SIMF #18 – 2003

The 18th Seattle Improvised Music Festival took place on February 14-15, 21-22, 2003, at Polestar Music Gallery and Center on Contemporary Art (CoCA). It was staged in February to coincide with Vancouver’s Time Flies Improvised Music Meeting, with which the Seattle festival shared international performers. The organizers were Gust Burns, Henry Hughes, Peter Monaghan, Dennis Rea, and Wally Shoup.

“This year’s festival exceeded all expectations and can only be termed a runaway success. We had capacity crowds on all four nights, many memorable performances, and highly appreciative audiences and musicians. After last year’s disappointing turnout, it seems that some of the changes we introduced this year – moving the festival to February, holding it on weekends only, and staging it in more realistically sized venues – paid off nicely. We actually had to turn folks away on two nights as we simply ran out of room. We also held receptions after all four concerts that allowed the musicians and audience members to mingle and heightened the sense of community. Audiences seemed noticeably more diverse than in years past, possibly because we made a concerted effort to have better representation of women and the younger generation of improvisers on this year’s bill.” (Dennis Rea, email Feb. 23, 2003)

Participating artists:

Brent Arnold, cello (Arnold/Brogan/Keeble/Swanson); ARTKOAMIA (Dempster, Ishida, Paquette, Smith); Travis Baker, bass (Vancouver, BC; Baker/Hay/Schoenbeck); Jeb Bishop, trombone (Chicago; Bishop/Lovens/Mahall/Müller); Dave Brogan, drums (Arnold/Brogan/Keeble/Swanson); Gust Burns, piano (Burns/Campbell/Reynolds); Greg Campbell, percussion (Burns/Campbell/Reynolds); Jesse Canterbury, clarinets (Canterbury/Nelson-Zagar); Stuart Dempster, trombone (Artkoamia); Tom Djll, trumpet (Bay Area; Djll/Rainey/Wright); Emily Hay, flute/voice (Los Angeles; Baker/Hay/Schoenbeck); Renko Ishida Dempster, live painting (Artkoamia); Zeke Keeble, drums (Arnold/Brogan/Keeble/Swanson); Peggy Lee, cello (Vancouver; Lee/Smaworth); Paul Lovens, drums (Germany; Bishop/Lovens/Mahall/Müller); Rudi Mahall, bass clarinet (Germany; Bishop/Lovens/Mahall/Müller); Torsten Müller, bass (Vancouver; Bishop/Lovens/Mahall/Müller); Tari Nelson-Zagar, violin (Canterbury/Nelson-Zagar); Virginia Paquette, live painting (Artkoamia); Bhob Rainey, saxophones (Boston; Djll/Rainey/Wright); Gregory Reynolds, sax (Burns/Campbell/Reynolds); Ron Samworth, guitar (Vancouver; Lee/Samworth); Sara Schoenbeck, bassoon (Los Angeles; Baker/Hay/Schoenbeck); Bill Smith, clarinet (Artkoamia); Troy Swanson, homemades (Arnold/Brogan/Keeble/Swanson); Jack Wright, saxophones (Boulder; Djll/Rainey/Wright)

Friday, February 14 (Polestar)
Duo – Jesse Canterbury, Tari Nelson-Zagar
Quartet – Troy Swanson w/ Brent Arnold, Dave Brogan & Zeke Keeble

Saturday, February 15 (Polestar)
Trio – Travis Baker, Emily Hay, Sara Schoenbeck
Quartet – Jeb Bishop, Paul Lovens, Rudi Mahall, Torsten Müller

Friday, February 21 (CoCA)
Duo – Peggy Lee & Ron Samworth
Trio – Gust Burns, Greg Campbell, Gregory Reynolds

Saturday, February 22 (Polestar)
Trio – Tom Djll, Bhob Rainey, Jack Wright
Quartet – Artkoamia

Henry Hughes remembers:

“Tom Djll, Bhob Rainey and Jack Wright…put three chairs down on the floor in front of the Polestar stage and played just a stupendous, uncompromising set of that confounding, always threatening to be a little too constipated stuff that Tom and Bhob would never relent from. As with much of the very best of that music, plenty of resplendent diarrhea resulted, spewing out despite those three tight sphincters!

