Ralph Carney’s 2010 photograph of himself in a white suit (from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
The full title of the program for last night’s New Music Summit concert, organized by Outsound Presents, was CarneyVal!: A night celebrating the memory of saxophonist Ralph Carney. Carney was the consummate professional musician, playing with more groups and in more sessions than can possibly be enumerated, although he may be best remembered for his association with the animated series BoJack Horseman and at least one appearance as the saxophone played by Lisa Simpson (on the Simpsons video game). He died last December from head injuries sustained from falling down the stairs at his home in Portland, Oregon.
Carney was honored by both sets of last night’s program, which owes much to the efforts of colleague and saxophonist David Slusser. Both Carney and Slusser were natives of Akron, Ohio, where Carney’s father worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. To honor their rust belt roots, they formed a band called Rubber City, joined by Chris Ackerman on drums. Last night’s first set was taken by reincarnation of Rubber City, with founders Slusser and Ackerman joined by saxophonist Sheldon Brown and bassist Richard Saunders.
Note that generic use of the noun “saxophonist." The stage was littered with saxophones of all sizes (recalling, for me at least, the prodigious number of clarinets played by the group Clarinet Thing, of which Carney was a founding member). Last night flutes were also added to the mix (but not the $50 plastic oboe that Carney once used for a solo gig). As one might guess from the diversity of instrumentation and his connection to animation, Carney had a strong tongue-in-cheek streak; and Rubber City prepared a set to celebrate that attitude.
The quartet opened by looking back on Akron with a performance of the waltz “Beautiful Ohio.” The best way to describe the performance was that both of the words of the title (as well as the waltz format) were reflected through an astounding variety of funhouse mirrors. One might almost call the interpretation a blend of nostalgia and good-riddance, treating both sides of the coin with equal affection and irreverence. It was easy for me to reflect on the playful irony that Frank Zappa would summon up whenever he and his group would try to play something “traditional.”
Similar irreverence was brought to another musician now deceased, Steve Lacy, who died in June of 2004. Lacy was also a saxophonist with a particular specialty on the soprano instrument. In an amusingly convoluted way, Rubber City paid tribute to Lacy playing tribute to Thelonious Monk. The title of the piece was “Steve’s Shorts” (with subtitle “Lacy Underthings”); and the references to Monk were as sincere as they were fragmented. (The reference to “Monk’s Dream” was the one that resonated the most with me.)
The raucousness of the wind style delivered by both Slusser and Brown could also be found in the darker Carney compositions, “Blues for Lucifer” and “Jazz Death.” These pieces also allowed the few opportunities for extended solo work on both bass and drums. The flute work, on the other hand, only came in on the final selection, “Migrants.” This was probably the most serious performance of the evening, probably because the plight of immigrants has grown to a global scale, which seems to be bringing out the heartlessness of just about any society that pretends to think of itself as civilized. Carney may have approached this piece with the same capacity for playful irony that he brought to so many other compositions, but last night’s performance suggested that the real world was creeping up on this particular selection.