Review -- live show: Joe Sanders' Bass(ed) Imagination, March 3, 2012

Part of the Jazz Gallery's Leading from the Bass commission series

Pressed against the cold cement wall in a room full of bass players, it isn’t very long before I know that I am tuning into something beyond, yet completely part of me. A rumbling murmur is drawn forth: first, a cradle made by slow bowing, then tones slyly made conscious via a few well-placed bended notes. The evolving first tune is slowly curried, and aptly so, with rapid runs held firmly judicious. As I feel the vibrations invest themselves directly into my ribcage, I marvel at the way I’ve become so easily involved in this journey…

Thinking back now, it’s become a bit hard to focus my sentences on any one element of this performance. And that’s a good thing, because it goes to show how a large group of musicians can connect, transmute and transmit as if of one mind.

The interplay between instruments varied from piece to piece in an innovative and evocative manner. There were unison melodic travels and alternating rhythmic trips made between various combinations of instruments: alto sax and bass, keys and bass, drums and keys, and bass and bass (multiplied by one, two, or three). Rarely did we see drums and bass pushed together outright, a fact that again underscores the inventiveness of this program.

Sanders himself remarked on the wisdom of adding a rhythm section and sax to the project, a move that accomplished his goal of avoiding “muddiness.” The choice of a skilled, melodic drummer for this program worked extremely well, and especially so, because Justin Brown is such a deep and responsive listener. Characteristically, Mr. Brown invented quick melodic licks threaded from other players’ lines and used these as transition points, consistently ending into new beginnings, and with just the right touch of emphasis by way of his glorious, washy cymbal. Such a light, rapid hand is an enviable and inspiring skill.

Sanders’ also made a wise choice with the keys. Whether improvising or supporting, Romain Collin, showed himself equally adept in both areas. Rippling runs, brief and long tremolos, well-placed trilling, drippy chordal motifs – all contributed to a style characterized by close listening and rapid response time. At times, Mr. Collin ventured into more abstract voicings, but then would pull back almost immediately after a couple of bars. Intrigued, I continue to wonder about that.

On alto sax, we had Pat Carroll, who showed himself (especially at the beginning) to have an intimate and comfortable relationship with space. This became a very welcome and refreshing realm of exploration, especially because the basses were so highly involved melodically.

All of the bass players (Christopher Mees and Ryan Berg in addition to Sanders and Conley) were equally generous with one another, and the diversity of styles and ideas led to satisfying improvisation all around. The level of inventiveness on the part of the players was surpassed only by the integrity of the compositions. At times, two basses would provide an ostinato, either bowed or plucked. But this would soon morph into something completely different, yet related. Solos became short trades between various instruments and then again, extended, long excursions. In the second to last segment, we had a duo bass situation, where the players were so in sync, that Shawn Conley’s knowing smile must have been Sanders’ and vice versa. This was as close as anyone could get to living the ideal of “playing in the pocket.” The fact that two double bass players pulled this off as one rapid Latin voice is simply unforgettable.

With a four bass set up, it would have been so easy to fall into formulaic traps, numerical tricks or have the result feel too cut and paste. Mr. Sanders, however, carefully avoided the superficial and the expected. He achieved this through an authentic level of musicianship mixed with a spirited and heartfelt engagement with the creative process. But most impressive of all to me was the way he drew out, challenged, supported and enhanced the unique attributes of each player. The high level of respect for individualism really made the group effort sing.

It occurs to me that the power of human relationships in culling forth this level of empathy cannot be ignored. During introductions, Sanders shared with the audience choice details about the various long-standing friendships between players. We learned about youthful roommates and who lived with who and during what high level program of musical study; and, endearingly, “who was clean and who was messy.”

What a delight, to be in the presence of brothers and friends so connected in kindness, skill and love of the art form. Once again, I am struck by the highly evolved humanity of jazz musicians, and how lucky we are as audience members to be encouraged to evolve ourselves.

--Monique Avakian

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Monique Avakian