AprilFest 2003, Portland, Maine, USA (April-May 2003)

Paul Lichter, Portland's preeminent jazz promoter, booked many excellent acts at Cafe No until the club's demise in 1993. Closed for a decade, Cafe No remains a much-missed venue in southern Maine. Fortunately, since the Cafe's demise Lichter has continued to bring the best jazz performers, legends and new talent alike, to the area through his organization Dimensions in Jazz.

For the past two years Dimensions in Jazz, in conjunction with the Maine Jazz Alliance, has offered a springtime celebration under the banner AprilFest. It takes the form of a series of concerts, one to three each weekend, for the entire month of April (and, this year, the first weekend in May as well.) Using various venues throughout the city, AprilFest 2003 was a movable feast with something for everyone's taste. I managed to attend three of the events, reviews of which appear below.

AprilFest 2003 kicked off Friday April 4 at the Eastland Hotel with a show by David Berkman's quartet. The following Saturday, April 12, Starbird Music's recital hall provided the setting for the Frank Carlberg and Klaus Suonsaari duo, playing piano and drums respectively. The following evening I caught Change of Time, also at Starbird. Friday, April 18, Kalifactors, a vibrant quartet whose members include a couple of talented Mainers, performed at SPACE, a not-for-profit gallery and performance venue located in Portland's Downtown Arts district. On Saturday, April 19, pianist Angelica Sanchez and her quartet were at the Center for Cultural Exchange (CCE). I caught the final two shows of AprilFest 2003 on the next two Saturday nights, both presented at CCE. On April 26 soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and his wife, vocalist Irene Aebi, shared the stage. The finale was a double bill with the San Francisco based Rova Saxophone Quartet and Boston's eccentric trio the Fringe, celebrating 25 and 30 years of music-making respectively.

Change of Time consists of Russ Lossing on piano, Adam Kolker on reeds, and John Hebert (pronounced Ey-Bear) on acoustic bass. The most obvious element that makes them stand out from other talented jazz practitioners is their source material. Many jazz groups use popular and Tin Pan Alley tunes as their jumping-off point for improvisation. Typically, a band will perform the piece once through in a relatively straightforward manner (the head) before taking off on extended solo and group improvisations. Change of Time applies a variation of this approach to pieces written by modernist composer Bela Bartok. Recordings of his compositions are normally found in the classical music section. In his liner notes to Change of Time's self-titled album Frank Tafuri offers this description of the specific Bartok material used by Change of Time: "Bartok was also a champion of the natural musical expression of children and the belief that children could absorb modalities and asymmetric rhythms more easily than adults. Such is the genesis of his six volume series of 153 progressive piano pieces entitled Mikrokosmos, written between 1926 and 1939."

Change of Time selected one of these Bartok Mikrokosmos compositions and, with the sheet music before them, began to improvise. They do not necessarily "play the head," although at the performance I attended they did on a couple of occasions. It was very interesting to hear a straight performance of the Bartok prior to the free-spirited improvisations it inspires.

The Starbird Music recital hall is the size of a large living room so the feel was intimate and friendly. The performers made themselves available to speak with the audience before and after the show and during their intermission. It was not heavily attended, which is a shame because the show was wonderful. The only negative has to do with seating. Metal folding chairs may be practical, but they are damn uncomfortable.

Each of the two sets was approximately one hour long and consisted of four improvisations. The first set included "Boating," "Melody in the Mist," "Change of Time" (which gives the band its name) and "From the Island of Bali." I missed the first title in the second set but the final three pieces were based upon "Major Seconds: Broken & Together," "Nocturnes," and "Diminished Fifth: Devil's Interval."

The three performers were obviously connecting on a deep level, despite the fact that pianist Russ Lossing was fighting a nasty head cold. His approach was nicely nuanced, with none of the furiously bombastic attacks or self consciously "sensitive" playing that certain performers sometimes employ to signal passion and profundity. Lossing occasionally reached inside the grand piano to pluck single strings or get harmonics. Adam Kolker mostly employed an alto sax and was also very effective on soprano sax and bass clarinet. Again, virtuosity for its own sake was eschewed in favor of serving the music being created before our ears. John Hebert likewise created a solid support for his fellow band members, exhibiting a warm sound and plenty of heart. As with Lossing and Kolker his playing left no doubt about his "chops" while he never showed off.