It stands out for me in part because the packed house, made up of very few of the usual suspects…was easily among the most engaged we ever had in that little space. And for that music! The give and take was what everybody involved hopes every gig might be. The musicians were so pumped they didn’t touch the floor as they walked out.

Later that night at the Ranch where Jack was staying, he was still ebullient as could be. If memory serves, he was smiling and whistling as he wandered around the place talking to people. You know it’s been a decent night when a Jack Wright has no complaints!

Same year, the Lovens et al set was another barn-burner with a great audience. Rudi Mahall was a revelation on bass clarinet, an instrument that for the first time in my life appeared to be little more than a toy in a player’s hands. (I probably need to revisit some Dolphy film.) Still no idea how the bell stayed on the damn horn. Jeb Bishop was fantastic, too.

Lovens had insisted to his compatriots in the green room that, with such a house, there would be no quiet explorations of the noodling variety to start the show. They were gonna hit hard and never look back. The reason I know this is because he told me so afterwards – complete with laughing his ass off in self-satisfied fashion that his 1000-decibel snare shot that launched the set had had me ducking, hard, as I walked down the aisle after the introduction.”

Preview by Paul de Barros, Seattle Times, Feb. 14, 2003:

All this jazz is freely improvised

Seattle’s improv festival has a jaunty new name – the Seattle Festival of Freely Improvised Music – and a new February time slot (it used to be in June).

With its dancing, capricious feel, the adverb “freely” is a nice new touch that conveys the rebelliousness and impulsiveness of the event.

Organized by five musicians and activists – Wally Shoup, Peter Monaghan, Henry Hughes, Dennis Rea and Gust Burns – the 18-year-old festival is devoted to unscripted music, created entirely in the moment. An offshoot of ’60s avant-garde jazz, free-improv has developed its own world of masters and apprentices, venues, disc labels and critics, particularly in Europe and Canada.

The festival begins at 8 tonight at the Polestar Music Gallery, 1412 18th Ave., Seattle, with clarinetist Jesse Canterbury, violinist Tari Nelson-Zagar and a quartet led by electronic musician Troy Swanson.

At 8 p.m. tomorrow, a quartet featuring three German powerhouses – Paul Lovens (drums), Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet) and Torsten Müller (bass) – and Chicago trombonist Jeb Bishop plays the same venue. Travis Baker (bass), Emily Hay (flute) and Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon) open.

Müller, 45, is a compelling, muscular bassist with an unusual background. Born in Germany, he grew up after the age of 2 in a small, isolated town north of Montreal, then returned to Germany as a teenager, where he studied anthropology and became a well-known figure on the German and English improv scenes.

Two years ago, Müller moved to Vancouver, B.C., where he found he fit right in with that city’s active experimental circles. “In the back of my mind,” he said in a phone interview from Vancouver, “I always wanted to come back and live in North America. I always felt this was my home — the mountains, the ocean, great people, great food. Fortunately, my wife is Canadian, so when our kids grew up, we came back. Originally, it had nothing to do with the music. My plan was to live here and play in Europe. I haven’t gone back to Europe once in the whole two years!”

Players like Müller spend years perfecting individualistic, extended vocabularies on their instruments, such as bowing with unusual objects or activating the strings in unusual ways or combinations. Their playing often leads to mental and emotional states – and timbres and textures – that straight-ahead music rarely can touch. Because free-improv traditionally has been friendly to amateurs, however, the genre sometimes is portrayed as a loosey-goosey game “anyone” can play, or simply a dog-and-pony show of eccentricities.

