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Steve Lacy’s Tips: Scott Thomson and Collaborators at Guelph (2011)

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A unit of tactile measure: the foot, the arm, the thumb. [from Le Jour et la Nuit: Cahiers de Georges Braque (1917-1952)]
When I took up this blog in earnest – well, more in earnest than I had before – in 2011, one of the pieces I meant to write but didn’t manage to get down on paper was my reaction to a workshop-performance of Steve Lacy’s suite Tips by a trio called The Open (Scott Thomson, trombone; Susanna Hood, voice/dance; and Kyle Brenders, soprano saxophone), augmented by dancer Alanna Kraaijeveld, at the Guelph Jazz Festival in September that year. The trio is a sub-configuration of The Rent, Thomson’s excellent quintet dedicated to performing Steve Lacy’s music, one of a number of significant repertory bands – including Ideal Bread and The Whammies – to have emerged after Lacy’s death. (Lacy’s collaborator, trombonist Roswell Rudd, who has also been Thomson’s teacher and mentor, has written a promotional blurb for The Rent’s 2010 recording praising their many virtues: “The Rent has done the world a solid favor by rendering a bouquet of Steve Lacy’s compositions with precision, imagination and love. Thanks so much.”) Gratitude is also something I feel when I remember, even now, the powerfully moving reading of Tips the quartet gave that September afternoon in the foyer of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph. It was one of the highlights of the festival, and continues to be, to my mind, one of the most artistically engaged and engaging moments I have experienced as an audience member, as a listener.
         In the autobiographical essay he wrote for Daniel Kernohan’s anthology Music is Rapid Transportation(2010), Thomson describes a shift in approach and attitude he underwent as he began performing demanding improvisational music like Lacy’s:
 [B]efore I started playing music, while I certainly listened deeply, passionately and, indeed,  differentlythan most people I knew, I listened as an ostensible outsider and as a kind of passive consumer. […] Since I started playing, however, the tangible experience of playing collaboratively (improvisation, composition, or both, it doesn’t matter) has taught me how to listen as a participant in the music making process whether performing or not, a change that has been profoundly rewarding. Fundamentally, it’s the difference between listening to and listening with.
The shift in prepositions is significant, because it speaks to a practice of listening as active engagement; Thomson is careful to note that this practice isn’t limited to musicians, but that in his case collaborative musical performance is how he felt enabled to begin to produce a bridging of intersubjective detachments through co-creative experience, through some kind of shared aesthesis. It’s a sharing that appears to consist, as well, both in and through not identification but mutual difference – as opposed, perhaps, to mutual indifference.
What I think I found truly uplifting about their version of Tips was that it seemed as if I had shared in a bit of that bridgework; as an audience member, I felt as if I were somehow taking part in the unfolding, present tense of sound and movement in front of me. The “open” in the trio’s name suggests an openness – in approach, in conception and in realization. Both despite and through their virtuosity, their “precision” as Rudd puts it, these performers offer each other and their listeners genuine, tangible openings onto a temporal and spatial immediacy, onto the textures of what happens, of happening itself. (A video of the workshop performance, with question-and-answer session about their work, can be viewed here, on the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice website. If you look carefully, you can even catch me, on the left hand side, asking a question.) It may be a bit hard to sense or to glimpse this collaborative vitality in the video recording that was made that afternoon: we’re held at something of a remove by lens and electronic screen, by the interface. The presence that informs a palpably successful live performance is sometimes hard to catch second-hand. For me, there was something powerfully affecting in the mesh of the instrumental lines, of Susanna Hood’s voice and of Alanna Kraaijeveld’s kiltering, edgy movements that drew me in and that held me, for a while. I wish I could explain it better. (“In art,” writes Georges Braque in his diaries, the source for all the aphorisms and tips in Lacy’s brief suite, “only one thing counts: that which cannot be explained.”) Lacy’s music can sometimes seem a bit detached, a bit incisively formal, but when this quartet took up Tips that day they uncovered in its firmly unresolved tone-rows and intervals, in its fricative melodic eddies and currents, a fleeting means to touch the all-too-human fabric of our uneasy time. “Emotion,” writes Braque, “cannot grow nor be imitated; it represents the seed, the work of art represents the bud.” A pathos.

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