BDJ Festival, day 2: rock, paper, scissors

a Firehouse floor socket, only one in the whole place that was empty!

a Firehouse floor socket, only one in the whole place that was empty!

Yesterday evening’s performance at Burlington’s Firehouse Gallery was just the kind of thing I usually try to seek out at the Discover Jazz festival: the unusual performances that define the edges of the art, as much as the headliners aim squarely for the populist center. A complete festival needs (and attracts) both kinds of experiences.

A few days ago I found out banjo legend Paul Metzger was coming to town. While not technically an event sponsored by the Discover Jazz Festival, his appearance in Burlington was timed perfectly to offer that alternative musical performance perspective. He’s touring with with Elaine Evans (amplified violin and pocket trumpet), Amen Dunes (guitar/vocals), the Paper Hats (self-described “experimentalists”) and Eric Carbonara, who plays fine flamenco-style acoustic guitar and an unusual guitar/sitar hybrid called a “Chaturangui”.  They each played an individual set, and the order of performances was decided in the back of the room just before the music started. It was a very involved process: a heated bout of rock/paper/scissors. (Those crazy experimental musicians!)

Paul doesn’t have the high profile of other banjo greats – folks like Bela Fleck and Earl Scruggs – though it’s a safe bet they sure know who he is. He doesn’t seem to be too bothered with all of that. I talked with him a little before the show and I got the feeling that the mainstream isn’t where an artist like him can operate, and still have the latitude they need to to develop their vision. Paul’s career has been defined by breaking every banjo rule and rediscovering the instrument from the ground up, including how it’s played, and expectations of how it “should” sound.

Paul tuning his modified banjo

Paul tuning his modified banjo

While Paul is reinventing an established instrument, guitarist Eric Carbonara is exploring new realms with a recently invented one. He helped design the instrument with his teacher, Indian slide guitar master Debashish Bhattacharya. The “Chaturangui” fuses an acoustic guitar and a sitar onto a single body and sounds like an entire metallic orchestra of guitars and sitars all playing simultaneously. The sound is big, and impressive. On the way home last night I listened to one of Eric’s CDs I had picked up at the show. It contains two tracks: each is over 10 min. long, unfolding and developing patiently, building in complexity, much like ragas in their form and feel. Loved it.

Eric and the Chaturangui

Eric and the Chaturanguia

The concert reminded me of something I read recently in Kyle Gann’s excellent collection of essays on contemporary music, Music Downtown: “Music is a language to the extent that it has syntax, rules that govern its continuation, a level of predictability with which events happen. But that’s the formulaic, ‘yang’ side of music. Rules don’t govern everything, and some passages take even the composer by surprise. In the hullaballoo about language, music’s less describable side – image – has suffered neglect, in both composition and discourse.”

Last night’s show was all about that side: music’s capacity to evoke images, expressed vividly through the unique language of experimentalism.

Earlier in the day, for some non-jazz festival music, I had stopped by the Fleming Museum to hear organist David Neiweem’s recital on UVM’s 4-stop portative organ in the Museum’s interior Marble Courtyard. It’s a 2001 model, by Dutch builder Henk Klop. The performance was part of the Museum’s new exhibit “A Beckoning Country“, a celebration of art from the Champlain Valley to coincide with the region’s Quadricentennial celebrations this year.

David’s program featured music from the time of Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who arrived in the area from Québec City and mapped the Lake region in 1609. Who was writing music around that time? Girolamo Frescobaldi and John Blow were. So were Samuel Scheidt, Michele Corrette, and, J.S. Bach. What an interesting idea for a program.

David Neiweem at the Fleming

David Neiweem at the Fleming

Scheidt’s partita on Martin Luther’s Easter chorale Christ lag in Todesbanden was especially lovely, as the light voice of the portative spoke in airy contrast to the weightiness of the chorale.

What a great day of diverse music!

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