Husband and wife teams, whether musical or theatrical, invariably find ways to air their personalities onstage, as was certainly the case last Friday at the North Shore’s must-go-to summer seafront getaway, the stone-and-wove-wood textured Shalin Liu Performance Center of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, laid-back of mien and arch of tone on his 2½-foot licorice stick, and marimbist Mika Yoshida, animated and ferocious tackling and taming with four mallets her 8½-foot rosewood keyboard, brought an edgy, dramatic odd-couple flair to their personal eclectic mix of commissioned pop, jazz, and classics. The jazz element presages RCMF’s premier Jazz Festival this August.
As a duo, they fared beautifully in a respectful arrangement of Ravel’s Pavane, with angelic clarinet over sumptuously purring tremolos. Even better was William Thomas McKinley’s Mostly Blues, a trilogy of artful, walking grooves as marimba dotted crisp rising figures astride arch post-Copland clarinet lines. Yet Israeli Tamar Muskal’s bravura suite Shout juxtaposed brittle, overwrought marimba with languid-to-screeching clarinet, in cantankerous ostinati of daring leaps and difficult meters. Ouch!
The music went well in some solo features with members of the quartet, especially master jazz bassist Eddie Gomez, an august presence and leading light over a long career with many legends (e. g., Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman). His wine-dark tone enrobed the fabric of all he played. Thelonious Monk’s quirky wit was the focus of sly duos on Blue Monk and Well You Needn’t; Eddie’s multi-stops evoked muted trombones and Richard unbuttoned his vest a bit (top two) with neat noodling. Mika’s marimba, solo on a traditional Japanese tune Ringo contrasted aplomb with outbursts of enthusiasm but, in trio on Bill Douglas’s Jubilation, overruled the roost and rattled the rhythm — Eddie and Young Turk drummer Duke Gadd — with unbridled, elbows-akimbo improvising.
Full ensemble pieces brought out the worst in them: rhythms especially sounded off-kilter, out-of-sync, uptight. It seemed less a matter of under-rehearsal than of the band rowing upstream in a futile attempt to mesh easy swing with unyielding metronomic precision. Case in point: the 12-minute suites bookending the evening, composed for the principals by two leading lights of jazz piano, never quite caught fire. Keith Jarrett’s Terra Cotta underutilized the bass and drum on diffuse awkward unison lines; and, while Chick Corea’s Mika’s Groove balanced the elements between fine melodic kernels and dazzling arpeggios and cadenzas, it still fell prey to the group’s ingrained left-footed impetus. Worst of all ended the first half: a bowdlerized hodge-podge of Rhapsody in Blue, despite Gomez’s noble brass-cello counter-theme, gave over to rinky-tink sequences and tango patches, leaving the taste of an oddly spiced Gershwin chop suey. Two preceding sambas by Brazilian Marcos Valle also brought onstage Mihye Kim, whose modest vibraphone added mallet depth, mainly settling into unisons with Mika’s marimba.
A pre-concert demonstration-lecture at Heath’s charming Tea Room had Elizabeth Seitz of Boston Conservatory history faculty and marimbist Matt Sharrock effectively introduce the audience to the marimba, a beautiful if ungainly, moodily evocative instrument with ancient roots in Indonesia and Central America. Matt’s low-key approach and shadowy style on marimba proved a far cry from Mika’s shrill ebullience, yet provided a creditable alternative. Imperturbable amid the kitchen’s involuntary tinkle of delicate crockery and silver, and the rainstorm’s pelting obbligato and thunder sforzandi, Matt illustrated Elizabeth’s attention on the instrument’s soft rosewoods, mellow resonators, low range, quick decay, and warm tone, as well as its limited but growing repertoire, largely transcriptions and new commissions.