Friday, September 22, 2006
Better Late Than...
Still, it seems a shame to let the thing disappear into the ether. So here's what it would have said had the festival run some other week:
Steve Coleman and Five Elements/Gyorgy Szabados & Vladimir Tarsov
At the Riverrun Centre in Guelph Saturday
Reviewed by J.D. Considine
In the ’60s, after Ornette Coleman freed jazz from the shackles of chord changes, the avant garde embraced the notion of "free improvisation,"in which musicians spontaneously created music without any preset plans or material. Although occasionally transcendent, the results were more often chaotic, coasting on energy while studiously ignoring recognizable melody.
Perhaps that's why a growing trend in today's avant garde integrates pre-prepared themes and structures into what is otherwise an improvised performance. Steve Coleman, whose group Five Elements headlined a double bill at the Guelph Jazz Festival on Saturday, calls this collaborative approach "spontaneous composition," and it has huge advantages over the free-flowing cacophony of old.
But simply having a handful of themes and an organizing structure is not enough. It'’s also important to have a sense of balance and dynamics, and in that sense Coleman and crew would have done well to study their opening act, Hungarian pianist Gyorgy Szabados and Russian drummer Vladimir Tarasov.
Szabados and Tarasov (who were making their North American debut as a duo) are an unlikely pair of jazz dynamos. Largely unknown outside of Europe, the two look more like aging academics than cutting-edge improvisers, and are as grounded in the European classical tradition as they are in jazz. Indeed, elements of what they played — particularly the eloquent silences and melodic use of percussion — owed more to composer Pierre Boulez than to bebop.
Even so, the two made it clear that improvised composition doesn'’t have to sound random to maintain a sense of frisson. Although their hour-long first selection had its moments of roiling rhythms and untrammeled dissonance, there were also regularly recurring themes, ranging from a surprisingly tuneful triplet figure on Tarasov’s tom-toms to a vigorous, two-handed march from Szabados.
Not only did those elements anchor the performance in recognizable melody, their use subtly altered the way Szabados and Tarasov listened and responded to one another. There was a genuine sense of play to their interaction, a joyful intertwining of wit and discovery that drew the audience in and brought them to their feet, demanding an encore.
Coleman’s set, by contrast, seemed more like homework than recess. With the six members of Five Elements arranged in a semi-circle across the stage, each reading from a thick sheaf of sheet music, they looked ready for serious business, and after an opening salvo from Coleman'’s alto, serious business was what we got.
At first, the group — which, in addition to Coleman’s alto, included trumpet, trombone, bass, drums and voice —— focused on pulsing, rhythmically intricate drones (imagine Philip Glass as interpreted by a college lab band). Various solos emerged, and then a new sequence announced by a sort of disjointed bebop melody. Many minutes later, a new pulse pattern was introduced. And so on, for 90 straight minutes, with only occasional changes in tempo, dynamics or mood.
There were some standout performances. Singer Jen Shyu did an exceptional job of making the voice seem as much a jazz instrument as any horn, and her wordless improvisations were beautifully phrased. Trombonist Tim Albright was a revelation, delivering slyly virtuosic lines while maintaining gutbucket immediacy, while trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson occasionally evoked the ghost of Booker Little. And Coleman himself remains a strikingly original voice on alto, being both less harmonically oblique than Anthony Braxton and more obviously bebop influenced than Ornette Coleman.
But those bright moments accounted for maybe 40 minutes of the two hours Coleman and Five Elements played. The rest was cluttered and monotonous, offering little textural or harmonic variety (would it have killed them to change key occasionally?). It was, in short, a performance by the group and for the group, and the steady exodus during the second number spoke to just how much that self-indulgence tried the audience’s patience.