Throughout the concert I found myself closing my eyes and being enveloped by the music. It was at once witty and intellectually stimulating. Lossing, Kolker and Hebert each had moments to shine individually and took turns "leading," but most of the time they engaged in the sort of intuitive "group mind" playing that only musicians who are really listening to each other, and who are willing to forego ego gratifying flash in favor of truly serving the music, ever achieve.

The turnout may have been modest, but audience enthusiasm could not have been greater. A hallmark of Lichter events, the audience covered an approximately six-decade age range. Before the show, Paul was catching up on the current activities of students at the Jazz Camp he runs each summer with parents of a former student now studying jazz performance as a college freshman in NYC. High school-aged players sat next to octogenarians who remember when swing was new. For more about Change of Time start at the Web site of their label, Omnitone.

If the intimate Starbird Music recital hall was less than packed for the emerging trio Change of Time, the more commodious room at the Center for Cultural Exchange, located at one end of Portland's thriving Arts District, was packed for the legendary soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy who appeared with his long time collaborator (and wife) vocalist Irene Aebi.

For over three decades, until last year when he accepted a post on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Lacy made his home in Paris. During his introduction, Paul Lichter told a story about "kicking himself for a decade" after passing up a chance to book Steve Lacy's quartet at Cafe No due to the financial risk. Lichter "thanked the jazz gods" for allowing him a second chance.

Steve Lacy, in many ways, personifies the evolution of jazz in the twentieth century. A look at his astounding discography (Man, I love the Internet!) demonstrates why. His earliest recordings were in the context of Dixieland. He went on to perform with Cecil Taylor, Thelonius Monk, Gil Evans and others associated with the post-bop avant-garde. His recordings from the sixties as a leader were compelling extensions of the soprano saxophone as a jazz instrument and of the idiom itself. In his own quiet, modest, comments from the stage Lacy spoke about Monk's material being considered edgy and difficult at the time it was created, but how Monk's tunes are now considered classics. He hoped his own material might someday be thought of that way. He doesn't need to wait.

One delightful perk I enjoyed the night of the show, given the chaotic scene in the tiny CCE lobby, was being allowed in while Lacy and Aebi were still warming up, before the doors opened. Watching and listening as the couple ran unison scales as they got a feel for the acoustics of the room was an experience I'll be telling and retelling (suitably embellished) until they scatter my ashes.

After his introduction by Lichter, Steve Lacy took the stage for a solo first set. He began with a group of four or five tunes by Monk including "Mysterioso" and (maybe) "Straight, No Chaser" among others. I say 'maybe' for two main reasons: first, I'm terrible at remembering the titles of lyric-free tunes, even when they're familiar to me; second, Lacy used the compositions as the jumping off point for an extended improvisation during which Monk's recognizable melodic themes appeared and were transformed only to pop up later on, juxtaposed with other motifs.

Lacy was in exemplary form. He was at ease with his chosen instrument, his material and the appreciatively rapt audience. Melodic ideas flowed like a swift spring stream. Although he did not use a microphone, Lacy easily filled the room with lush sound while avoiding over-blowing. His tone was warm and full.

After the Monk material Lacy approached a group of his own compositions in similar fashion. While this second "medley" may have been absent moments when familiar melodies could be easily recognized, it was no less delightful. Both segments demonstrated Lacy's mastery of the soprano saxophone and the jazz idiom. He closed the set with a compelling and somewhat angular work in progress entitled "Baghdad."

Following an intermission Lacy retook the stage with his wife and long-time collaborator Irene Aebi. Born in Switzerland, Aebi is a French speaker who brings a very different slant to the music she and Lacy make together. In many ways the material they do together sounds closer to avant-garde "art song" than to jazz. All of the words come from modern poets, mostly those known as "The Beats." Many of whom were, of course, infatuated and influenced by jazz. And so the cycle of inspiration becomes compete. Their "set list" was "Song" by Allan Ginsberg, "Train Going By, "What Would Happen Anyway," and "Jack's," all by Robert Creely (Lacy commented that he dedicated "Jack's" to Bix Biederbeck), "Naked Lunch" (a tango) and "Dead Weight" (a march) by William Burroughs, "Do Not Judge Me Lightly" by Judith Malina of the Living Theater, and it closed with "Morning Joy" by Bob Kaufman.

The unison scales I'd heard Lacy and Aebi rehearsing earlier during their sound check proved to be wordless versions of their approach to this material. The melodic and rhythmic structure comes directly from Aebi's natural reading of the poems. I was (perhaps oddly) reminded of certain pieces by the American Minimalist composer Steve Reich, such as "Different Trains," in which essentially documentary recordings of spoken material become his source for melody and meter. Whether one chooses to call the music made by Lacy and Aebi jazz or art song or avant-garde is beside the point. It was a genuine and moving marriage of word and music, a perfect vehicle for these performers.

The final AprilFest 2003 concert was Paul Lichter's "dream double bill," The Rova Saxophone Quartet from San Francisco followed by Boston's "The Fringe."

Rova took the stage first. The group is made up of Bruce Ackley - soprano/baritone, John Raskin - alto/bass, Steve Adams - soprano/alto, and Larry Oakes - soprano/baritone. Their set list included material composed by various members of the group. There were pieces with titles such as "Juke Box Detroit," "Survival in Five Acts," and "S." While many smaller classical ensembles, string quartets, and the like regularly create not-for-profit organizational structures, few jazz ensembles have followed this path. Rova is an exception. They have a great Web site that includes loads of information about the group. Particularly interesting is an explanation of some of the means and methods the group has developed for "conducting" or spontaneously structuring their group improvisations. I was intrigued watching them perform as various hand gestures were employed to cue one another for changes in direction, solo passages and so forth.

There is something astounding when one hears a group like Rova, who have worked together for a quarter of a century, create improvised music from within that space where you know they are communicating on a level beyond words, purely through the music itself. The music was at once cerebral, arcane, accessible, witty, and created a groove all its own.

The audience was extremely enthusiastic and only the knowledge that The Fringe were waiting to take the stage kept the crowd from demanding an encore after Rova's generous set. The intermission accommodated The Fringe's need to get the drums set up, bass amp adjusted and so forth. Once ready, they were introduced by Paul Lichter, who told the story of their first appearance at Cafe No. The Fringe, known to Paul at the time only by vague reputation, emerged from what passed for the club's green room dressed as cave men, complete with long wigs. As they moved through the tables on their way to the stage they were drinking from patrons' drinks, groping the women, and grunting. On stage they began by playing each other's instruments with less than virtuosic ability, before moving into their first real music. By the end of the night they had set a new standard at the Cafe for theatrical behavior as well as blowing the audience away with their consummate musicianship.

They did not take the stage in costume, but they did begin their set with a most unusual version of "Strangers in the Night." Led by a great "musicians' musician" and jazz educator, saxophonist George Garzone, they ran the material through an inspired set of changes. There was a lovely, melodic, nicely nuanced, drum solo by Bob Gullotti and equally great bass solo by John Lockwood. In the course of their set The Fringe played fast and wild, they played slow and dreamy, they were angular and smooth, they bopped and they grooved. Gullotti made wonderful use of mallets, brushes, sticks and his hands to get a rich, full, palette of sound from the drums to support the different moods being created.

Everyone's hoped for moment arrived when Garzone called out for Rova to join them at the end of the night. When no one from the West Coast group immediately appeared, he left the stage to Lockwood and Gullotti who began a "holding pattern" groove. The five saxophonists spent the next five to ten minutes wandering around the hall blowing some of the finest improvised music Portland has heard. From the mezzanine and the back of the hall, walking up and down the center aisle, and while flanking the stage, the members of Rova Saxophone Quartet and The Fringe became, however briefly, one of the best jazz septets ever.

All in all, Paul Lichter's Dimensions in Jazz and the dedicated Mark Kleinhut and Erika Aberg of Maine Jazz Alliance are to be applauded for producing AprilFest 2003. I can hardly wait to see what they'll come up with for 2004.

[Christopher White]

For more about Steve Lacy and Irene Aebi, whose duet recording of poetry pieces, Beat Suite, will soon be released, check out senators.free.fr and his Discography.

More information about Change of Time can be found at the Web site of their label, Omnitone.