Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Timothy Reidy
A JazzApril story
In our last episode, drummer Clifford Barbaro revealed his former bandleader Sun Ra’s description of his legendary Arkestra (“This is not a jazz band! This is an avant-garde band!”), after which Barbaro looked at us in total consternation and said, “What’s ‘avant-garde?’” Clifford, wherever you are, I think I found your answer.
Ladies and gendarmes, I give you the Peter Evans Quintet, a unit that has been making (in the words of its trumpet-playing leader) “weird noises” since 2009. The band is described as “an adventurous jazz quintet for the 21st century,” and their music is purported to present “traditional idioms contorted by real-time computer processing and performed with pinpoint accuracy.” That’s marketing, baby! What’s more, the pieces performed at EMPAC last Friday night had only been performed in Europe since the Jerome Foundation and Roulette Intermedium commissioned them in 2011. “So it’s good to play this music on home turf,” trumpeter-composer Peter Evans told us.
My reaction? “What’d we ever do to YOU?”
The array of gongs on stage left – three big gongs and two rows of small gongs, plus two gongs on the floor that I didn’t even notice until percussionist Jim Black got on his knees to play them during the über-space jam “Make It So” – told me this was going to be an interesting evening before I’d even sat down. There were two pianos on stage right: One of them hidden by a screen, the other separated from Black’s drum station by a glass sound wall. One look at the massive Taiko-style drum next to the traditional kit explained the sound wall. This music was going to be far from polite, and explosions were going to be involved. That’s the kind of combination I like in a Quentin Tarantino film; when it comes to music, I prefer to keep the hostility to a minimum.
The evening opened quietly but weirdly with “Twelve (for Evan Parker).” As Evans, bassist Tom Blancarte, and electronics expert Sam Pluta played softly on the big gongs, Black worked through complex figures on his kit while pianist Ron Stabinsky plucked and hammered on the strings of the hidden piano. The eastern chord progressions put the piece in an Asian space, but that got literally blown away as Evans picked up his trumpet and started blasting rapid-fire figures into the clear while Pluta warped, distorted and looped the sound into blasts of static, hiss and spit that ricocheted around the acoustically perfect space.
When the rest of the band came down on Evans’ primary figure, they hit it like it had stolen their van. Blancarte “bowed” his stand-up electric bass with what looked like a drumstick while Evans worked what was essentially a “live loop” and Stabinsky played all angles except the expected ones… and just when you thought things weren’t loud enough and powerful enough, Black signaled for double time and the band went into warp. Pluta’s shoulders bobbed and shook as he sat at his laptop, making the effects pulse, beep and bubble like boiling liquid. The piece careened on – with Black doing major damage to his big-ass drum and Evans becoming almost inaudible over Pluta’s effects – until the proceedings slowed down like a giant robot running out of gas, and then simply stopped.
“Twelve” had a real chip on its shoulder, like a precocious teenage boy desperate to prove himself. But the rage that drove it was nothing compared to the literal violence in the aural death match “For Gary Rydstrom and Ben Burtt/Make It So.” Although the first piece started relatively softly, with Evans’ horn hissing and squealing like a lone animal howling on a plain, there were points where it felt like the group was trying to tear our heads off with a series of crashing, dissonant chords that only paused to make us lower our guards. There were moments in “Make It So” that brought me back to the “Space” portion of Grateful Dead shows; however, during those shows, you knew Jerry & Bobby would bring the band back to earth with “The Wheel” or “Fire on the Mountain,” and there was no sense that the Evans Quintet was ever going to visit this star system again.
To be fair, this performance dovetailed with the overall mission of EMPAC, which has fearlessly challenged the boundaries of performance and art since the big green cube opened its doors in 2008. Evans’ compositions need you to be completely open to the environments they create, and if you don’t go with the myriad ebbs and flows of their riptide-like currents, you will drown. I can see how the earnestness of it all would impress some of the students in the half-filled house. Before the show I caught snatches of conversations dissecting the music of Nick Drake, and debating how imagination and inspiration were linked. With the right kind of outlook, it’s possible to see what Evans and his cohorts are trying to accomplish and to experience the relative beauty in their results; then again, I might have been undergoing a musical form of Stockholm Syndrome.
In a way, this performance should have impressed me, as I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that I’ve grown very tired of “polite jazz.” And that would have applied to this situation if what the Evans Quintet played was, indeed, jazz. Certainly there were elements that can be traced back to experimental groups like Art Ensemble of Chicago, Max Roach’s M’Boom and the World Saxophone Quartet. But at the end of the day, the Peter Evans Quintet was less interested in making music and (like the precocious teenager) more interested in making noise. However brilliant it might have been, this performance made me want to jump up and paraphrase David Bowie in the loudest scream I could muster: “This ain’t JAZZ! This is… GENOCIDE!”