August-11th-2010, 03:08 AM
New Haven Jazz Festival
THE New Haven Jazz Festival has had its ups and downs, even going dark for a year in 2007. But through it all, the festival has provided a stage for homegrown voices with reputations for distinctive work. And so it will again, on Aug. 14 and 21, when three New Haven natives — Joe Morris, Noah Baerman and Robby Ameen — bring small groups to the festival’s stage.
The sets promise to offer contrasting listening experiences. Mr. Morris, a guitarist and bassist, will present a totally improvised performance. Mr. Baerman, a pianist, will reprise an extended suite he wrote for septet. And Mr. Ameen, a drummer, will play songs from his latest album, a provocative effort with a political edge.
Whether speaking to his students at the New England Conservatory or wailing on the bandstand, Mr. Morris is on something of a mission to codify the rules of free jazz. At the festival, three veterans of the free-jazz scene — Jim Hobbs on alto saxophone, Matthew Shipp on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums — will join Mr. Morris, who will be on bass, in his mission.
Mr. Morris said the set would be as deliberately conceived and executed as any jazz session. But rather than using chord changes as their default anchor, the musicians will draw on melodic fragments, rhythmic notions, harmony untethered from traditional patterns — any source that can be coherently integrated into a group improvisation.
“It’s almost like composition by assemblage,” he said. “Everyone brings an orchestra’s worth of material to the setting with the understanding that we’re going to find common ground.”
Attention to form will be a constant priority, Mr. Morris said, putting a premium on the players’ collective ability to identify what the others are doing on the spot, adjust to it and elaborate on it in a logical manner. Some audience members, he acknowledged, may have to acclimate themselves to the aesthetic. But those who do, he said, may find the experience rewarding.
“If they have a second of realization about themselves,” he said, “that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Self-realization — or at least the quest for self-knowledge — was uppermost in Mr. Baerman’s mind when he began thinking about subject matter for a big work years ago. Helped by a $6,000 grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in 2008, he created the work, “Know Thyself,” which had its premiere in November at Wesleyan University, where he teaches. It has been performed twice at the Jazz Gallery in Manhattan, where it was recorded.
For the festival, Mr. Baerman has recruited the same musicians who played the piece before: the members of his working trio, the bassist Henry Lugo and the drummer Vinnie Sperrazza; his former classmates at the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, the saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and the guitarist Amanda Monaco; Chris Dingman on vibraphone; and Erica von Kleist on saxophone and flute.
The piece is composed of 13 movements that flow without interruption. It has wide variations in tone and texture, with notated and improvised parts, a cappella and ensemble playing, and sharp dynamic swings. Yet, Mr. Baerman said, it strives for thematic unity — “a journey through various pitfalls and toward understanding and transcendence.”
While Mr. Baerman’s piece has a personal narrative behind it — a story he declined to reveal — Mr. Ameen’s writing is motivated at least partly by the political. The titles of his tunes — like “Swiftboating” and “Skateboard Intifada,” both from his latest album — point to his worldly concerns.
Mr. Baerman expresses those concerns in a language that favors staccato horns, sharply articulated polyrhythms, raucous guitar and an intensely reverberating Hammond B3 organ.
Mr. Ameen admits to a bit of provocation in the album, whose title, “Days in the Life,” alludes to prison slang. Still, he will draw from it liberally at the festival, where he will be joined by the trombonist Conrad Herwig, the bassist Lincoln Goines and, most likely, a horn, guitar and keyboard. He likes to keep the music adaptable to changes in instrumentation and personnel, he said.
Adaptability is a trait Mr. Ameen values. Over more than two decades, he has traveled the world, playing with artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Rubén Blades and Paul Simon. But his recent engagements in New Haven have been few, and he relishes this one, he said, for the chance it offers him to reconnect with both the city’s storied musical history and old friends.
“It’s fantastic,” he said, “because New Haven used to be a real stomping ground.”