Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sun Wanling, Traditional Chinese Painter

In his official photograph, Sun Wanling’s face is serene and noble, with deep brown eyes, and a well-cut chin and nose. His long black hair swept back from his brow, dressed in a traditional Chinese shirt with an embroidered Mandarin collar and frog closings, he fits Western hopes for the Chinese man who will greet them as they stumble from the tour bus.

Sun Wanling, September 2012
It’s a very amusing photo—almost unrecognizable to anyone who has met and worked with Wanling (his familiar name; Sun is the family name) at the Anderson Center artists' colony in Red Wing Minnesota this month. His face is infinitely mobile within the range of wryness and laughter; his whippet thin body moves between Tai Chi and break dance with the √©lan of a comedian. He is never without his camera, the dance partner whom he dips, bows and twirls in an endless ballet scored by shutter and zoom lens.

Sun Wanling is a traditional Chinese painter, trained specifically in brush painting of animals and plants. At first, I found it difficult to believe that a man so constantly in motion, so loose and amenable at the drop of a hat to any American experience, could be a master of this venerable art form. In many museums I’ve stood breathless among these exquisite, enchanting jewels of natural observation. They are slow and careful, I think, made without revision, with complete focus, in a state of mind that must be like grace.

Potter at Red Wing Pottery forming pots at Sun
Wanling's request
Red Wing is home to several potteries, being located in an area of fine clays. I accompanied Wanling one day to the famous Red Wing Pottery, whose owner, Scott Gillmer, had invited him to paint pots. Wanling brought sketches of Chinese forms, which a potter set out to produce for painting at a later date, so Wanling took up for decoration several small vessels in the pottery’s traditional German heritage shapes. For him, this was an interesting opportunity, to work with ceramic forms novel to him.

With Scott Gillmer, owner of
Red Wing Pottery
Sun Wanling, Chinese vase completed
in China
There were several limitations for him, the greatest of which was that the only color available was blue. He always uses red for the stamp with which he signs his work, but he shrugged this off and went to work. He simply took up a pot, examined it all around, then dipped one of his three brushes in a plate of colored slip and he painted. He worked swiftly and surely, as if the designs poured from his hand, as when one releases sugar in a steady flow from one's filled palm. His eyes were focused on his work, and his face was immobile until he finished, when he broke into victorious smiles and stood back for Scott, the potter, and me to see his work. Suddenly, he was the maestro; he was the beaming school child; he was happy with his work, his whole body transformed. 

The unfired pots showed the traces of blue slip only faintly, but Sun Wanling's fresh designs were nevertheless clear and animated and miraculous to all of us. Though the pots were very small by his standards, he adapted well and his imagination shone. On a bowl with an oscillating pattern raked into its rim, Wanling painted diving fish, thereby turning the rim into ocean waves with playful fish swimming beneath.

Fish beneath the waves.

Sun Wanling, Chinese vessel, painted
in China
 At Shandong Polytechnic University in Jinan, where he is Director of the Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Institute, Sun Wanling is also a member of the Purple Sand Institute. Purple sand (pounded from a multicolored mineral) is the basis for extremely prized clay used for pots and caddies that yield perfectly brewed tea. Where he paints on porcelain, he carves purple sand with the same finesse that he paints, but with tools and a medium even less forgiving. His purple sand vessels command high prices all over Asia.

Sun Wanling, purple sand tea caddy with painted carving

One day Sun Wanling and his most hospitable and enthusiastic stateside hostess, Yanmei Jiang, sat down with me to discuss the specifics of his work in the context of traditional Chinese painting. Wanling had brought gifts of his catalogues as well as many digital images, so it was a tremendous learning opportunity for me.

Since his work is primarily ink on paper, I asked if Sun Wanling distinguished between drawing and painting, as we in the West do. This question resulted in a history lesson in Chinese painting and its two streams, one of which is a realistic, full-color painting tradition more like ours, which aspires to recreate reality and is related to a scientific world view. The brush tradition departed from that in the seventh or eighth century, the first having come to be associated with the official and royal worlds. Brush painting, using only ink, aspires to reveal the soul, and became a communication of the literati. Wang Wei, the famous poet of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), is considered the father of brush painting. In tribute to Wang Wei, Su Dongpo, a statesman and poet during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), declared, “There’s poetry in painting, and painting in poetry.” This is the goal to which traditional painters have aspired since.
Poetry of a high order: Unity of nature painting and calligraphy

In brush painting, you will always see calligraphy, one of painting’s four essential elements: the painting, the artist’s seal, the poem, and calligraphy. How, I wondered, do I distinguish the calligraphy from the poem itself? In response, Wanling pointed me back to Su Dongpo: “There’s poetry in the painting, and painting in the poetry,” is to be taken literally: The entire image, with all its elements, is the poem. There is nothing that limits poetry to language, although when there is verbal poetry, the words are the painter’s, produced as spontaneously as the images. But in every painting, the artist is the poet: there isn’t a distinction between the roles.

