FREEDOM THROUGH COLLECTIVE IMPROVISATION: iEAR PRESENTS FREE JAZZ FROM THE SANCTUARY
(featuring the Matthew Shipp Trio)
Arts Center of the Capital Region
April 1, 2010
by J Hunter
In the last few years, the Sanctuary for Independent Media has become a consistent outlet for all forms of alternative music: Just last month, they presented a show by Malian ngonu player Bassekou Kouyate – one of many African musicians to appear on Bela Fleck’s Grammy-winning disc Throw Down Your Heart. In any case, the Arts Center of the Capital Region has collaborated with Sanctuary to provide what amounts to a “Greatest Hits” album. Attendees at the opening night of “Freedom through Collective Improvisation” got a taste of the past & present of Sanctuary’s ongoing musical series – the past from the riveting multi-media presentation in the Arts Center’s gallery, and the present from two stunning sets by the Matthew Shipp Trio.
Shipp has made some of the most interesting electric jazz to come along in the last ten years, but on this night he’d have nothing to work with but the grand piano on the right of the stage in the Joseph L. Bruno Theatre. Sanctuary spokesman Steve Pierce told us during his introduction that the piano was one of the great things about doing this show at the Arts Center, as the Sanctuary’s piano is over 100 years old – the implication being that Shipp would need something a little more resilient. Boy, was he right!
The reed-thin pianist walked onstage behind bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey, looking extremely young as he sat down at the piano and began to play, finding a figure he liked and then beginning to work at its structure. Bisio – a Troy native who is no stranger to Sanctuary regulars – rosined up his bow and watched Shipp expand on his initial theme. Eventually, Bisio stepped in, plucking his bass in a parallel pattern that eventually turned into a passionate counter to Shipp’s bursting pyrotechnics.
This was free jazz, active and reactive, created completely in the moment. Although Dickey did step forward during the latter half of the volcanic, uninterrupted 45-minute performance, the drummer was quite content to stay in the background and provide minimal foundation for his band mates. Shipp and Bisio seemed determined to take both the instruments and the audience right to the edge, and then see how far out into space they could go. It’s tempting to call what they did a “meditation”, except that word connotes a sense of peace and tranquility, and this performance was anything but peaceful or tranquil. Towards the end of the first set, Shipp maneuvered the trio into an examination of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”, though Shipp seemed less interested in seeing if “the living was easy” then he was of re-creating the hurricane that strikes during the second act of Porgy & Bess.
By contrast, the multi-media installation was relatively peaceful, though it certainly has its powerful moments. The exhibition is made up of pictures & video of performances at Sanctuary over the years; it ranges from explorations of “poetry slams” by Amiri Baraka and Pierre Joris, to percussionist William Hooker creating an impromptu soundtrack for The Symbol of the Unconquered, a 1920 silent film by pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. As I walked around the gallery, a video projected on one white wall showed Baraka spouting hard-edged, lightning fast verse while saxman Rob Brown played a figure from Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.” Just like me, the video went from artist to artist, group to group, in a montage of the sounds made by the pictures in the gallery.
Almost the entire set of stills comes from Andrzej Pilarczyck, who has been the gold standard of Capital Region concert photography for many a moon. Running through all of Pilarczyk’s work (both in this exhibit and in general) is an appreciation for the way the music affects the musicians themselves – how one note or one passage, or just being present in a moment of creativity, can make a player glow like the sun. You see it in stills of Michael Vlatkovitch cutting the picture in half with his trombone; vocalist Fay Victor in mid-song, the love of the music shining on her smiling face; Corey Wilkes in perfect profile, his cornet held high; and guitarist Mary Halvorsen digging the music she made with Thirteenth Assembly and the Weasel Walker Trio.
The only reason the Capital Region got to see these artists (as well as groups like Splatto Festival Chorus, the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, and the performance piece Sax, Soup, Poetry and Voice) is because Sanctuary brought them here. Whether you saw these shows or not, you need to experience these captured moments, and the joy and creativity that comes with them. The exhibition continues through April 30th.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.