Müller, primarily self-taught, decries amateurism and is adamant that all great music, whether it be free-improv, jazz or classical, possesses the same qualities. “I’m definitely old school and disciplinarian,” he said. “This is an art that you have to work at with a lot of dedication and deliberation. If you’re really conscientious, you do the weeding out before you play. ”

Free-improvisers often are accused of playing only for each other, but Müller says he feels a distinct obligation to provide the audience with an engaging, dramatic narrative. “If you’re doing what you do really well,” he says, “then part of that will be the projective part, the entertaining part, no matter how abstract the music. Real quality presents itself, even to the less-informed listener. You feel the urgency and immediacy, the emotionality and the sweat that goes in there.”

The festival continues next Friday at the Center on Contemporary Art with Lee and Ron Samworth, plus Burns, Greg Campbell and Gregory Reynolds. Next Saturday, Tom Djill, Bhob Rainey and Jack Wright share the bill with William O. Smith and Stuart Dempster.

Review of the first two nights by Bill White in the Seattle PI, Feb. 18, 2003:

Creative sparks fly at improv music fest

The 18th Seattle Festival of Freely Improvised Music opened to standing room only crowds last weekend at the Polestar Music Gallery.

Friday night’s concert began with an astounding set from two Seattle improvisers, Jesse Canterbury (clarinet) and Tari Nelson-Zagar (violin). Testing their instruments’ possibilities, the duo explored musical relationships that were at once harmonious and discordant.

At one point, the violin maintained a drone while the clarinet hit related and unrelated pitches. One of their most exciting passages occurred when Canterbury and Nelson-Zagar went tobogganing down an avalanche of musical invention at different tempos.

Seattle’s Troy Swanson closed the evening with the unveiling of a new ensemble featuring Brent Arnold, Dave Brogan and Zeke Keeble. Swanson, who designs his own instruments, works in the Harry Partch tradition of neo-primitivism, filtered through modern industrial music and drumming circles.

His ensemble, a combination of percussion, electronics and strings, was a groove-oriented unit in which the players complemented, rather than challenged, each other. Their trancelike suspensions of time bridged mid-20th-century avant-garde with post-Grateful Dead jam bands.

Saturday’s performance began with the trio of Emily Hay (flute, vocals), Sara Schoenbeck (bassoon), both from Los Angeles, and Vancouver, B.C.’s Travis Baker (bass). Against tonalities ranging from the guttural to the lyrical, Hay ripped sounds of terror from a throat transformed into a wind instrument.

Baker and Schoenbeck often were relegated to support players, which prevented the music from transcending Hay’s ecstatically damned wail. The oppressed negativity of her tortured mantras limited the expressive range of the music. Schoenbeck, however, made a startling case for the harmonic possibilities of the bassoon in free improvisation.

The opening weekend closed with a fiery set of energy music from a quartet epitomizing the free-jazz philosophies of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. Germans Rudi Mahall (bass clarinet), Paul Lovens (percussion) and Torsten Müller (bass) were joined by Chicago’s Jeb Bishop (trombone).

All four pushed their instruments beyond conventional ranges to the degree that it was often difficult to differentiate the trombone from the bowed bass. Each musician played entirely free of the others, never for a moment relaxing into a support position. In contrast to the neo-classical intellectualism of today’s homegrown improvisers, this music was as primal and physical as rock ‘n’ roll freed from the 12-bar confines of its blues origins.

After a standing ovation, the crowd demanded a well-deserved encore. Unlike the encores that are built into pop music’s prepackaged formulas, this was as spontaneous as the music itself.

The festival continues next weekend with music from Canada’s Peggy Lee (cello) and Ron Samworth (guitar), the saxophone and trumpet trio of Tom Djll (Bay Area), Bhob Rainey (Boston) and Jack Wright (Boulder), and several local musicians, including ARTKOAMIA, a music and art collective performing visual and musical improvisations.