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Double Short Take on Francois Houle, Alexander Hawkins and Harris Eisenstadt Trio Live at Ironworks

Late Sunday night, June 29th, for the last concert of this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s Innovations Series at Ironworks, I caught the first performance by an extraordinary new trio – Francois Houle, clarinets, Alexander Hawkins, piano, and Harris Eisenstadt, drums.  “On fire!” one member of the audience called out at the conclusion of their vociferous and strident opening number, an annunciation of gathering energies. I heard the trio again at a fantastic afternoon gig at Performance Works on Granville Island for Canada Day, and it felt as if, in the intervening hours, the group had transformed from a brilliant summit meeting of next-generation improvisers into a coherent and organically responsive ensemble.

The set list for both performances was the same, as far as I could tell: an array of original compositions from each of its three members, along with two art songs by Steve Lacy: “Esteem” and “Art.” Aside from paying tribute to their avant-jazz lineage, the inclusion of the Lacy material offered their audience some sense of the dynamic historicity of the trio’s present-tense music-making. A previous project by Houle, for instance, engaged with the compositions of John Carter, himself an improviser deeply cognizant of the complex and conflicted history of jazz; Houle’s music seems to me often to negotiate creatively between the expressive and the given, to find its contingent voice at the interface between a virtuosic performer and a motile tissue of echoes, sounding and refiguring its liminally audible past. In fact, a version of this presencing informa the playing of all three. This trio co-creatively takes up each member’s disparate instrumental and aesthetic lineages, and finds points of tension and intersection, prodding their collective sound forward along the shared leading edge of their on-stage, real-time encounter, something Herman Melville – from whose poem “Art” Lacy’s composition took shape – names “pulsed life” that emerges from the creative and attentive collision of unlikenesses:
In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.
Eisenstadt, Houle and Hawkins fuse audacity and reverence in their music, which enacted during those two performances a generative wrestling with its angelic forebears and also with the immediate living context of its realization. (Lacy says in his own notes to the song that the poem seems to him to frame “the exact recipe for this activity,” for improvisational music-making.) This trio’s instrumentation (reeds/ piano/ drums) recalls the grouping that recorded Steve Lacy’s The Flame (from 1982, with Bobby Few on piano and Denis Charles on drums), but I have to say that I didn’t recognize either of the Lacy compositions at first hearing, and that Hawkins’s style is very different from Few’s, and that he draws out a more orchestrally thick and layered sound from the piano. His occasional use of wide, ringing intervals in his left hand recalled another of Lacy’s piano cohorts, Mal Waldron, but despite the inclusion of Lacy’s compositions, the Hawkins/ Houle/ Eisenstadt trio’s approach and textures were markedly different from this particular precursor.

Instead, especially during the second performance, when Hawkins launched into an extended solo passage of fractal stride, it felt to me, at least for a few minutes, as if the spectre of Teddy Wilson were somehow in the house, and that the drive and sustained ebullience of Eisenstadt’s drumming called up the impeccable abandon of Gene Krupa – whose fierce swing feel sometimes surged and ebbed from his brushes – who played alongside Teddy Wilson in Benny Goodman’s famous trio, whose instrumentation this current trio duplicates exactly. Or to go even further back I thought I could hear some of Johnny Dodds’s playing with Jelly Roll Morton, maybe with a hint here and there of Baby Dodds’s rolling tom-toms or Sid Catlett’s demiurgic rumble (to poach a phrase from Nathaniel Mackey). Still, this music isn’t in any sense neo-trad, and remains decidedly experimental in its orientation, extemporaneously free. But its approach also isn’t non-idiomatic – after Derek Bailey concept of “free” improvisation – so much as poly-idiomatic, a version perhaps of what Steve Lacy called, in the early 1970s when he composed “Esteem,” “poly-free”: a music that’s multivalent, iterative, recombinant. At one point during the first gig, for example, Houle’s circular breathing and quick-fingered looping lines recalled Evan Parker’s solo soprano technique, a sonic gesture that, more than mere homage, lent a contingently historical sense of form even to a doggedly contemporary musical avant-grade. It was as if, for each member of the trio, clusters of aural vocabulary and figments of style were simultaneously activated, cross-purposed, undone, imaginatively remade and even transubstantiated in the crucible of any given moment into a kinetic and differential accord: an alchemy of sound that I hope they managed to record, or might record soon, because, well, I’d like to hear it happen again.

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

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.