When I had watched Sun Wanling at Red Wing Stoneware, I was very impressed by the naturalism and personality of each animal that he painted. As we looked through images of his paintings, this observation was reinforced over and over. No two birds of the same species looked alike and each radiated personality. Nothing appeared stock; every iteration was fresh and alive, as if the bird, the duck, the fish were a beloved pet, lovingly observed just at the instant. There is an inventory of plants and animals the traditional artist paints, each with symbolic association. How, after twenty years as an artist with twenty years of prior training, can he continue to animate every single one? This alone seems like an astonishing display of his heart and skill.

But before dinner one day during our first week, the other three of us had to hunt for Wanling to be sure he came to eat. We found him outside among the giant oaks with computer paper and ballpoint pen, completely absorbed in filling sheets with sketches of leaping squirrels. The drawings were amusing and fresh, but accurate too—just like the squirrels I’ve seen in his work. He has also, during his month here, taken literally thousands of photographs of nature—not only of the squirrels, but all kinds of birds, including the many bald eagles that live along the neighboring Mississippi River. His momentary awareness of nature is hawk-like; no animal movement, no rustle of the grasses, no beauty of sunset or September’s changing colors escapes his eye or camera. It is from years of exquisitely trained observation that the twinkle of curiosity comes to the eye of Sun Wanling’s bluebird.

Against this absorbing naturalism, the traditional painter places his flora and fauna in the least Western of landscape perspectives. The extended forms of long or tall and narrow papers allow the painter multiple focal points without regard for literal distances or measurements; the relationships of feeling and symbols are what count. The attenuated papers also reflect an aesthetic that permeates a cultural worldview of which fine art is only one aspect. Horizontal paintings allow for a long, swooping arc to enter from the top right and cross toward the right, where it always stops, blocked by vertical lines of calligraphy or other design elements. As we looked through several images in which this was borne out, Wanling sprang from his chair to execute Tai Chi movements that were exactly the same, the comprehensive, circular spanning of the arm, brought to the center of the body and arrested. “The circle!” he told me, smiling.
"Tai Chi." Circle-based composition using the bamboo branch.

As we discussed the paintings I had chosen for their appeal to me, or for questions they raised, Sun Wanling began each specific discussion with a diagram of the composition’s central thrusts—of branches, grasses, the directions of a fish’s glide, the inclination of bird or dragonfly wings. Composition is clearly primary—the viewer feels it at once—but after years of training it must become part of the poetic instinct. Sun Wanling paints horizontal papers as long as extended dining tables, but explained that earlier poets who made monumental paintings worked with their paper scrolled, painting only a small patch at a time. Yet they were able to execute grand and graceful compositions.

I love the painting to the left, of the fishes swimming by the bank of some body of water. Sun Wanling explained that in this style of painting, sky, air, and water are represented by no more than blank paper; nor are horizons represented. So the ambiguity that I feel about the placement of the fish is quite natural in a tradition in which perspectives aren't fixed, as they are for Westerners. 

What's more, what Sun Wanling has painted—and this he burst upon me to the greatest delight of both—is a mere fragment of a landscape that encompasses the whole world. He took my pen and showed me the house on the land above the river with its ground that sloped down to this rock. We saw the village on the other side of the river and the mountains behind. And it didn't take all that long for our imaginations to complete the circle and stop before our hearts and eyes, in Red Wing, Minnesota, where we could see ourselves in the painting too. 
Point well made! Viewers: You are in this picture. It is a fragment of the world we all inhabit; our eyes, imaginations, and responses are part of what completes the circle. 

A traditional Chinese painter, Wanling told me, has four treasures in his studio. He has his brushes, his ink, his paper, and his ink stone on which he grinds his colors. Of himself, the most important thing he brings is his calmness. Sun Wanling achieves this by grinding ink on his stone. He grinds it very slowly, in a circular motion. He told me that it, “puts his heart in a peaceful state.” 

