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Joe Major

Troy, NY
April 7, 2016

by Joe Major

From the outset, EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performance Arts Center) curator Argeo Ascani espoused his interest “in things that don’t fit at first.” Instead of museum style gallery by gallery exploration, he always opts for hybridization.  In musical crit circles the nominal border wars that occur between “jazz” and “performance” acts are common kerfuffles.  The evening’s program, Bearthoven, and Battle Trance, would soon prove that the only truly “ill-fitting things” were the needless attempts to pigeonhole performers by genre.    
Bearthoven is a piano, bass, vibraphone and percussion trio comprised of Karl Larson, Pat Swoboda and Matt Evans. From this standard jazz configuration they perform commissioned pieces whose boundless through-line seems to be spirited invention.
The five works enabled the trio to dig deep into their technique bag. The opening number featured a relentlessly metronomic piano, a clackety-clack drum-kit shuffle, and a Doppler-effect electric bass that was sneaky in the way it swelled and ebbed. Maybe it was the iconic slung-guitar posture that contributed, but I got a distinct, fat-line, western “Rawhide” whiff. 
Segue off the high plains into a ballet studio, where the next piece may well have been delicately scored for an ethereal, meditative dance introspection. Larson reached under the hood to manipulate individual piano strings with fishing line, coaxing keening, pealing tones that soared, then dissolved in dream.  
That dream suddenly became nightmarish in the following number, in which Swoboda’s ominous, tsunami-level timpani work led us on a roiling rudder-and-a-prayer voyage. The prayer was answered in the safe harbor of a beautifully diminished coda.
The order of numbers was carefully plotted to keep the atmospheres in flux. Abutted to the preceding stormy piece was as angelic a musing as imaginable. With an aura of sacred processional, the trio kindled thin, airy tones. Quivering, wavering tones that put the vibration in vibraphone. Tones so fleeting that, like a hearing-booth test, one was uncertain they were actually there.
Cut to the last commission, where we found ourselves in a rapid piano and vibes frolic that exhibited unabashed, unrepentant jazz chops, reminiscent of Jacky Terrasson and Stefon Harris.
The prancing execution of all these pieces reveled in an air of invention. There was a tactile, animated, nearly pixilated, arts and crafts vibe(!) in the compositions, and the delivery. They were old-school dark room image makers, bent over trays of developer, delighted at what ultimately materialized.

Battle Trance strode to center stage in a hardly glowing EMPAC concert hall like the four hornsmen of the horncropolis, and huddled up. For more than a few minutes, in more ways than one, they were waiting to exhale.
Battle Trance are Travis Laplante, Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Vinor, and Partick Breiner, all tenor saxophonists, all of whose battle axes were honed for active duty. Their stamina and ability to utilize extensive circular breathing, times four mind you, resulted in the following forty minutes becoming a seamless buzz in a hypnotic and agitated hive. They swarmed. Their unison playing, fractionally half-tone steps apart, might have the sweetness of nectar, or the sting of an attack maneuver.
Each horn contributed an element to an erupting terra firma. Their molten approach literally heaved as it progressed forward. Within that undulating mass various thematic motifs quixotically appeared. One movement could have been Sun Ra depositing a dollop of Saturday night at the Savoy swagger. Or it might have been titans Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons alluding to an era when “boss tenors” roamed the earth. It could have been the call of the shofar from Jewish antiquity. Or the utterly contemporaneous body and instrument-mic’d sonic expulsions of a Colin Stephenson.

Remember, this tonal tide was endless. I felt as if I couldn’t come up for air. And again, the inner thrum of movements kept the pressure on max. Snippets of rhythm and blues, rumble strip blip-blipping on the shoulder of a road, hyena pack take-downs, keep-the-faith testimonies, percussive 18-wheeler blasts, downright detonations. Whoa!

Battle Trance huddled up at the end as well, motionless, finally silent, as if inhaling all that they had wrought.

Joe Major is an inveterate jazz pilgrim for whom the holy grail is always the evocative communion of impression meeting expression. Living over the border in Williamstown, MA, for thirty-plus years, he’s been the grateful beneficiary of countless Williams College performances that have arranged themselves on his ever shifting life list.