Matters of Convention

January is a great time for music conferences (or conventions). A few organizations holding them this month that I can name off-hand are: the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), the Jazz Educators Network (JEN), Chamber Music America (CMA), and the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM). Sadly, my relationship with the economy is tipped slightly out of my favor at the moment and having to replace the car this year means that the only convention I’ll be attending is (hopefully) the International Society of Bassists in June. (I resisted joining ISB until two years ago, mainly because their convention was being held that year in San Francisco, where my mother lives, so I could write off a visit with her as a business expense. At the convention I was wowed by the virtuosity of the likes of Nicholas Walker, Putter Smith, John Clayton, Bertram Turetzky, and Jiri Slavik. Doing lunch with Michael Formanek and Mark Dresser were also high points, but taking a private lesson with the legendary Barre Phillips changed my life and sold me on the ISB.)

I had planned to go to the Jazz Connect events at APAP, which are free and end today, but my work schedule has put the kibosh on my plans. I’m supplying the musical accompaniment for a one-person play written and performed by Stacie Chaiken, Looking for Louie, which is being staged at the Rockland Center for the Arts this Sunday (January 13) afternoon and will be in rehearsal during the second day of the convention. On Jazz Connect’s first day, I was glued to the computer writing this post and putting together a part for the rehearsal.

While it might seem paradoxical to some, that an improvising musician would be writing a part for a performance, it’s actually not at all at odds with how improvisation works. Chaiken incorporates interactivity with her audience as well as with her accompanist in Looking for Louie and the bass part is largely improvised. However Looking for Louie was staged previously, in Los Angeles and Israel, and a structural element exists in the music that specifically relates to the work’s plot. To provide improvisations that are in line with the work’s style and surface contours, I transcribed the bass part from the Israeli performance into Finale® and inserted it into an MSWord® document along with the play’s script. It’s essentially the same way I prepare for playing jazz, except the research I do for that is on-going and I’ve been at it for a longer time, so I don’t have to do it for every situation that comes along. Fortunately, Chaiken is very comfortable working with jazz musicians (her husband, Martin Berg, used to play trumpet in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and is currently on the board of directors of the California Jazz Foundation), and our first rehearsal went smashingly well. I think it’s possible to now bring my own sensibilities, which lean more towards the avant-garde than her previous accompanists, to our final rehearsal without disrupting the drama.

Rockland Center for the Arts (ROCA) is a terrific place to hear music. The acoustics of its main gallery are superb and neither Chaiken nor I will need any sound support. Because ROCA receives support from the New York State Council on the Arts, as well as from local businesses and subscription memberships, performers who play there are paid a living wage. Organizations like ROCA are in the business of presenting art, not the commodification of it. Sadly, there’s a stigma attached to the presentation of art as art that leads many to believe it to be unfathomable to most. While it’s true that the masses now, more than ever, are potential prey falling to those who would limit their exposure to good quality art, especially music, it doesn’t mean that it’s beyond the public’s ability to comprehend it.

This was made obvious to me last Monday at a memorial for the late saxophonist-composer David S. Ware held at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan’s Citicorp Center. Ware’s memorial was well-attended—in fact, standing room only—and the program well-paced. The music played was not what one would expect to be included in the year-end memoriam of NPR or the NYT (neither included Ware), but it was of the highest caliber and performed with the deepest of conviction. Saxophonists Rob Brown, Daniel Carter, and Darius Jones gave stellar performances to honor their fallen comrade, as did drummers Andrew Cyrille, Guillermo E. Brown, Warren Smith, and Muhammad Ali.

I first heard Ware when he played at the Iridium Jazz Club in July of 2003. His quartet, with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, and Guillermo Brown, were part of a double bill that included a quintet led by bassist Henry Grimes (who I came to see) that featured trumpeter Roy Campbell, saxophonist Brown, pianist Andrew Bemke, and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson. I enjoyed listening to Grimes’s group, but when Ware started his half of the show, I was surprised to find myself witnessing what I can only describe as a singularity at Iridium. Ware and his group not only blew the roof off of the place, but did it with a kind of playing that is all-too-rarely presented there. Ware’s sound, like Gato Barbieri’s or Clarence Clemens’s, was huge, but devoid of commercial pretense. His compositions supplied him with long, slow-moving progressions, highlighting his improvisations’ multiple-tiered voice leading that infused rapid-fire filigree over a subtle linearity.

At Ware’s memorial I was also surprised to hear multi-instrument builder-performer Cooper-Moore—who, along with Ware and drummer Marc Edwards, was a member of the collective, Apogee—for the first time. Cooper-Moore performed a solo piece on an instrument he calls a harp, and it is a harp, but is played horizontally, like a piano. The piece he played was beautifully lyrical and juxtaposed nicely between the opening piece, “Prayer,” by William Parker (who conducted and played percussion) with his group (pianist Eri Yamamoto, vocalist Fay Victor, Rob Brown, and a string ensemble led by Jason Kao Hwang) and a trio featuring Andrew Cyrille, Daniel Carter, and bassist Joe Morris. Another first for me was to hear Morris play guitar, which he did in a duet with drummer Warren Smith, performing an exquisite Morris original, “Violet.” Muhammad Ali and Darius Jones played a duo that was truly a great moment in music, expanding on the legacy of saxophone-drum playing started by John Coltrane and Rashied Ali. Poetry was read by the passionately verbal powerhouse Steve Dalachinsky and memories of Ware were shared by his widow, Setsuko S. Ware; his business partners, Jimmy Katz and Steven Joerg; and finally his long-time pianist Matthew Shipp, who also wrote a heartfelt obituary about Ware for NewMusicBox last year. The final live performance (followed by a clip of Ware playing solo soprano saxophone) was by Ware’s rhythm section who performed a medley of two Ware compositions, “Godspelized” and “Sentient Compassion.”

One of the things the words spoken about Ware at his memorial acknowledged was that his sound was highly personal and entirely idiomatic to the saxophone. That’s what struck me about Ware the first time I heard him—his sound. Raw. Big. Relentless. But accepting without being acquiescent. Like his elders, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, his sound was unlike what the world of “mainstream” music accepts as the “pure” sound of the saxophone, yet it was pure saxophone. His was a sound that, like his compositions, leaned away from the Western art music paradigm he had mastered. While researching today’s post, I ran across a schedule of music educators association conferences that will be held this month in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Jazz is now included in the curriculum of many schools in these states, although until the 1970s and ‘80s it mostly wasn’t. Still, it wasn’t until after 2000 that I saw a music professor teach the music of Ornette Colman to a class. I wonder how long it will be before the music academy will tackle the music of David S. Ware.

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