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Harmonic Divergence

By Josh Potter

The Great Snowball Tour

Upstate Artists Guild, Feb. 16

A moment came sometime in the middle of Andrea Neumann, Jack Wright and Michael T. Bullock’s improvised set when the dynamic settled into a full, patient silence. From outside the Upstate Artists Guild, a tiny Lark Street gallery space, two voices could be heard approaching. While lesser musicians would have preemptively commenced a new musical strain to avoid the awkward, latent scorn that greets late-arriving audience members, the trio waited. In the world of electro-acoustic improvised music, every element is valid, and if a rule prevails in this aesthetic open frontier it is that of total responsivity. As the door clicked shut, Wright tapped a saxophone pad in conversation. And as the newcomers’ voices dissolved into the collective focus, Neumann’s innenklavier swelled in welcome.

Part of a monthly series of experimental musical offerings hosted by the United Artists Guild and the Albany Sonic Arts Collective, the Great Snowball tour was a rare forum for Neumann’s unique work on the innenklavier (a prepared piano consisting of mere strings, resonance board, and accompanying electronics) to share space with Wright’s post-jazz saxophone and Bullock’s noise-oriented contrabass. With homage directed most clearly to John Cage, the trio drew on a vast vocabulary of unconventional techniques to constellate what might be called a series of tone poems, had pitch and melody factored more heavily in the performance.

Instead, it was a seeping, scurrying web of sound that resulted from the trio’s primitivist approach to their instruments. Wright tapped the pads of his horn, blew breathy static in continuous circular reels, split notes, and buzzed on the neck of his horn in the absence of a mouthpiece. Bullock used the body of his bass for its most basic resonant faculties, tapping, bowing below the bridge, accessing a range of harmonics, and even amplifying a tuning fork with various parts of his instrument. While often taking a more reticent role, Neumann proved the most compelling to watch. In order to access a wide range of timbre, she struck her instrument’s strings in the manner of a dulcimer, plucked them manually, and scraped them with drummer’s brushes and a bladeless hand fan, all the while manipulating the instrument’s output on a mixing console.

If the evolution of the musical instrument has been a quest to find the most direct route to the artist’s intuitive experience, then opening performer Alex Chechile just might have found it. Fixing electrodes to his head, he uses biofeedback to generate sounds he then pipes through his laptop and reel-to-reel tape deck. Literally pulling thoughts in and out of attention, he used an array of burbling frequencies that were looped, sustained, phased and layered, then cut with found sound and a trace of the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”

Noise for these musicians is not an aesthetic tool used to represent a chaos that has engulfed our postmodern world—although this is a common existential fatalism that pervades the reading of such work—but rather, in its emergence from silence, it illustrates the common form and pattern that underlie noise and so render it accessible and navigable. It’s tender, human sound, stripped of its representational or metaphoric qualities and allowed to breathe in a singular space and time, with the suggestion that, in its responsive character, it might extend before or long after the musicians have decided to “perform.”

Vocal Perfection

Dianne Reeves

The Egg, Feb. 13

Last week, right here in little old Albany, Dianne Reeves reaffirmed that she might just be the best jazz singer alive. She was in total command of her technique; her voice was flawless, and everything difficult she attempted sounded easy.

The overnight snow-and-ice storm may have forced Reeves and her quartet to straggle into town via cars, trains and (delayed) planes, but the icy roads didn’t keep people away from the Egg on Valentine’s Day eve—or adversely affect the music Reeves and her band made in the intimacy of the Swyer Theater.

The 90-minute, no-intermission (and no-encore) show leaned heavily on songs from Reeves’ upcoming (in April) album of love songs. The selections ranged from bop (a bouncy “Social Call”) and ballads (Peggy Lee’s “I’m in Love Again”) to pop (a dramatic “The Windmills of Your Mind”) and R&B (a sweet, inspired take on “Just My Imagination”). It was a swell advertisement for the new disc, as she moved smoothly from genre to genre.

She enjoyed herself, too, even turning the day’s travel mishaps into an improvised song.

The highlight of the evening came near the end. Reeves and her longtime guitarist Romero Lubambo performed a duet on Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” She rephrased the intricate lyrics to fit the Brazilian rhythms, and, giving cues to Lubambo, improvised effortlessly. The guitarist took his turn with a long solo, then Reeves brought the rest of the band into the mix, one by one: first the drums, then the bass and finally the keyboards. I don’t care if they’d done the same thing once or a hundred times before—it certainly didn’t seem so—this performance was organic and completely fresh. Appropriately, the audience went wild with applause.

The next, penultimate song was revealing. “Midnight Sun,” with its otherworldly melody and overripe lyrics (“the clouds were like an alabaster palace”) is one of those standards that let a singer really let rip with virtuosity. And, usually, the band lay back while the singer dominates the song. When it came to the virtuosity thing Reeves didn’t disappoint, but what made the performance special was that the band was right there with her, in a funky, fusion-style arrangement that reinvented the song.

This was a warm-up gig for her Valentine’s Day performance the following night at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. I’ll bet that was some show.

—Shawn Stone

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