Evan Parker Live at the Western Front

It was a privilege to hear Evan Parker play last night, Friday March 22nd, at The Western Front. The concert was a return to a venue that has become a Vancouver landmark for the avant garde, presenting cutting-edge music, dance, film and visual art for 40 years. It also marked the release of Vaincu.Va!, an LP version of a recording from The Western Front’s archives of Evan Parker’s first solo concert there on November 8, 1978, which was the last performance in his North American tour that year,  a tour that Alexander Varty credits as “the first of its kind to be undertaken by a European improviser, paving the way for an invasion of exciting new music.”  In the unfolding of this music, its trans-Atlantic dissemination, last night’s concert was a significant moment, reinvigorating an important improvisational archive, making a history happen. Again.
Evan Parker played two sets, each under three-quarters of an hour: one, an extended solo improvisation on soprano saxophone (echoing the 1978 concert), and the other in an improvising trio with Gordon Grdinaon electric guitar and oud and Kenton Loewen on the drumkit. The Front’s recently refurbished Grand Luxe hall, upstairs, was packed to capacity; there must have been close to 150 people in the palpably supportive and expectant audience, a mixture of neophyte listeners for whom this would be a first experience with Parker’s music live and others who had been following Parker’s music for decades, some of whom I even overheard saying that they had attended the first concert there 35 years ago. I felt a very real sense of a listening community, not only because I was able to reconnect with friends I’d first encountered years ago at events like this, a fairly dedicated long-standing following for improvised music in Vancouver, but also because, before the concert and at the set-break, people seemed genuinely keen to talk with each other, not just about the music they were hearing, but about themselves; it seemed to me that, whatever the aesthetic gifts and challenges that this particular music offered us, it also occasioned a sense of bonding, a coming together, however briefly, of good shared human energy.
The solo soprano set was a single continuous piece that was sui generis for Parker. “Well,” I think I heard him say quietly before he began, “here we go.” Hearing his solo soprano music feels to me like stepping into a thick stream of layered arpeggios, intersecting torrents of 32ndnotes and harmonics that Parker sustains without pause through circular breathing for half an hour or so, at which point he stops; when he plays he doesn’t produce a finished work so much as enter into an ongoing process, a rivulet of shared aural time. The rapid shifting among at least three registers on his horn produce a kind of counterpoint not unlike the compositional practices of Steve Reich (who, like Parker, acknowledges John Coltrane as an early influence), but where Reich’s music seems marked (and this is not a criticism, but an observation) by sculptural calculation, Parker’s polylinear music seems to me not so much an effect of abandon or looseness, but more accommodating than Reich’s to the unpredictabilities and small excesses, the momentary remainders and overflows, of body and breath. I could hear, I could fell the fleeting intensities of those cascading lines resonate and pulse in my ear canals. Resonance: that’s exactly the right term, I think, for what Parker’s solo music seeks, and moment by moment what it finds. He stopped playing as unceremoniously as he had begun, just taking the horn out of his mouth (as Miles Davis had told Coltrane to do back in the heyday), and was met with huge applause for that small room. I have never attended an Evan Parker performance that was less than great, but this short improvisation felt tremendous. He returned to the centre of the stand for what seemed like an encore, but instead of more, he played a 20-second head of a Thelonious Monk tune – I’m not sure what it was, maybe “Ugly Beauty,” though I’m sure that’s wrong – during which his tone shifted markedly, more rounded and plainspoken; he was hearkening back, if only for only a passing instant, to Steve Lacy. At the set break, James Coverdale (I was sitting beside him and Lynn Buhler) said he thought of Lacy too, and that it was something like an invocation to Lacy’s spirit, Lacy who has played the same room so many times, solo and in duo with Irene Aebi and others, in the past. Again, he had sounded an improvisational historicity, in the present, in our presence.
At the beginning of the break D. B. Boyko, the Western Front’s artistic director, presented Parker and artist Eric Metcalfe with copies of the LP, which they autographed for each other. (Metcalfe’s artwork adorns the album cover. He mentioned that he was one of those present who had attended the original concert.)
The second set consisted of two improvised pieces by the trio. For the first, Grdina on hollow-bodied electric guitar sometimes traded flexible lines with Parker, now on tenor saxophone, and sometimes provided resonant string texture; his tone, I thought, was sometimes reminiscent of Joe Morris, although his melodic and harmonic conception was certainly all his own. Kenton Lowen’s percussion – speaking of echoes and allusions – recalled for me the multi-directional playing of Sunny Murray (as on his sixties recordings with Cecil Taylor or Albert Ayler). Loewen started the second piece with sparse bowed metals (although I was back in the audience and couldn’t actually see what he was doing with his hands). Grdina switched to oud, and the idiomatic character of the instrument seemed to affect the playing; Parker offered what I think were largely Phrygian lines, a sort of Spanish-Moroccan tinge: lovely, moving, instantaneous world-music. There was no encore.