Sunday, February 28, 2016

Friday Night - George Lewis

Trombonist/composer/music professor George Lewis actually spent this past week in Pittsburgh for a residency at the University of Pittsburgh. On Tuesday night, he spoke on a panel, Thursday night he lectured about his book on the AACM and Friday and Saturday nights were devoted to his compositions. I couldn't make Tuesday's night, recovering from the previous night's events, and on Thursday I opted for the Ches Smith et all show (see previous post for details; and check this out for my profile on George Lewis, Jack DeJohnette and Jeff "Tain" Watts).

Friday night, Lewis staged a performance of his composition Spooky Interaction, Lesson II (2016) at Pitt's Bellefield Hall. He and Geri Allen were to perform onstage there. In Irvine, California, flutist Nicole Mitchell and trombonist Michael Dessen were going to perform with them, through an internet hookup that Lewis referred to as "Skype on steroids." Saxophonist Francis Wong would also be part of the mix too, in San Francisco. As if that concept wasn't enough, two additional pianos were set up in Pittsburgh and Irvine. Both would be part of the performance, playing "themselves" courtesy of Lewis' Voyager interactive software which enables them to analyse what is being playing around them and use that knowledge to generate more music.

The West Coast participants were visible to us through a screen projected at the back of the stage. Everyone could hear each other clearly when they spoke beforehand. The only time things seemed out of sync was when the director of SF Jazz (where Wong was set up) spoke. The image didn't match up with the words.

Before it started, Lewis, who makes all of this work seem very accessible and engaging, told us to "listen for resonance and interaction...that you may be doing in your daily life as you muddle through." He was implying that improvisation is not merely something that is done onstage with instruments. It's a daily occurrence. When we spoke he talked about the upcoming Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, which will detail this at great length.

Without any genuine adieu, Lewis told Wong to start the performance on his own, and the trombonist left the stage. For about the next 40 minutes, the music came in waves, with each location taking roughly four minutes (the timing was explained afterwards) before passing it on to the next group. This was free improvisation, beginning calmly and moving in waves. Dessen and Mitchell entered with some high slides and guttural flutters, respectively.

When Lewis and Allen started playing, they offered some of the most exciting parts of the piece, not just because we were there in person. (The other locations came through loud and clear, incidentally.) Lewis later quipped that he looses his technique after ten minutes of playing, but when he was playing there was no weakness on display. He sounded extremely expressive, adding rapid vocal sounds in the upper register. It was the kind of tone that exudes authority. Allen was the same way. Sometimes she was pensive and lyrical, other times she was putting her elbows on the keys for punctuation, adding a Cecil Taylor-esque percussive quality.

The other pianos started playing about ten minutes into the piece. Visually, it looked like the Invisible Man was playing them. Keys were moving, sound was generating and it did work within the context of the piece. It seemed like it might be hard for the participants to hear each other clearly but they seemed to do fine. The secret might have been that no one ever got too loud. When all five of the live musicians started playing together, it was of course rather wild, but never too busy and crowded. After about 40 minutes, everything faded down. Lewis commented later that this was the first time that the piece was performed and everyone ended together.

I'm not sure how many seats Bellefield Hall has, but it was pretty full, in part probably because it was a free show. The audience was made up largely of students, who may or may not have been there as a requirement or for extra class credit. I have to wonder what they thought of the show because as soon as it was done, I mean after the final note and right as the participants were preparing for Q&A, there was a massive exodus toward the door.

Afterwards, I managed to tag along with Lewis and Allen to a sort of afterparty at the eatery the Porch, which was just down the street. Sitting next to him, I got to chat about the Yankees album he made with John Zorn and Derek Bailey (my introduction to him) and listen to him tell stories about his works. He was extremely down to earth, listening intently to everyone, and even stopping in front of the Carnegie Museum to take a picture of Dippy the Dinosaur (who was wearing a knit tie) for his son.

No comments: