Wednesday, June 10th CONCERT: COMEDY NIGHT AT THE ROADHOUSE!
By Michael Shore
Can there be too much of a good thing? Day Two of the CMS Spring Workshop ended with a bang – a whole LOT of bangs, as if it were fireworks on the Fourth of July – in the form of a marathon concert where the music just. Would. Not. Stop. All three of this week’s Guiding Artists – Steven Bernstein, Amir ElSaffar and Warren Smith – took unforgettable star turns, while many workshop participants also made their marks.
The night began with trumpeters Bernstein and ElSaffar and drummer Smith joining CMS founders Karl Berger (vibes) and Ingrid Sertso (voice), Ken Filiano (bass), Donny Davis (reeds), Omar Tamez (guitar) and his brother Emilio (drums). Berger invited two-time workshop participant and Official Coolest Guy In History Robert Bresnan (hey – he hired the Sun Ra Arkestra to play his wedding 20-plus years ago, okay?) to sit in on piano. A collective rustle built as the horns and vibes entered as one, holding long clarion tones over Filiano’s driving vamp, the two trumpets spitting rapid unison lines before ElSaffar delivered a fiery, fluttering turn. After the full band percolated behind some Sertso scat, Smith played a fractured march over which Bernstein blared a rowdy slide trumpet solo before both drummers built from a busy low boil for Berger’s vibes, to volcanic fury as the horns reunited in ferocious free harmony. The group settled into a modal groove as Davis chanted on alto, before ending quietly. Any jazz outfit would have been happy to call this a meaty chunk of its set. It turned out to be mere prelude.
Next up: Ornette Coleman’s “When Will The Blues Leave” with Berger and Bernstein stating the fleet, darting boppish melody before all three horns traded several furious 12-bar choruses, then united to baptize The Roadhouse in righteous fire. Filiano soloed, plucking high up on the neck of his bass as Smith played soft, fast, intricate hi-hat/ride bell patterns, then all three horns faced Berger as his vibes cued their fanfare – which gave way to a thunderous double-drum feature, before the horns stepped back to the fore to reprise the theme. The next morning, participants learned the terribly sad news that some 12 hours after we’d thrilled to “When Will The Blues Leave,” Ornette – the jazz giant who co-founded CMS, whom Karl and Ingrid say convinced them to stay in the U.S. – had left us.
Back to Wednesday’s concert, and one of the night’s highlights – everyone left the stage but Bernstein and ElSaffar, who dropped the room’s collective jaw with a dazzling display of witty, pithy telepathic togetherness, running march-derived spitfire riffs in unison, in parallel, around and against each other – before Bernstein began rudely blowing Lester Bowie-style blats, snorts and whinnies at ElSaffar’s urgent soloing. Bernstein meandered to the back of the stage to blow into the drums, finally hitting a floor tom with a resounding thud – at which point ElSaffar began squawking and squealing back, and they began going at it that way, with as much focus and intensity as they’d given to the supersonic figures with which they’d started. Finally, ElSaffar blew a mocking version of the familiar horse-racing posthorn call – and Bernstein could only bow in “I know when I’m licked” fashion. Displays of genius are hardly out of the ordinary at CMS concerts – but slapstick genius? The radiant smiles on the faces of these two friends, hugging as the crowd erupted in hoots, hollers and cheers, said it all. Except for the part about how, aside from a big band gig a dozen or so years ago, they’d never played together. Memo to CMS Executive Director Rob Saffer: do NOT wait for some distant future Archive Series release – put this out on record ASAP!
“Let’s have some more conversations” Karl Berger announced, introducing a trio he called “KIK — Ken” (Filiano) “Ingrid and Karl.” Filiano was especially striking in this context, hitting his strings with his bow to produce a percussive popping effect as Ingrid intoned “Music is an energy – like the sun…” Their second piece was a bouncy, spritely version of Karl and Ingrid’s “Africa/DakarDance,” which they’d also played last night – and again one was struck by just how terrific a bassist Filiano is, everything he plays so propulsive and responsive.
Warren Smith returned to the stage and Karl joked “now it’s KWIK!” – but he and Ingrid took a break, leaving Smith and Filiano to back Donny Davis on reeds and Omar Tamez on guitar. Davis led the way with an Oriental meditation on wood flute, as Smith softly rustled his cymbals and Tamez emitted eerie tones from his prepared guitar, a drumstick stuck under the strings midway up the neck. Suddenly he was on digeridoo and Davis on kalimba, as Filiano provided yet another irresistible rhythmelodic vamp. Smith built the rhythm back up on mallets as Davis soloed sinuously on soprano sax – and before we knew it the music had built and built to such intensity that Warren Smith, 81 years young, was standing up AND GOING NUTS NOT JUST ON HIS KIT BUT ALSO ON EMILIO TAMEZ’S KIT NEXT TO HIS. In 40-plus years of concert-going I can safely say, I’ve seen Han Bennink go to the men’s room mid-set and play the plumbing, and I’ve seen Paul Burwell play drums with rolled-up newspapers — but I have NEVER seen a drummer play TWO kits at once. And of course, this being Warren Smith, it was completely musical. I’m just doing the “I’m not worthy” bow in his general direction, and thanking the lord I was able to witness such a thing.
While I was finding my lower jaw on the floor, the piece was continuing – with Filiano locking into a beautiful Middle Eastern dum-tek groove (possibly inspired by the maqam piece ElSaffar had taught the participants during his workshop earlier this day) behind a tart, cliché-free Omar Tamez guitar solo. Donny Davis joined in on alto and things got heated again darned quick, staying at a high-energy pitch for several minutes before subsiding into another Davis wood-flute interlude. But the puckish comedy theme Bernstein and ElSaffar had introduced earlier reared its head again as Tamez suddenly appeared right over Davis’s shoulder blowing crazy birdcalls on a small whistle – Davis shrank back in mock horror before removing his alto mouthpiece to respond with duck calls, a la John Zorn. And still the delights kept coming, in the form of a brilliant Warren Smith drum solo – vocalizing with whoops and grunts and moans in time AND IN TUNE with his hands, then sticks, round his kit before proving his mastery of dynamics yet again, taking it down to a whisper, ending by shooing the sound off his ride cymbal as if flicking away a mosquito. You know the drill: I’m not worthy, thanking the lord…
And still the musical conversations did not stop. Berger, Davis (on the sepulchural contralto clarinet, as tall as he is if not taller), the brothers Tamez and CMS participant Michael Gassmann on guitar…a bass quartet with Filiano and participants Jeff Schwartz, John Dreschler and Leigh Daniels, eventually joined by participant Anne-Marie Weisner on violin as Warren Smith tapped out patterns on his plastic drinking cup in the third row…a big participant band with Weisner, vocalists Hillary Carr, Yasuno Katsuki and Chuck ver Stratten, Daniels, and guitarists Lucas Marti, Esteban Fredin, Stuart Leigh and Rick Warren – ver Stratten speaking in tongues against a chorus of sustained sighs from the women, all of it over a tinkling, twinkly tapestry of overtones from all those guitarists…
Um, Thursday? Final night of this CMS Spring Workshop? You’ve got your work cut out for you.