Deep Music of the South

Last Monday I went to hear yet another concert at University of the Streets. This time, though, I had no reason to be there other than to watch and listen to the group headed by guitarist/composer Omar Tamez of Monterrey, Mexico. He will be performing around the state of New York for the month of August and this was his second performance since arriving last week. His first was a duo with Dom Minasi at the ABC No Rio – C.O.M.A. performance space run by saxophonist Blaise Siwula.

The 37-year old Tamez is a moving force in the Mexican music scene. For the last fifteen years he has led the Non-Jazz Ensemble, a group with a varied personnel and repertoire. In 2002 he began organizing an annual event in Monterrey for his ensemble, bringing together musicians from different countries and disciplines to create series of concerts lasting a week or more. The Non-Jazz website contains links to a broad palette of samples of these concerts.

Tamez was joined by trombonist Steve Swell, trumpeter Herb Robertson, cellist Jonathan Golove, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer Harvey Sorgen for his University of the Streets performance, but the program was composed by his father and teacher, Nicandro Tamez (1931-1985). Omar picked four works for the concert: Comunio Spoza et Mater—a love poem composed in 1976 for his wife on Mother’s Day structured in 4 movements to represent four seasons; Monomaquia #2—a kind of “duel” composed in 1978 for solo cello; Trimurti Ying—a set of 17 pieces composed in 1979 (“Señora,” “Niña,” “Diosa,” “Pleroma,” “Tántrica,” “Genetric,” “Virgin,” “Palmera,” Cyprés,” “Torre,” “Portal,” “Templete,” “Noria,” “Fuente,” “Trimonio,” “Espíritu,” and “Amor”) performed by Tamez on guitar alone; and Ubudo—Nicandro’s last work and composed in 1984.

Nicandro Tamez was an educator who worked through several universities as well as founding his own Escuela Formativa por las Artes. His approach to composition grew from one steeped in the traditional Western paradigm to serialism and then to inventing his own notation and embracing improvisation and intuitive interpretation by the performer. In some of the works performed by the ensemble, the notation might only relate to pitch and relative duration, with chromatic alterations indicated by note head shape. The tempo, dynamics, register and articulation of the phrases are improvised. Sometimes microtonal ornamentation for the notated pitches were also improvised, such as the last movement of Comunio Spoza et Mater. Some of the improvisation is built into Tamez’s use of what Omar calls “intuitive” graphics, where amoeba-like shapes are given to the performer to interpret. Tamez also used what I’ll call “legended” graphics, where a technique, or set of techniques, is assigned to a specific ideogram. In Monomaquia #2 Jonathan Golove added a level of interpretation with use of electronic signal processors. Some pieces (“Cyprés” and “Amor”) have the performers construct their own scales to use in their improvising. The last piece, Ubudo, has the ensemble reading from parts that contain three pages of graphics arranged in +/- Cartesian planes. The graphics themselves relate to legended sets of instructions while the quadrants of the planes are interpreted by the performer.

One of the most impressive things about the concert was the choice of musicians. While not as nationally diverse as Tamez’s Monterrey concerts, the diversity of musical background was profound. Robertson, best known for his work with saxophonist Tim Berne, and Swell are strongly associated with the New York free-jazz community. Golove is an associate professor of cello performance at the University of Buffalo and is probably better known for his work in orchestral situations and Sorgen, a mainstay of the Woodstock music scene, is best known for his work with the group, Hot Tuna. Fonda is a bassist of the highest order whose use of extended techniques is both encyclopedic and personal. The group’s performance was nothing short of top-flight, even though the band/audience ratio neared 1-to-1. While each performer is a virtuoso in their own right, the degree of sensitivity to the music at hand never faltered.

Tamez brings a sensibility to the ensemble that is tempered by a profound knowledge of music canon (he is a dedicated collector of recordings and has a weekly radio show where he shares his findings) and a deep connection to his indigenous roots. His immediate family is made up of artists. Besides his father, his sister Teresa is a classical pianist, his brother Emilio is a brilliant drummer/percussionist, and his mother is a poet/painter. Tamez’s music, while including modern European and American instruments never seems to originate in their commonly associated styles and, while the language of his poetry is Spanish, the spirit of his music is pre-Columbian. At first, he almost seems to be playing at the guitar; but as his performance continues, you see that the guitar is what he plays his music on. Instead of accessing the “tradition” of the instrument (something he is quite capable of doing, as his discography shows), he goes to a tradition of place, where instruments are assimilated. In a sense, the umbrella he uses for his projects, “Non-Jazz,” is a non-sequitur, since indigenousness is the root of jazz as well.

The performance was a musical event that was worthy of any major concert hall. I’m only sorry I couldn’t stay to hear Max Johnson’s band. Omar Tamez will be bringing groups to Middleton, Connecticut on Friday, August 12; Buffalo, New York on Saturday, August 13; Woodstock, New York on Sunday, August 21; Grand Rapids, Michigan on Friday and Saturday, September 2 & 3; and in Buffalo again on Thursday, September 8. He tells me that there are other dates in Woodstock and Cleveland, but the details aren’t yet available. I’ll add them as comments to this blog when I know more.

A brief explanation for the comments from last week: I wasn’t being dismissive of hip-hop or rap at all when I wrote that the genres “pretty much use the same drum sample.” I base the statement on the evidence presented here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SaFTm2bcac that claims that a 6-second drum pattern called the “Amen Break” is the root sample for all hip-hop music. But I see how my statement could be misconstrued. While the use of the sampled drum break is about authenticity (at least I think it is), Shel Silverstein’s use of three or four basic chord progressions was (I think) more about appropriation of the Country-and-Western style that he obviously loved. By including the name of a genre in the discussion of a person, I inadvertently seemed dismissive of one or the other or both, which was not the point of doing so. The point was that the songs of Shel Silverstein are distinctive more so because of their lyrics than because of their musical elements, which is something that can be said about quite a bit of popular music as well.

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