The vivid spontaneity and life of Sun Wanling’s painting come from the source of all artistic life, through deep discipline so profoundly integrated into his heart and mind that they can be commanded in an instant. Sun Wanling is the camera’s snap, and the bird, and the brushstroke; he is the still, integrated embodiment of ancient tradition, and the diving squirrel that always gets the nut.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Environmental Sculpture at the Anderson Center, Red Wing, Minnesota

Looking Forward, Vincent Donarski, 2002

The Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Red Wing, Minnesota offers visitors the pleasure of a sculpture garden situated on fifteen acres adjoining reclaimed grass prairie on one side, and a cascade of ancient burr oak forest descending sharply to the Cannon River on the other. The sculpture park itself is planted with rows of young oaks of several varieties, helpfully identified with markers, just like the sculptures are. “Art and nature thus allied…” are equally married. This was the intention of the Center, which developed the garden in 1996 with the assistance of the Red Wing Environmental Center and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.  

Young oaks at the Anderson Center nature walk
During my September residency at Anderson, I refresh myself, staled from my writing, by strolls in the sculpture garden to enjoy the sweetness of the environment’s transition to fall, and to consider the impressive variety of monuments designed to be viewed outdoors. 

The factor that has struck me the most is the generic quality of the garden setting and its effect on individual works. In other words, I’ve come to think that environmental sculpture might do best when it’s designed for a particular place, not simply to be placed outdoors without specific reference to surrounding landscape or architecture. This is a thought in process, however, because I like some of the sculptures very much just for themselves, and others I don’t enjoy for similar reasons of design, materials, or concept. What is the relationship of my taste to my assessment of siting? I’m not sure I can (or necessarily should be) able to answer that, but it’s a substantial something to chew on.
Looking Forward, another view. Note the sweeping arc shadow.

Environmental sculpture works at least two ways. First, as a significant (not always enormous) event that one studies in its shadow, circling, perhaps touching, considering its materials, components, construction, and relationship to one’s own size and body. It is also an event that can be come upon from any direction and seen from any distance; something that relates to its environment in many ways apparent and disguised. In this sense these sculptures are literally environmental—they are integral to the world they are in, not simply artifacts deposited in it. 

Vincent Donarski's Looking Forward is one of the sculptures I delight in, for being a piece that invites attention from every angle, and sits on its plot with grace. It's scale is not overwhelming; it's taller than a human being, but is composed of knees and curves, books and spades that all bring to my mind human bodies and work. I love the balance of dynamic and stable forms and their relationship, which harmoniously changes as one moves around it. Its aspects are very different, but I never lose sight of the impulse that it came from. From every angle, it stands against distant trees that provide not only background but reinforcement for our sense of its proportion. We know where and how it fits. I love the sculpture, I love the shadows it describes, and I love the ease and stimulation I simultaneously feel around it.

Physical Tension, Megan Madland, 2003
Close to Donarski's work sits Megan Madland's 2003 Physical Tension, composed of two large sheets of a composite, stone-like material with iron supports. Rather than circling the work, one walks between the plates as through a canyon's ancient topography. Compared to a piece like Looking Forward, it's difficult for me to understand Physical Tension in its context. It's interesting to walk the narrow canyon between the plates, and to imagine the by-now-trampled path to be the base of the profound, dark, and somehow sacred place that's created inside. 

Inside Physical Tension
Once inside, the sculpture creates its own environment. But that doesn't obviate the fact that the piece is primarily exterior, and that it does indeed stand in relationship to the natural environment that surrounds it. As such, I find it as sorry on the outside as it is intriguing on the inside. It is supported on each side by two rusted beams that are themselves anchored by rods. The beams are attached to the concrete in a utilitarian way that fails to add, to this eye, any utilitarian aesthetic. So nothing on the exterior has its own beauty or relationship to nature—that's all inside. Which, granted, may be part of Madland's intended point, and a good one. But as an addition to a nature center, I think it's a poor choice. This, like several other pieces, would be clarified and its importance greatly enhanced in a setting less natural and inherently competitive with content about the earth and manmade contrasts to it. I'd put this in  the city, where it could be heard.

Erik Legrey, The Grand Couple, 2003
The Grand Couple by Erik Legrey is another appealing sculpture that seems lost on the prairie. It's a light-hearted work that would seem to be right for a small garden-like setting, to be seen where one pokes about of a fine afternoon. A basically flat work badly needs close surroundings to create the little room for it to stand in. The Grand Couple gets lost as soon as one moves away from it, or from any position that is not frontal. Even against the dark green of the distant oaks, this one grows a little faint; from the side, there's almost nothing to see, and upon approach, it's smoke only. This sculpture needs a good home.
Hiding among the trees, The Grand Couple

Several of Anderson's sculptures appear as if the were made to be where they are though: They are commanding and celebrate the opportunities of their plots and the particular landscapes they form parts of. They are as integral to their sites as any thing rooted to it.

