By Martin Longley, a music critic who writes for The Guardian, Downbeat, All About Jazz, Songlines and Jazzwise, among others.
Opening Concert, Monday 12th June
The opening Monday night concert of the CMS spring workshop displayed the talents of its guiding artists, playing together in various permutations. It’s an initial demonstration of where each player stands, musically, prior to the masterclasses and collective tuition that will follow over the course of the next three days. The Full Moon resort at Big Indian, in the Catskill Mountains, is a secluded encampment of natural quiet, a wilderness haven for the arts, with a particular attention paid to music camps. The Full Moon folks also handled catering for the recent Mountain Jam festival, and will be hosting a King Crimson camp to tie in with the soon-coming tour by those English prog-rock leviathans.
The guiding artists and around 25 workshop participants gathered in the Full Moon reception, everyone introducing themselves, and giving a brief background to their journey towards improvisation. Dinner followed in the converted barn, which was to also serve as the ample space for the week’s coming masterclasses. Around 8pm, all of the assembled ambled up the hill to the Roadhouse. This is Full Moon’s dedicated venue, complete with bar, stage and in-house sound system.
The Chinese pipa player Min Xiao Fen played solo at first, with a release of pent-up energy, contrasting the often dignified and gentle nature of this instrument with a forceful approach that’s immersed in free improvisation and Delta blues traditions. It’s a strikingly aggressive attack, loaded with bent and sliding notes, her palms sometimes spread flat to encompass the maximum number of strings on the pipa’s broad neck. She makes sudden switches of gear, from a driving thrash, into spidering clusters.
The New York bassist Ken Filiano and the Mexican guitarist Omar Tamez begin with soft, granular bowing and agitated picking. Filiano periodically raises an interest in effects pedals (even though most of his gigs feature a purer bass sound), and he’s using these foot-triggerers here, whilst Tamez calls to mind the pliant sound of James Blood Ulmer. Filiano and Tamez are soon heading towards a straight-running momentum. This duo becomes a quartet, as Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso enter, the former implying a South African sound on piano keyboard, the latter flitting between words and scat. Sertso brings in a narrative sense, something that will frequently govern the structure of the following pieces. She might be considering calling their first improvisation “Dance With Life”, a developing phrase in the piece.
There’s a further expansion, as tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and drummer Warren Smith come onstage, with Berger moving across to the vibraphone. A classic Blue Note-ed character moves the music closer to the jazz mainline, with Smith playing on a straight drum-kit, although augmented by an extra floor-tom. Often, when he’s found playing in NYC, Smith favors an expanded tympani set-up. Berger’s solo mixes open resonance with curtailed strikes, developing a freer nature. “When will the blues leave? Never!,” declaims Sertso, as this Ornette Coleman tune concludes.
Continuing, Smith produces an abstract clatter, and Apfelbaum leads a rugged take-off, Tamez making scything strikes, edged with decorative details, and coming close to a Vietnamese microtonality. The evening’s most unusual line-up featured Min Xiao Fen, Tom Tedesco (tabla), along with Berger and Filiano. Min also vocalized, her immense energy setting off a flash of communal fire amongst her partners. This was improvisation with tension, release, heightened empathy and fine detail.
Masterclasses & Workshop Sessions, Tuesday 13th June
During her vocal/tuning awareness session, Ingrid Sertso is talking about being inspired by working with the recently departed Pauline Oliveros (who also was a Guiding Artist at the CMS Workshop in October, 2016): “Use your speaking voice”, she instructs her gathering of vocalists, in a circle of drone, naturally finding many levels of tone. Even though most of these participants are not professional singers, no one sounds “out of tune,” as the cluster gravitates towards a strata of sonic suspension. Then, Sertso vocalizes across the top of their layers, or perhaps sideways. There’s a very Eastern sensibility to this approach, although ‘east’ can stretch from Tibetan and Tuvan lands, coming back through to the Balkans. The circle gets tighter, the act of standing closer tending to intensify the resultant sound. It’s a kind of organic mathematics, beginning to sound like a Ligeti or Stockhausen vocal work.
The first part of multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum’s masterclass begins with him distributing word-sheets, to be used later in the proceedings. He’s talking about the scale as a foundation, either as something to harmonize with, or alternatively, scrape against. Ashe constructs the ranks, delivering their duties, Apfelbaum introduces the comparison with a Jamaican dub reggae wizard, bringing up the fader on sonic action that is already underway. He instantaneously cues either individuals or spontaneously created groups to rise up, or slip away in the collective spread. He prompts them to enter suddenly, or creep in softly, and incrementally, then he turns his attention to the percussionists, asking them to play busily, but imagining that they’re way off in the distance, much quieter than usual.
Finally, he adds a loping funk drumbeat. The participants might feel like they’re caught in the midst of an efficient and hard-working LA studio recording session, perhaps for a movie soundtrack. Apfelbaum is a master communicator, actively open to accident and spontaneity, but with a very precise idea of a battle plan. He has the knack of giving instructions, but making them seem like suggestions. He’s not locked into his own advance playing: if he hears a player straying, Apfelbaum might decide that they’re worth following.
After all this swift construction, it’s time to introduce some solos, at the same time as building a bridge section. The players have an impressive capacity to memorize their leader’s repeating patterns and involved passage-shifts. Apfelbaum wants the bridge to be looped, in human fashion, with a flexibility for content, but also requiring a dogged repeat, once the content has been decided.
After a break for lunch, the second part of the masterclass has Apfelbaum moving to the drumkit. His chief instrument is the tenor saxophone, but he’s also pretty hot on keyboards and drums. Apfelbaum is breaking down the percussion into separate parts, and this is where reeds specialist Lee Odom (from NYC) solos on soprano saxophone, scooting around with a supple ease, magnifying the excitement of the section. Next, Apfelbaum wants to work on a mostly vocal ensemble sequence, as a prelude to inserting the content of the lyric sheets. Part of this involves a reading of In The Beginning, a poem by Dylan Thomas, tackled by three vocalists: Charles Ver Straeten, Roberta Lawrence and Mary Enid Haines. All of these constituent parts are eventually melded, even though they might seem ungainly in their mass. Apfelbaum has everything under control, though, with his remarkable ability to shape and direct all of these talented artists.
In an unusual move, Apfelbaum’s next step is to work on an arrangement of Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April”, perfectly illustrating the wide ranges of sources for improvisation to be found during a CMS workshop. For the last 30 minutes of his masterclass, Apfelbaum constructs a complete arrangement, working with his usual speedy decisiveness. He guides the song towards an easy gliding motion, switching to the keyboards, as trumpeter Steven Bernstein arrives to coincide with the latest downpour outside. He’s a veteran attendee at CMS workshops for the last four decades, with him (15 years old) and Apfelbaum (16 years old) first making their pilgrimage from Berkeley in 1977. Both of them (along with percussionist Billy Martin) are now associate artistic directors with CMS.
Berger’s daily session begins with a call for the horn players to have ears open for the entire spread of sound, not just their own contribution. Then, all of the ensemble’s instruments become a part of the palette. He prompts single stabs, followed by sustained smears. Bernstein starts completely solo, and the orchestra awakens into a fiercely uptempo number. The music, and Berger himself, lift off, as he stands up, getting right up close to players as he urges them on with detailed hand-gestures, directly addressing the horns. Berger is in control, but he’s also facilitating individual expression, within the structural guidelines that he’s built.
Evening Concert, Tuesday 13th June
The evening’s first grouping features Berger, Sertso, Smith, Tamez, Filiano, Bernstein, Apfelbaum and the newly-arrived Tanya Kalmanovitch on viola. They weave a winding tale, and the music is suitably filmic in character, as Bernstein rips into a flaring slide trumpet solo. Besides this display, most of the orientation is towards an ensemble nature, creating a levelled group sound. Smith and Filiano begin the next piece, with the latter using a wah-wah pedal to contort his sound, the rest of the players now weighing in with a be-bopped momentum. Kalmanovitch takes a swooping solo, richly embellishing, and the mischievous Bernstein/Apfelbaum team trade curt phrases, in the old-school manner. It’s the typical equality of jazz language presented throughout this workshop’s span, embracing jazz tradition as well as the more wayward extremes of free improvisation, with frequent exploration of global ethnic forms. Berger moves to the vibes, adopting a lightly stippling touch, in a duet with visiting Spanish guitarist Alvaro Domene, who has recently settled in the Hudson Valley area. The combination benefits from a taut dynamism, particularly during their second number.
Masterclasses & Workshop Sessions, Wednesday 14th June
Min Xiao Fen’s masterclass uses Chinese traditional music, and Peking opera motifs, as a template for the morning’s improvisational journey. She guides with phonetic patterns, prompting the percussion, and asking the sticksmen (Michael Shore, Joe Boulet) to concentrate on small sounds, perhaps using gongs or woodblocks. Vivid facial expressions and extravagant gestures are just as much a part of her communicating array. Then, along with the music, she sings the patterns. With its alien vocabulary and innate complexity, this musical area is surely one of the most difficult to inhabit, particularly for those musicians inexperienced in this language (probably most of the participants). Given the space of just a few hours, it’s certainly hard to grasp.
Min manages to direct the large spread of participants with a fair degree of control, carefully working towards the establishment of a unified flow, binding the singers to the instruments. At first, the players find it difficult to take flight, maybe too self-conscious about being precise. As Min cues repeats, a Chinese form of Philip Glass-ian minimalism begins to evolve, as the repeats ripple outwards. She may be rooted in the tradition, but as witnessed with her pipa playing, Min is always working towards either expanding, twisting or maybe even subverting the core Chinese concepts. Quite astoundingly, by the end of the masterclass, the gathered players surmount the challenge, with the final piece of the puzzle being an almost swinging, loping section, its notes articulated with a good amount of swaying and lolloping. Now there’s even more material, as Min takes the vocal repeats down to a hushed whisper.
Time for lunch!
An exciting aspect of each masterclass is the almost inevitable turn it will take into a completely different musical approach, governed by the concerns, style and experience of its guiding artist. Joe McPhee (saxophones, trumpet) elects to guide the participants towards structured free improvisation, meaning that the naked content of contributions is completely spontaneous, but placed within a framework that is itself spontaneously built by McPhee. It’s improvised conduction, controlling the improvisation of others, but within itself, pure in its freedom.
Before the music starts to sound, McPhee delivers an eloquent description of his early influence under John Coltrane, his disbelief over the revered saxophonist’s untimely death, and the amusing regularity with which McPhee’s and Ornette Coleman’s paths began to cross around that 1967 time. Not least with their slightly tardy viewing of Coltrane’s open casket at his funeral service. It was as though the torch was being passed, as McPhee moved from Coltrane to Ornette, the latter taking him under his wing, the nature of free jazz gradually evolving into something more extreme.
McPhee’s first tactic is to get the drummers to play a figure, and then immediately chase this with something totally different. He asks the string instrumentalists to find a sound, then sustain it, the drums producing a beat, and the other players tacking something onto that mathematical base. Then, after a long moment of silence, all hell breaks loose. McPhee joins in on soprano saxophone, and calmly signals for trumpet and flute to take the space, silencing the guitar wing, a pipa solo emerging. McPhee conducts sensitively, even though the end result might be brutal in being. As this extended improvisation ceases, it appears to be the end of the masterclass, but McPhee quietly suggests that “we can play some more, if you want.” Straight away, the basses and drums set up a meaty groove, and the horns squabble in unison. It’s noticeable that the participants tend to play in a style descended from what they imagine or expect their guiding artist to desire. This is no bad outcome, as it highlights the organic, malleable nature of improvisation.
It’s not officially the second part of her masterclass (that’s due for the next day), but Min Xiao Fen precedes the late afternoon orchestra session with a performance of the work she’d been crafting earlier. After letting it percolate during the afternoon, this time all of the players are primed, waiting to release their energies. Now, all the components are fully integrated. The players have learned their complicated parts, and are freed up to make this later reading more confident, less inhibited by uncertainty. Some special vibration hangs in the ether.
This aura is intensified during the following improvisation, led by Berger, which is set to be some of the spring workshop’s greatest music. Now there’s a remarkable energy sizzling around the barn-space, its sliding doors opened to reveal the field and forest vistas outside. Warren Smith has joined the drumming team, providing much of the thrust, as Billy Martin (of Medeski Martin & Wood fame) also guests, rummaging in his percussion bag as he stands on the stairs that lead up to the mezzanine’s mixing desk and recording facilities. Steven Bernstein is also still in the house. Berger’s piece (“We Are”) co-opts its elements into a shuffling Afro-Latin New Orleans mélange, with bassist Ken Filiano doing his sousaphone impersonation. Then a samba procession develops, and Berger takes the volume right down, a guitar part suddenly discernible in the quietness. Berger points to the Mexican pianist Dave Trevino to take a solo, whilst the workshop’s Japanese participants, dancer Michiru Inoue and shakuhachi player Ken Ya Kawaguchi, respond to the escalations.
