Readers may recall that the Luggage Store Creative (LSC) Music Series from Outsound Presents rang out the old year with two sets of free improvisations based almost entirely on electronics. Last night LSC ushered in the new year with another two sets of free improvisations, but this time all the players were instrumentalists. The opening set involved a visit by trombonist Michael Dessen performing in a quartet with Phillip Greenlief on tenor saxophone, Scott Walton on bass, and Donald Robinson on drums. This group was followed by the ILL WIND quartet, consisting of Tom Djll on trumpet (without any electronic or algorithmic enhancements), Kyle Bruckmann alternating between cor anglais and oboe, John McCowen alternating between clarinet and contrabass clarinet (and occasionally involving a tenor drum), and Kanoko Nishi-Smith on koto.
About the only commonality shared by these two groups was that each involved four musicians venturing into territory too unfamiliar to be given a genre label and playing without any marks on paper. Having said that, I would probably venture to say that there was more of a spirit of jamming in the opening set, while the second set might be suggestively classified as exploratory. However, those categories serve little more than a point of reference when it comes to trying to describe just what was coming down last night.
The first set was the more exhilarating, which is probably what justifies evoking that spirit of jamming. Each player always seemed to find just the right balance between a disciplined command of his instrument and an awareness of the other three performers. It was one of those occasions when it was hard to tell when things actually began. Initial awareness involved Dessen breathing into his trombone. That could have just been part of his warm-up ritual; but, sure enough, after about 45 minutes had elapsed, there he was breathing into the trombone again after the other members of the group had fallen silent.
Was this part of an architectural plan, or was it just the way things happened to evolve? That question seems more significant to those like myself trying to find words to capture the enthusiastically unrelenting high energy of all four of the players than it would have been to how the players chose to go about making their music! All that really mattered is that Dessen’s “last breath” signaled the finalization of a barrage of riffs that sometimes aligned and sometimes did not but always left me leaning forward, trying to fathom what would happen next.
“Exploratory” may not be the most accurate word to describe the following set by ILL WIND; but, as the old saying goes, you have to start somewhere. In this case things started with McCowen putting his mouthpiece on the bottom half of his clarinet and placing the bell against the surface of his drum. His intention seems to have been the induce the vibration of the drum head, and his success brought about some of the most chilling sounds of the evening.
This set the tone, so to speak, for how this second set was approached. Most of the sounds were, indeed, single tones, often involving techniques as unconventional as McCowen’s. Djll began by removing the mouthpiece of his trumpet and just breathing into that entry hole. McCowen took a special interest in multiphonic sounds, particularly coming from his contrabass clarinet. Bruckmann’s intonations, on the other hand, tended to be more unadorned. In this midst of this flow of wind intonations, Nishi-Smith seemed to explore the use of every possible physical object (including bows, brushes, and even paper plates) to get sounds from her koto strings, interrupting those experimentations only once for a few more conventional plucks. This time any sense of an ending seemed to come from nothing more than a mutual decision that it was time to stop.
So is anything to be gained from efforts to categorize? The term “jamming” seems to work to the extent that it recalls what Ornette Coleman was doing in the name of free jazz. Coleman’s efforts took place over half a century in the past, but the spirit behind his work keeps finding new directions for paths to follow. ILL WIND, on the other hand, had that focused attention on the properties of individual sounds juxtaposed in a common space that had so much to do with the Deep Listening efforts of the late Pauline Oliveros and her colleagues. Attempts to describe inevitably involve comparisons with such past experiences, which may be the only way we can get our heads around anything new. However, last night was all about the immediate present, regardless of whatever baggage may have assisted efforts to make sense of it all.