MEAT the composer – not “meet” — was Firebird’s playful title for an evening chock-full of new music, much of it jazz/blues/rock inspired, all of it exhilarating and engaging, on Friday evening, January 14. “Meat” also refers to Cambridge’s Ryles Jazz Club offering dinner at its in-house kitchen, Mitch’s BBQ (vegetarian options were also on the menu), and to three of the composers being at the concert. Unfortunately featured composer and guitarist Steven Mackey was too ill to attend, but nevertheless the offerings were rich and varied.
Pianist Cory Smythe began with improvisation inspired by jazz greats Errol Garner and Art Tatum, echoing their propulsion, drive and virtuosity, but with kaleidoscopically fragmented rhythmic and melodic elements and some varied twists of inside-the-piano strums and plunks. Then followed a more lyrical, warm evocation, a ballad interwoven with flourishes and riffs. Both music and playing were polished and moving.
A set of three jazz pieces are early works by Donald Martino, better known as an academically based “classical” composer. Cannonball, is a jivin’ drivin’ fugue with Smythe and Aaron Trant on vibes. Cathy, a lyrical ballad, featured Ryan Yure, clarinet, accompanied by Scot Fitzsimmons on bass and Smythe again on piano. Threeway was also richly contrapuntal in texture, with the instruments intense in their lyrical exchanges. The playing throughout was sure and adept.
Percussionist Trant, who is also Firebird’s assistant director, offered his two engaging compositions in a jazz idiom, Rubix and Song 4. Rubix‘s melancholy theme was played expressively on the violin by Rohan Gregory, with piano, bass, and Trant offering nuanced brushwork on percussion. The spiraling descent of the final phrase was haunting. In Song 4, Gregory offered a vigorous unfolding of a rhythmically complex theme.
Libby Larsen’s Four on the Floor, a “driving” tribute to boogie-woogie, with a sensual honky-tonk passage in the middle, was energetically and breathlessly performed by violinist Gabriela Diaz, cellist Norbert Lewandowski, bassist Fitzsimmons, and Smythe.
Composer John Morrison’s decision to arrange three Allman Brothers pieces was inspired. The arrangement of these pieces might seem a daunting project, from obtaining permissions from the publisher to transcribing ornate solos and layers of accompaniment. And would one really want to hear Gregg Almann’s impassioned vocal rage of Whipping Post translated into, say, a viola solo? Yes, it turns out that one would. In Memory of Elizabeth Reed and Whipping Post were arranged for string quartet – but “standing” string quartet, violinists Gregory and Diaz and violist Kate Vincent, with bass Fitzsimmons instead of cello — and percussionist Trant. The inner movement, “Little Martha” – originally an instrumental for two guitars — was for pizzicato strings alone. In Whipping Post the dusky, throaty, gravelly cries of the viola, performed by Vincent (also Firebird’s director), expressed more than the anguish of a love affair gone wrong. The viola, as Everyperson, made that anguish truly existential – it became a universal cry of rage, rather than one man’s broken heart and remorse. Already an iconic work for baby-boomers who grew up steeped in blues and rock, this arrangement, in its vital performance, made a transcendent statement.
After intermission, Vincent and bass clarinetist Yure began with Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Thread and Fray, a tautly constructed and poignant work, interweaving short motives with a sensitive intimacy. Throughout the evening, the composers who were there introduced their work. Snider was not, so I was left wanting to know more about her and her piece. (If I got a phone that gave me access to the internet, I guess could just “Google” my program notes myself.)
Los Angeles-based composer Donald Crockett explained that his two pieces were part of a set of four Night Scenes for piano trio that might go along with a film noire, evoking that kind of mood. In “Blue Guitar” the violin and cello exchanged expressive lines and timbres, the cello often high in its range, the violin sometimes muted, and the piano played the role of the guitar. “Midnight Train” employed tiny repetitive movements, suggestive of restlessness and travel. I was left wanting to hear the other movements of this tantalizing set.
Jennifer Higdon is well known for her orchestral works – last year her violin concerto won a Pulitzer Prize – but she is also a prolific composer of chamber music. Her Zaka, the final piece on the program, illustrated her adept handling of a group of six instruments. It was wise to have Jeffrey Means conduct this ensemble, since they were called upon to make a wide range of experimental sounds from their instruments as well as playing in the conventional manner; it was as if everyone was doubling on their normal instrument as well as a percussive version thereof. Pianist Sarah Bob cleverly held a pick in her mouth so she could quickly grab it for strumming and scraping inside the instrument. The meaning of the title was not explained (was it an African term?), but back on the internet, I learned that Zaka is Hidgon’s term that she defines: “To do the following almost simultaneously and with great speed: zap, sock, race, turn, drop, sprint.” This is indeed what the six musicians did, with driving fragmented gestures, pulsing forward relentlessly, then an exhausted, gasping slow to some chordal insights, and a final return to the percussive energy, building to a frenzied and explosive close.
Several things attracted me to this concert: Firebird’s energizing and creative programming, the promise of some composers in attendance, the cheerful ambience of Ryles. The concert hall can be a not-fun place, cold both in atmosphere as well as temperature, but a club promised fun – and delivered; but it also offered an excellent but not perfect artistic setting. There are many advantages to a club setting, among them the ease of meeting and talking to other audience members, the musicians and composers. There are some downsides to a club as well. The instruments were amplified, and at times the higher range was a bit shrill, and the middle ranges muffled. The bar and waitstaff may try and be unobtrusive (for instance blender use was limited to between pieces), but that can only go so far. For instance, as Zaka drove to its intense finish, the waitstaff were hurriedly making sure that every table got its check. And then the Latin set started, intruding from the dance floor upstairs. But on the whole, it was a satisfying experience. Firebird Ensemble is now on my radar for future events.