Evening Concert, Wednesday 14th June
The first grouping at the evening concert is McPhee, Filiano, Tamez, Smith and keyboardist Angelica Sanchez, opting for a luminous abstraction. McPhee chooses soprano, and it doesn’t take him long to graduate from placid reflection to nervy agitation, dragging his colleagues behind him in the rush towards explosive release.
The second piece is delivered by Berger, Sertso, Tamez, Bernstein, Filiano, Smith and Apfelbaum, the night’s mood already inclined towards larger groupings. Berger is on vibraphone, demonstrating his marvelous human-touch echo. Meanwhile, Apfelbaum wrenches out a gutsy tenor solo. Berger moves to piano and Smith glides to the vibes, this duo softly speaking “Body And Soul”, with a poised translucence. The tune is very sensitively traversed, and then we’re snapped out of our reverie by Filiano, who’s adopting a smile-inducing attitude towards emcee-ing. It’s like he’s born into this role, and relishing every exuberant moment!
Next up, a trio with Min, McPhee and Filiano, the latter bowing sonorously, creating another stand-out musical passage straight away. There’s a hog-calling vocal exchange between Min and Filiano, and changes of instrumental dynamics throughout. Min plays her pipa strings with a bottleneck slide, but can swap to thin, gossamer runs, as a sharp alternative. When she ditches her slide, Filiano picks up his bow again, as Apfelbaum joins the trio, encouraging a tense, stalking, pre-release feeling. Berger now delivers a solo version of “Fragments”, with close, dampened strikes on the vibraphone, making soft rubs and quicksilver ripples. This is definitely the night of the guiding artists, all of the combination line-ups imbued with a noticeable vigor.
Masterclasses & Workshop Sessions, Thursday 15th June
Tanya Kalmanovitch (viola) is something of an unknown quantity at the CMS workshop, a first-timer with a novel approach to the masterclass. Of course, all of the other presenters have their quirks, but her elected agenda is to explore the art of the ending, specifically in the realm of improvisation. Beginnings can be almost as challenging: who opens first, and at what level of density, nature of tone and sense of pace. How do they choose? The exact point of finishing is arguably more of a challenge. Sometimes it’s collectively obvious where a piece might conclude, if it rises towards a clear climax, but on other occasions an improvisation might just drift away into the ether, or perhaps come to a sudden (often instinctive, or chance) halt.
Kalmanovitch discusses the concept of potential endings, even if not every player ultimately acts on this possibility. She asks the participants to identify the likely points at which an improvisation might conclude. There might be a single stage, where no argument is offered, or there might be five, six, or more. Perhaps, even if the majority decide to finish, one player might soldier onwards, or believe that there is absolutely no end in sight, so far. There’s not much of a concrete gain to be made, during this masterclass, as it seems that Kalmanovitch is preaching general awareness and sensitivity rather than opening a clearly defined rulebook.
Following lunch, Min Xiao Fen returns for her second masterclass, continuing to shape the Peking opera-influenced work from the previous day. This time around she’s concentrating on subliminal vocal tones, inspired by Chinese folk songs. This marks a detour into a complementary area of activity. She starts off the participants with a sustained tone, its notes hovering in a highly subtle inhabitation of the space. Hushed guitars, and baritone saxophone (played by Bill Ylitalo) are introduced, with vestigial drum and cymbal sounds around the perimeter.
Switching back to the Peking opera composition (as it has now become), Min sets it rolling once again, and the trouncing, stomping section increases in power each time it’s invoked, as the ensemble latch onto its propulsive groove. The vocal segment is also amassing energy and conviction. Closing up the session with soft, sustained and sparing sounds, the participants pull the art of contemplation up to its highest level.
