s unaccompanied improvised solos as launching pads for both composition and improvisation, resulting in an entirely new work. (Rather than an orchestration of Weber’s ideas or something else similarly derivative.) Metheny writes in the album’s liner notes:
It came to me that it would be interesting to take the idea of sampling one step further; to find video elements of Eberhard improvising and then reorganize, chop, mix and orchestrate elements of those performances together into a new composition with a large projection of the Eberhard moments that I chose filling a screen behind us as we performed. It seemed like a new way to compose for me that would almost take the form of visual sampling.
Reading about it and seeing footage – my photograph above or the official video trailer below – don’t quite do it justice, as this is a composition that is meant to be seen as well as heard. Reading the descriptions, I was intrigued going into the performance, but what I saw was much greater than the sum of its already impressive parts. Metheny was backed by the Detroit Jazz Festival Big Band (featuring regional heavies) and shared the spotlight with vibraphonist Gary Burton, drummer Danny Gottlieb, bassist Scott Colley, conductor Alan Broadbent, and of course the footage, spirit, and sound of bassist Eberhard Weber.
The work is largely in four sections:
I. Emerging from silence, winds, cymbals, guitar, and Weber build thick sonic textures and dense harmonies, giving way to Weber’s plucked solo ostinato. The big band is then off at a healthy moderato, with guitar and vibes taking the melodic and soloistic reins. Even when quicker and rhythmic, the winds offer more textural than melodic support here.
II. Some building arco passages then transition to a more burning section, led again by a plucked ostinato from Weber. Here Metheny takes us into more “big band-friendly” territory, offering ample room for Metheny to shred with his trademark affected tone — it’s almost Pat Metheny Group Big Band featuring Eberhard Weber. The band transitions out of this part with the instrumental sections rhythmically punctuating against one another, eventually blending into the more textural elements from the beginning.
III. Weber & co. then lead us into a folk-like romp, with Metheny quickly strumming on the hollow body a la 80/81‘s “Two Folk Songs.” Here, Scott Colley shines in the spotlight dueling in call-and-response fashion with a digital Weber. And, amazingly, like the rest of this piece, it works. It doesn’t feel forced or like the band is “playing to a track.” It all melds together into one cohesive unit. A frenetic drum solo by Gottlieb then leads us to the final chapter.
IV. Much like the beginning, the big band is more textural here, while Weber melodically solos atop. The digital Weber has acted more as musical director and bassist until this point, but he’s the featured soloist to close, which makes this Hommage a very fitting and tasteful tribute.
Metheny mentions in the liner notes that he hadn’t scored for big band in decades. Well, could’ve fooled me. It’s a very well-written work. Furthermore, I can’t express enough just how well all the parts come together. Seeing and hearing Weber within the piece really made him feel like a genuine part of the performance. Bravo to Pat Metheny on a job well done.
The soloists and ensemble gave a commanding and cohesive performance. I could be wrong, but it appeared as if there was a quick skip/glitch in the video feed near the transition from the first to the second sections, but everyone quickly adjusted and got back on the same page. Perhaps it wasn’t a glitch and there was just a natural hiccup to overcome in the Weber track; hard to tell. (Speaking from my own experiences performing the music of Jakob ter Veldhuis, I can attest to the difficulty of performing composed works with tape, particularly when the samples aren’t always “exact” in certain sections.) The mix itself was mediocre at best, but that had nothing to do with the performers nor the composition.*
I’m very glad I saw this piece live, the performance of which I’m sure will be a rarity going forward. I really hope ECM considers releasing a video of the Eberhard Weber tribute concert from Stuttgart in January so that more people will have an opportunity to see this work as well as hear it. But until then, check out the audio, and the rest of the concert (featuring a host of other musicians including Jan Garbarek) when it hits the shelves this Friday.
*Having seen many DJF concerts on that same stage, I’m surprised that the mix wasn’t MUCH better. Quest, a quartet, was much louder than this full ensemble, for instance.