Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ken Vandermark & Nate Wooley at the Warhol

I thought the wax in my ears was playing tricks on me. When Nate Wooley and Ken Vandermark started playing together at the Andy Warhol Museum's theater, their first piece placed both of them in the high, upper register, and my ears responded by hearing a lower note beneath theirs. Talking to a few people in the days following the show, I deduced that it wasn't me, but the room creating that extra note as the high pitches bounced off the walls. Further, Vandermark does this with a performance, "checking the room" to see how possible it is.

It's been eight years since saxophonist/clarinetist Vandermark dropped into Pittsburgh. I remember it well because it was a wintry night when the Vandermark 5 played the same stage, and I was still a few months away from parenthood.

While that 2007 show featured a full band, last Wednesday (January 21) was an evening of solo and duo sets. Wooley came on first, armed with a trumpet, mute and narrow piece of sheet metal. When he emitted his first super-soft long tone, it threatened to turn into one of those minimal performances where the note is less important than how it gets manipulated. But it shifted into high gear quickly. Wooley created two tones by getting the metal to vibrate against the mute. He also scraped the metal on the bell of the horn (if you hate the sound of metal on metal, cover your ears). After squirting around his horn's upper register, he easily shifted into the warm, middle register, finally ending with a relaxed tune.

Wooley was quiet and rather serious during his set, compared to Vandermark who spoke to the sizeable crowd between pieces. "It's alright if you want to go," he said towards the door as one patron apparently had enough after a clarinet piece dedicated to filmmaker Michael Snow, marked by slap tonguing and long tones. Switching to tenor, he kept a rhythm going by hitting the pads so precisely that it almost sounded like a digital loop. Strapping on his mighty baritone, he explored the whole register of the horn, concluding with a rhythmic groove that evoked Sun Ra.

After an intermission, Wooley and Vandermark returned to the stage together for a series of duets. They paid tribute to the trumpet-reed duo of John Carter and Bobby Bradford by playing a few of that pair's compositions among their own. Carter's "And She Speaks" started the set and gave the first ear-harmonic twist.

There's value in seeing a group like this on the final night of their tour because they've had numerous sets to grow as a unit, and Vandermark and Wooley were in sync with each other. Wooley's "Best Coast" (hopefully that's right; it was an homage to the Pacific Northwest) featured trumpet smears and growls against clarinet slap tonguing. His trumpet imitated an analog synthesizer during Vandermark's avant "Call the Numbers."

Despite a healthy amount of squonk and squealing (which, admittedly, made me hold my ears at times) the duo also delivered many delicate moments too. "Killtown" started off almost like a Gerry Mulligan tune and "General Sherman" ended the evening with a brief ballad.

Seated in front of me in the Warhol theater were two women with a girl who seemed to be about tween age, playing one of those candy games on the phone prior to the start of the show. Throughout the night, one or both of the women looked at the girl with expressions that said, "what do you think of that," in response to the music. Some cynical people might expect the response to be eye-rolling and fidgeting in the seat. But actually, the girl responded with wonder and amazement. She might have thought the sounds were crazy, but she clearly dug them. The three of them stayed for the whole show as well. Hopefully they'll make it to other performances like this and who knows maybe the young lady will be part of tomorrow's experimental music scene.

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