The last orchestra improvisation provides another absolute musical peak of this spring workshop. Karl Berger cultivates the stately leviathan of “The Smile That You Send Out Returns To You”, coaxing out a cumulative, ritualistic incarnation of his song. First, Berger lays out the elements, starting a chant around the circle of participants. Gradually, tabla and goblet-shaped darabouka drum are introduced, as verbal and handclapping arrangements are developed. Berger joins in on melodica. Once this structure is in place, he begins an extended improvisation, which eventually re-introduces the song/chant, following this elaborate improvised genesis.
The combined duration was probably approaching 90 minutes, but so engaging was the music that timepieces were not required, as there was no single moment where the it wandered, stalled or dispersed into routine. The electricity of Berger’s commanding presence, and the charge set up around the players, filled the circle with a glowing possession to match that of the previous day’s session during this same late afternoon time-phase. These two orchestral improvisations were amongst the most exciting musical spells of the entire workshop.
Evening Concert, Thursday 15th June
As the participants get to know each other, both socially and musically, over the four days, the wheels of improvisation become well-oiled, as groupings form during the final day’s evening concert. One such impromptu band features Ted Orr (tabla), Ylitalo (wooden birdcall plunger-whistles) and the Japanese duo, with Inoue dramatically bursting out of the rest room to initiate her dance, in a genuinely startling piece of choreography..!
A grouping of Berger, Sertso, Tamez, Filiano, and Smith (on vibes) essayed “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”, followed by a radically more unusual pairing of Chuck ver Straeten (voice) and Min Xiao Fen (voice/pipa). She gurgles into a plastic cup of water, whilst Chuck smacks his lips and puckers, finding a dramatic and arresting performance art outlet, both of them speaking in tongues. It’s a dialogue that you might imaging emanating from the neighbouring apartment of your worst married couple conflict scenario nightmares. Min pants and they squeal in unison, making noh theatre type ululations and growls, like a radically avant garde John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John.
Apfelbaum, Filiano, Kalmanovitch, Smith (on vibes), and Joe Boulet (drums) made a skeletal funk construct, a soft strut implied more than laboured. Apfelbaum echoes Kalmanovitch, whilst Boulet uses puffball sticks, reined in within the open sonic space. Smith makes supple crystalline shapes, with one unexpected moment where he ratchets the mallets across the vibraphones legs, always aware of the sideways percussive opportunity.
Another highlight arrives close to the end, with alto saxophonist Paul Goldberg shining out on “In Walked Bud”, with Berger (vibes), Filiano and Apfelbaum, the latter now ensconced behind the drumkit. Goldberg had already impressed with several citrus-streaming solos during the daytime sessions.
Even though most of the participants weren’t firing off aggressively individualistic solos throughout the workshop, their stances became markedly strengthened, and their collective sensibilities enhanced as the days progressed. There was an increasing integration between the guiding artists and the participating workshop players, as bonding and confidence increased. Playing permutations were flying spontaneously, particularly by the time of this last evening’s Roadhouse concert. There was also a valuable contrast between the elaborate scale of the daytime’s large ensemble work, and off-shoot intimacy of the night-time small group promiscuity.
NOTES FROM CMS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ROB SAFFER
Once again, we retreat deep into the Catskills where mobile phones don’t work to create a community centered around music, nature and human creativity. Guiding Artists fill our ears with music and brains with wisdom, none more so than Karl and Ingrid. People come as strangers and leave as friends, colleagues, musical co-conspirators. Bonds and bands are formed. We’re well-fed musically, but also physically by gorgeous mountain surroundings, sumptuous food and caring friends at Full Moon Resort. Ears and bodies well taken care of, our spirits soar. What’s really surprising is that this is typical of CMS Workshops – each reaches a new height. We always think we’ve reached a pinnacle…and then another workshop happens and the bar is set higher.
Special thanks to our guiding artists – Min, Peter, Tanya and Joe – along with Ken Filiano, Warren Smith, Omar Tamez, Angelica Sanchez, and special guests Billy Martin, Steven Bernstein and Timothy Hill. And of course to Matthew Cullen (sound), Geoff Baer (video) and Karin A. Wolf (photography) for capturing the sounds, images and spirit of this workshop. Thanks to our friends at Full Moon for making us always feel at home (and for finally making the coffee strong enough!).
See you in for the CMS Fall Workshop October 2-6.