Creative Music Studio Review: Tuesday June 9th

By Michael Shore
Tuesday, the first full day of the CMS Spring 2015 Workshop, featured two sessions in The Barn led by guiding artist Steven Bernstein — who was onstage at The Roadhouse, slide trumpet in hand and trumpet at the ready, to end the day with a concert also featuring CMS founders Karl Berger (piano, vibraphone) and Ingrid Sertso (voice) plus Guiding Artist Warren Smith (drums), CMS stalwarts Ken Filiano (bass, eyebrows) and Donny Davis (reeds), and the brothers Tamez, Omar (guitar, ocarina, digeridoo, percussion) and Emilio (drums, percussion).  Bernstein the Guiding Artist broke down music not as art but as science, with four key areas of focus: sound (not just the sound a musician makes but their personal sound on their instrument), melody, rhythm and magic.  All, including the latter, are in evidence this evening.
     As Bernstein had done earlier in the day as a Guiding Artist, Sertso onstage offers bracingly direct perspective on music-making with a spoken opening about words and music being her job, with the players immediately falling in line with soft yet strong prayerful accompaniment.  It builds in very controlled, deliberate fashion until Berger lays down a piano figure which, on an unseen and unspoken signal, cues a fleet freebop groove, Bernstein stepping forward to deliver an authoritative, declamatory trumpet solo, at one point holding a high note an impossibly long time (he does practice circular breathing but says “not on that note — too high — that was just one really big breath”), Davis eventually joining in, equally fiery on alto.  Berger moves to vibes — its motor turned off to provide a bright, crisp, xylophone-like sound instead of the usual watery vibrato. As always, his mallet-work invigorates the music, as Sertso intones “In Africa, all the women are sisters, In Africa the sun is on fire…”  The music swells as Bernstein and Davis join in a noble, improvised fanfare, while Ingrid scats rhythmically repeated hard-consonant syllables — “dugg-dugga-dugga-dugga-DAT” — highly reminiscent of the Indian singer Sheila Chandra’s Konakkol percussive vocalizing (though both Karl and Ingrid say she’s been doing it, unaware of any similar Indian style, since before Chandra began recording it in the early 1990s).  Karl taps out a repeating 6 or 7-note line on vibes — it’s his composition “Dakar Dance,” and Ingrid instantly sings wordlessly along.  It is sound, it is melody, it is rhythm, and yes, it is magic.  Sertso’s harmonizing cues the horns to join in, and the rhythm goes positively airborne, lifting the bandstand and the entire room into that particular heavenly orbit that only on-the-spot communal creativity of a very high order can achieve.  Bernstein takes wing, soaring and darting as the drummers roll and surge around Filiano’s bounding vamp, Berger’s vibes sprinkling shiny harmonic stardust over the ecstatic communion they’d just launched.  Davis steps forward with an exuberant, spiraling soprano sax solo, finally hitting on a 6-note phrase that echoes Berger’s launchpad motif again — and Karl and Bernstein pick it up immediately.  THIS is higher musical education, before our eyes and ears!  Bernstein delivers a brief, fluttering trumpet solo as the music quiets, both drummers gently clicking sticks on the rims of their toms…and as it fades to silence, Ingrid waits a perfect beat and says — “The End,” to laughter and well-deserved applause.
     Piece Two begins with Omar Tamez on kalimba — giving the African thumb-piano uncommon expressiveness with exaggerated plucking motions that turn into arm-sweeps, his wide-eyed glee and forward-leaning posture engaging the other players and the audience. Davis pipes up on a small wooden flute, the drummers conjure a forest of clicks and clacks with sticks on rims again, and the ghost of CMS stalwart Don Cherry can be felt smiling down on The Roadhouse.  Warren Smith gives an object lesson in dynamics, s-l-o-w-l-y building  a rumble into a maelstrom behind Davis before switching to mallets as Berger hits the vibes for a freebop turn. Bernstein delivers a burning slide-trumpet solo as the full band roars, the clamor finally subsiding as Sertso says “My time, is your time…”  And as it fades to quiet, Sertso this time asks, rather than declares — “that’s it?  We’re done?”
     Only for a moment.  Berger, Bernstein and Smith leave the stand, as Omar Tamez picks up a digeridoo to engage Filiano, brandishing a bow — and we know from last night just how skilled an arco player he is.  Davis makes this a full-on subterranean convocation, busting out a long tall contralto clarinet on which he not only hits tummy-tingling foghorn lows, but some rather astounding high-harmonics that sound frankly more like something from a brass instrument.  Omar Tamez resourcefully slices through the deep thickness with an ocarina, on which he emits eerie, sustained wails that sound far richer and more musical than one might expect from this child’s toy, while his brother Emilio rustles round his kit, Sertso telling us “Once there was a bird most beautiful, who could fly and soar — until it was seen by a man most rich…”  The piece ends as she discloses the poor bird’s untimely fate.
     After a brief break, Karl announces he has a new composition to debut.  He’s joined by CMS participants Leigh Daniels and bass and Yasuno Katsuki on euphonium.  It’s a lovely, unhurried unfolding of gentleness and insistence, Katsuki pecking out some agile staccatos and Berger’s vibes dominant, featuring extra-bright notes hit with the butt ends of his mallets.  A quietly thoughtful way to end a thought-provoking day.

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