Annenberg Theater, Antonio Hart, Ben Jaffe, Chris Potter, Craig Taborn, Dave Holland, Guthrie Ramsey, J. Michael Harrison, JAM-ALL Records, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, jerry thompson, Painted Bride Art Center, Terry Adkins, Vivant Art Gallery, Wadud Ahmad, Yoichi Uzeki
Last week was not only my time to wind up my fall classes. (Yes!) It was also a great time to get out on the town and enjoy an eclectic mix of wintertime musicking in Philly. Although one hears many laments about what the music scene here (and everywhere, it seems) lacks, if you’re persistent and consistent, there’s always something to take in. You just have to get out of the box.
First, there was another installment of J. Michael Harrison’s live music series at the Vivant Art Gallery. Featuring Jamaaladeen Tacuma, a local bass-thumping hero, this CD release event played to a packed house full of enthusiasm and good vibes. Tacuma’s new music is the virgin voyage for his label JAM-ALL. Yoichi Uzeki, Webb Thomas, Terry Adkins, and Wadud Ahmad filled out the roster with verve. Tacuma’s new music spans and combines the wide range of his compositional signature: avant-garde modernism, funky grooves framed in disjunctive, though infectious ositnato patterns all overlaid with tricky melodic statements that flirt on the edges of “catchy.”
The ultimate Afro-futurist, Tacuma is actively pursuing the twin tracks of pushy creativity and pushier entrepreneurialism with verve. Dug the crowd, and the feeling. Mr. Ahmad opened the set admirably with a cerebral spoken word performance that was set as a call-response with the pre-recorded voice of Ornette Coleman, Mr. Tacuma’s mentor. An inspired “art” move.
At the Annenberg Theater, U of Penn,
the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was back for a sold out engagement. Philly digs this group, and here’s the reason. During a public pre-concert interview that I conducted with the group’s musical director, Ben Jaffe, he stressed the underlying spirituality of the band’s philosophy. Jaffe, whose parents started the band in the 1960s, made a point that PHJB is not a repertory ensemble. They don’t’ transcribe and play, verbatim, old recordings. (Glad to hear that one). They believe music heals, as they are exporting a holistic attitude about the power of music making and its connection to life from their native New Orleans. The repertory is delivered with an earnestness that sweeps one up not into nostalgia, but into a spirit of “let’s enjoy our present” together. Musicianship is at a premium in this band as members move easily between virtuoso instrumentality and molasses-dipped vocals, often in one song.
The legend and lore of Dave Holland, bassist supreme, was confirmed during his recent performance at the Painted Bride Arts Center. The venue was perfect for his big band project, which was formed in 2000 and has since been nominated for a Grammy.
It was a special treat to hear many of today’s brightest stars—Chris Potter, Josh Roseman, Craig Taborn, Nate Smith, and Antonio Hart, to name a few—on this set of inspired music. Holland’s compositional palette combines the typical scoring techniques of big band—interlocking interplay between solos, soli, and tutti practice. (If this makes no sense to you, take my history of jazz course, LOL: trust me, he’s doing it).
But he also has a very singular way of combining certain timbres that make you sit up and listen. I was particularly struck by his beautiful use of alto sax and muted trumpet in some of the lines. Another key factor driving the concept of this ensemble, of course, is how one can experience the different soloing styles of, say, Chris Potter’s hyper-modernism with emotion and Antonio Hart’s emotion-charged, blues-drenched modernism in a single song. And Holland’s looping exploration of cyclic patterns with constantly shifting harmonic centers provides a challenging terrain for his soloists.
Instead of a 15-page paper, double-spaced, 12-point font, (with a bibliography), as their capstone experience in my History of American music class, my students made music. The course surveys American music life from the colonial period to the present. If you ever wondered what the 19th century Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and Lady Gaga have in common, take this class. Or if you ever think about the connection between Master P and PT Barnum—you got it. We put on a benefit concert for the Penn Music Mentoring Program, a community service group dedicated to providing West Philadelphia with
music lessons and education. The concert featured William Billings chorale music from 1770, a late 19th-century string quartet, Gershwin songs, jazz, solo piano music, a guest Glee Club appearance, and more. I participated as well, performing Jean-Luc Ponty’s “Question with No Answer,” with Josh Levy (violin) and Alex Utay (guitar). I’ve wanted to perform that piece since the late 197os. Life is good. Sarah Van Sciver, a sophomore, gave us a sneak peak at her original musical based on Hamlet—definitely a high point—gotta’ love living composers. And I’d be remiss not to mention that a student performed 4’33’’ by John Cage. If you don’t know that piece, youtube it and turn your speakers up. Way up.
I left that concert and headed twenty blocks up Walnut into West Philly to a Sunday night event: the 35th Pastoral Anniversary and 81st birthday celebration of Bishop Audrey F. Bronson.
My friend, producer, engineer, and music master Jerry ThompSon was “subbing” on the Hammond B-3 for the regular organist at the Sanctuary Church of the Open Door. We know that there’s no such thing as a good African American Pentecostal service without the filtering sounds of a B-3 through some well-oiled Leslie speakers. The Spirit don’t like that. So JT was holding it down in the beautiful world of what my sister-in-law, writer Lisa Jones, calls “black pageantry.” I was late (are you ever really late for such celebrations?) and heard the last of the preaching, some exhortation, some good ole, impromptu, sanctified church songs, and the
offering. Yes, I said it: I “heard” the offering, always a good excuse for some soul stirring, down home, Up South musicking from the rhythm section. Led by JT, the soul brothers did not disappoint the listener in this re-purposed sanctuary, once a huge and high cathedral designed acoustically for chant and hymn, now tailored for reprise and stomp . The female ushers were rocking and directing traffic, as JT was working the drawbars for varying timbres, riffing off of melodies in the upper register like Chick Corea, working over the inner voices with upper extensions of chords, and driving the songs forward, ahead of the beat. Yeah, and Amen, as they say.
And I was back home in time to catch the last half of Sunday Night Football. Who says you can’t have it all in Philly?