Chances to hear pianist Art Lande in action in New York City are rare; with bassist Steve Swallow, even rarer (they had a band in the Bay Area in the '70s). Fortunately for New Yorkers, clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Mike McGinnis took it upon himself to bring them together for some trio concerts, and though snow in Colorado kept Lande from arriving for the originally scheduled Thursday and Friday shows, IBeam was able to accommodate them for the expected four sets by squeezing in a late set Saturday and then three sets Sunday night; I caught the first two on Sunday.
Art Lande acted as the MC for the evening, and his humor was quickly apparent when he said that if McGinnis had not written their first number, "The Rising," specifically for Easter, we could think of bread instead. The trio had only played together for one rehearsal and the previous evening's set, so all three were using sheet music, and the audience could clearly see that "The Rising" was three pages long; sure enough, it was a somewhat complex arrangement with several distinct sections. After a very sparse solo piano introduction, clarinet delivered the melody. There followed a slightly busier section that sounded improvised but still could have been arranged to some degree. Swallow, who throughout the set played a hollow-body five-string, fretted electric bass guitar with a pick, played a very melodic solo that flowed quickly. After his solo there seemed to be a "signpost"; rather than just a string of solos, "The Rising" seemed to move through a set series of instrumental combinations with brief arranged bits slightly framing each section, such as a clarinet/bass duo. Lande played while manually damping strings inside the piano to wind down the piece.
In both the sets I heard, a new Lande composition, "Shanty Cruise," was featured, both times with a snippet of a traditional sea shanty sung as a lead-in. In this set it was "Drunken Sailor," which Lande prompted a friend in the audience to sing; next time around, Lande himself sang "Blow the Man Down." "Shanty Cruise" alternated swathes of circle-of-fifths harmonic movement with sideways-by-steps progressions. Its lead sheet is one page, and the piece circled around a lot, yet with these players, it never seemed redundant. McGinnis switched to soprano sax for this tune, and the combination of the melody's repeated notes and his soprano tone reminded me of Jan Garbarek, though perhaps it's Lande's 1974 ECM album with Garbarek, Red Lanta, that put that thought in my head.
The most striking composition in this set was Lande's "For Elise," inspired by a stillborn baby. With its odd harmonic juxtapositions, it was a sort of surreal lullaby, one moment soothing, the next slipping into discomfiting unease. Lande's penchant for unusual harmonic progressions was displayed on the following "Shining Life," a tribute to his students' promise that also functioned as a quick-moving contrast to "For Elise." It oscillated between passages of mostly two chords and circles of fifths, embodying a sense of upward progress. Lande switched to melodica for the final section. There was another switch in store on Swallow's "Here Comes Everybody"; after a boppish piano solo that somewhat suggested a Bud Powell influence, Lande walked across the stage and sat behind the drum kit, playing with brushes, before returning to the piano. It was another example of his constant drive to keep timbres and textures varied. Another new Lande tune, "Constantinople," was also boppish, and very forward-driving. I especially enjoyed a section where Swallow soloed over a set pattern played by Lande and McGinnis that suggested a stripped-down version of the head.
Lande declared we weren't ready yet for "the closer," so McGinnis's "Hearth" was played in a shorter-than-usual version: the composer played a solo clarinet intro, followed by one solo over accompaniment for each player after everybody joined. Then came the unidentified and uncredited set-closer, vampy and damn near funky.
The second set was looser and at times freer. Lande read from William Carlos Williams's poem "The Lady Speaks" ("A storm raged among the live oaks/while my husband and I/sat in the semi-dark/listening!") as McGinnis and Swallow spontaneously backed him. Lande then plucked strings inside the piano and a long free improvisation led into Swallow's ballad "Amazing," with Lande playing some of his lushest chords of the evening. He dropped out for a McGinnis clarinet solo behind which Swallow comped with strummed chords. Surprisingly, when Lande returned, it was not with lush harmonies but rather with wide parallel octaves in counterpoint. Eventually he fleshed this out with soulful chords as McGinnis soloed even more fervently before they all returned to the ballad's theme.
McGinnis had asked Lande for an arrangement of the standard "Darn That Dream"; Lande obliged with what he termed "a derangement," "another dream, this one turns into a nightmare." The standard's melody eventually arrived after an intro. At times the meter seemed to be 5/4, but never for long; this enhanced the dream-like nature of the arrangement. Lande sang along with/against McGinnis's wildly fluttering solo, which shifted gears into a more normal extrapolation from the standard, then a disjointed loping, and then back into nightmarish scurrying; there seemed to be a rondo-like form underlying it all. Lande also soloed, accompanied by Swallow, before the trio reunited for the conclusion.
Before the next piece (unidentified), Lande called Swallow "Mister Roots" and prompted him to solo, which of course he did magnificently and seemingly spontaneously. Swallow's "Bend over Backwards" was up next, with Lande on melodica for a bit before returning to piano, throwing in piquant dissonances behind a looping yet disjunct theme that suggested a musical Moebius strip. After his solo, Lande moved back to the drums, and though he displayed minimal technique, he did it with maximum musicality and wit. "Shanty Cruz" was next; this time out Lande became enamored of glissandi, which sandwiched an unexpected one-handed monophonic solo.
Lande insisted on a free improvisation, which he kicked off with a lengthy stretch of verbal free association before devoting his attention to piano and melodica. McGinnis, on clarinet, fit in just as well with the masters in the boundaryless format as he had in their tricky tonalities. Swallow explained that the next piece, "Bite Your Grandmother," was inspired by March King John Phillip Sousa's reaction to early jazz. It was (Thelonious) Monk-ish in tone, especially Lande's playing; with McGinnis on soprano sax, Steve Lacy came to mind. Lande hopped back on drums and this time revealed more technical skill as he moved from brushes to sticks for more assertive playing. Swallow spent much of the tune "walking" with such supple grace that at times it seemed like a gracefully restrained guitar lead. A section of trading fours showed even more drum technique on Lande's part.
As the head returned (and the set came to a close), I found myself thinking it was as though "Evidence" had been expanded. Yet here, and through out the two sets, while jazz's past was sometimes referenced, the overwhelming impression and impact was of highly distinctive players creating something quite fresh, always protean and shifting, always full of the sense of surprise that is the epitome of pure jazz. - Steve Holtje
Photos by the author.
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Last year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival. The CD of the soundtrack was released in August by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure).