Closing Bang: The Nels Cline Singers and the Rova Saxophone Quartet, the Windup Space, Feb. 27
It was quite a weekend for jazz in Baltimore. Friday night began with a concert by Baltimore pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, New York bassist William Parker, and Baltimore reed player John Dierker at the University of Baltimore. Later that same night, New York’s Matthew Shipp Trio held forth at An Die Musik. The next night Chicago’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble was at An Die Musik and a New York quartet led by pianist Harold Mabern and saxophonist Eric Alexander were at the Caton Castle. On Sunday, the Marc Copland Quartet, featuring trumpeter Tim Hagans, played for the Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Later that night Cuba’s Dafnis Prieto led his quartet at Goucher College. The whole thing was climaxed by a rare appearance by the combined forces of the Nels Cline Singers and the Rova Saxophone Quartet at the Windup Space.
It was the equivalent of a jazz festival; the starting times were staggered in a way that the energetic jazz fan could see most of those seven shows. Of course, the city’s media, crippled by budget cuts, paid scant attention. If there were any buzz at all, it was for the “Celestial Septet” show presided over by Cline, the groundbreaking guitarist who was well known in avant-garde jazz circles even before he joined the art-rock band Wilco. Despite its name, the Nels Cline Singers is an all-instrumental trio and in 2008 they collaborated with the Rova Saxophone Quartet on the Celestial Septet album, and Sunday’s show was the last stop on a short East Coast tour to play that music live.
Cline was self-effacing enough to stand in the back row with his regular bandmates—drummer Scott Amendola and bassist Trevor Dunn—and to let the four horn players take the front row. Cline is so tall, however, that no normal mortal is going to block his view, and the beanpole guitarist with the thatched brown hair and gray shirt soon became the show’s focal point. He sounded a bit like the rock-guitar soloist that he sometimes is—playing high-pitched 16th-note runs with overdriven tone—but unlike most rock guitarists he didn’t feel bound by standard blues or pop changes and went skidding all over the harmonic map. And when he started stomping on foot pedals, he sounded like a one-man sci-fi movie soundtrack, creating the beeps and whirrs of an approaching alien spaceship. Periodically he would play an interesting phrase, sample it, loop it and then distort it even further by twisting knobs.
But it wasn’t all noise for noise’s sake. Cline has his lyrical, melodic moments as well, and the four saxophonists liked to mix in gorgeous two, three, and four-part harmony in with their Albert Ayler-like squalling. On the evening’s longest piece, tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs’ 35-minute “Whose to Know,” the cacophonous crescendo one expected upon hearing the dedication to Ayler didn’t come for 25 minutes. Instead the piece built slowly but elegantly as each musician played quick, darting phrases that resolved on a whole note and then faded to silence. Sometimes these phrases were played alone, sometimes in unison, sometimes in overlapping fugues, but the pattern of noise bursts and quiet was entrancing.
The evening ended with Cline’s own composition, “The Buried Quilt,” similarly alternated between rampaging attack and quiet duets. Eventually, the four horn players walked off stage to let Cline’s trio work itself into a frenzy. But when Cline created a feedback loop that sent out echoing sounds like waves, the four Rova members, all playing soprano or sopranino saxophones, mimicked those echoes with breathy toots as they strolled through the audience.
It will be a long while before Baltimore has another jazz weekend like this one, but March does offer several highlights. The Windup Space hosts the Novo: Instrumental Music Festival March 1-5, including a March 3 show with steel guitarist Susan Alcorn making a rare appearance as a bandleader. The Baltimore Chamber Jazz Society hosts the Houston Person Quartet March 27. An Die Musik hosts the Eric Deutsch Quartet March 4, former Baltimore saxophonist T.K. Blue March 18, and a solo concert by Lafayette Gilchrist March 19.