Sometimes, you just need to be ready. Ready to listen and accept what you’re hearing.
When trombonist/composer Steve Swell and his musical partner for 14 years tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann start their concerts, the begin improvising. Freely.
That’s how the second season of the Underground Series at LaFontsee Gallery presented by adventuremusic.org in Grand Rapids began Sunday afternoon, September 20th – with quiet long tones shaped by tension and release in free time. Though the trombonist and saxophonist have appeared a number of times in west Michigan starting in 2004 with bassist Hillard Greene and drummer Barry Altschul, who have their own authentic identity, this ensemble was going somewhere else.
This time was different. This time was new. Yes, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and percussionist Michael Zerang have played together for 20 years, but the first tour integrating their Chicago bred-concepts with Swell and Ullmann’s compositions and instrumental methodologies was right here, right now. Thus the band’s title: The Chicago Plan.
In those quiet long tones rising and flexing like crescents of fine bending metal, Swell’s extended high register trombone sounds, colored by mutes and uncanny breath control, disappeared into the cello’s bowed notes, long sounds colored by subtle electronics, which Zerang commented on with perfect obbligatos, lovely fills from the drums, and Ullmann fuzzed up with bass clarinet overtones. As 10 minutes or so slipped by the band combined and recombined in instrumentation – trombone, cello, percussion; trombone, bass clarinet, cello; cello, drums, full ensemble – rising and falling in dynamic level, until the rhythmic counterpoint based in intervals characteristic of Ullmann’s compositions arrived as the piece “Deja vu.” Then they just kicked ass.
You could sense those in the audience who weren’t ready, who were lost, grabbed for that theme like a life ring. Here now was jazz energy. Here was meticulous virtuosity. Here was wild, driving rhythm and horns in a front-line part. Here was free jazz. Stopping on a dime, returning to the previous mood. Finding a way to end. The ebb and flow of formal composition and instantaneous improvisation is what makes this approach to music making so exciting, especially when it works as well as it did on Sunday.
Swell’s series of “Composite” compositions continues to expand. On Sunday, the newest, “Composite #10,” began with Michael Zerang’s solo for metal candy dish. Not kidding. He laid the 12 or so inch silver dish on the snare drum, held it with his left hand and used a tympani mallet or drum stick with this right to whack the metal into music. He’d dampen the sound, bend the sound, let it rattle on the drum, and created a melodic structure by doing so. He took his time. Eventually that melody idea came to range across the drum set (Zerang plays with a middle-Eastern rhythmic accent at times, which, to over simplify, you know from “Blue Rondo a la Turk” – dancing in 11 and 9). By staying on the drum kit and using the cymbals for accents, Zerang propelled us into Swell’s suite-like excursion which, after more than 15 minutes of amazing, high energy development, came to rest on Lonberg-Holm’s “cello” solo.
Quotation marks because it was more about Holm’s manipulation via electronics of sound, sound looping and squealing, thumping and unplugging — zap! — chorusing and thickening and screaming and mewing, than it was a “straight” cello solo. Returning to the long tones that gave rise to his episode in the first place, Holm bridged a return to structure and the band took it out.
Ullmann’s “Variations on a Master Plan Part 2” was the lone purely quiet piece in the concert – there was the sense of autumn in the cello’s downcast color. Swell’s “Rule #1” is a bit similar to his composition “Box Set,” which is hard driving, inspired by alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, though elastic in time sense. Zerang was up for the challenge, as propelling a high energy jazz cymbal sound as you’ll ever hear. And if you know Ullmann’s “7-9-8,” which rocks a funky tipping point between 7/8 and 9/8 time signatures with extra sensory unison parts for sax and trombone, you would have enjoyed the concert closer “Variations Part 3.”
Ullmann and Swell have developed a challenging rapport over the years. Their moments of collective improvisation — whether in rhythmic counterpoint or unison fly overs – would strain even the most practiced chops. That they do it for fun is our delight.
Whether entirely bemused or completely bewitched, Sunday’s crowd stayed through to the end — because, really, “what is going to happen next?” is a powerful attention getter– then swarmed the band with a prolonged standing ovation.
Jazz Director, Blue Lake Public Radio