This is a conclusion I've come to with grudging admiration for Michael Bigger's Monterrey Express, surely the sculpture with pride of place over all the others in Anderson's collection of over thirty contemporary pieces. Monterrey Express stands between the north-south four-lane state highway and the depth of the Center's sculpture-nature park. From the road, the view is arresting, of mown green grass with Bigger's flat, rust-red arch; then, ranges of tall golden prairie grasses; and the ranks of burr oaks swaying in the wind beyond.
Monterrey Express, Michael Bigger, 1998

Bigger's sculpture, though not entirely alone on its flat, mowed lawn, nevertheless claims the space in the way a paterfamilias welcomes the guests on New Year's Eve. My photograph truncates this aspect of it, but to walk beneath it, one feels the sense of making an important entrance. Though the air on one side may appear to be a lot like the air on the other, the presence of the big red sculpture changes everything around it.

I am sorry to find fault with the sculpture's supporting legs, fashioned of ordinary, unmodified beams fixed to concrete slabs. "Look to the sky!" is my consolation, for all the interest and, indeed, great flights of fancy are there. I do find it disappointing, though, that the legs appear to have been given no particular thought, as if we aren't supposed to notice that they are there; that we are to suspend our disbelief until we focus elsewhere. 

But above us, Bigger uses sheet metal in poetic ways. The rusted swoops and tines 
are the contrails of swallows, the elements of well-worn rakes, mowers, and scythes. The sense of wear and tear that is part of the formal dynamism is exhilarating; the way that Bigger extends it in a long, loping, arched line lifts the spirits.

Monterrey Express through prairie grasses
The really special siting effect of this piece is when it's seen from the prairie side. Not only are the unfortunate legs disguised by the beauteous grasses, but the span floats over the grass like a wonderful reminder of the human in the natural. Anyone who has been with children for a nature walk in the woods knows that they will all leap for the empty soda can or the smashed ballpoint pen incongruously lying among the mayflowers. Signs of human life always call, and they certainly did to our prairie-traveling ancestors. Bigger's sculpture makes me think of those encounters—of the welcoming land, and the welcoming of the few people who got there first. 

Kamus, Peter Lundberg.

This sculpture, Kamus, by Peter Lundberg, is my favorite on the property. Its material, if it is not constituted partially of clay, looks a lot like the clay for which this district is well-known. The Red Wing Pottery still operates five miles down the road, and enormous clay deposits have been worked to the benefit of local people for millennia. (All the roofs at the Center are covered with tile.) 

While the sculpture appears to be merely a rough, red ring, it grows more and more complex—and fun—the longer you walk around and look at it. One thing I Iike is that it looks so hastily constructed, as if a giant child made it in nursery school and Mama Giant reinforced it with ribbon to make it last. The surface is pocked and poked and scratched for a miscellaneous look—or, whoops:  Maybe they are the marks of an ancient people and this has been carefully preserved by archeologists so that we may ponder the runes!

One of several alternate views of Peter Lundberg's Kamus.
Perhaps the most wonderful thing about this wonderful sculpture, though is that it is in the right place. It's big enough and the right shape for its outdoor spot. The winds can blow through it. It's the color and texture of the earth it stands on. The metal reflects the sun and eerily turns dull gray and disappears when it's rainy or cloudy out. 

But when it's sunny, it has a special property that I've never seen before and take childish delight in. In the photo to the left, you will see that it casts a very clear shadow: a roughly oval ring. But you will notice, too, that from that angle, the intersection of the sculpture's line forms two 
loops from the materials. As the viewer circles the sculpture, its form at every different position creates different combinations and shapes of single or double loops. Yet the shadow remains constant—the sun doesn't change her point of view. I really love this shadow-watching game, dreaming that at some point I will outfox that shadow and catch it twisting out of a position it snuck into, trying to imitate the many forms of the sculpture. But I probably won't. 

There is such a variety of sculptures in the Anderson Center's collection that any viewer can have a holiday reaching their own conclusions about the suitability or unsuitability of this or that piece for its location, stretching the imagination to find a better placement, rearranging monuments as a giant redecorating a gallery space. I definitely like it when the natural space with the addition of the sculpture add up to more space than there was at the beginning. I don't want to walk away—or around—feeling like the addition of a sculpture has caused the implosion or loss of a good place to look at the sky and trees.
Feather by Brian Unger.

Also on the Anderson property, closer to the residence, are a couple of fine examples of fortunate sitings. One example, Feather, by Brian Unger (right) is a secret like a pinecone or beetle can be, still and dark, arrested in motion.

Still, it mustn't be forgotten that the Anderson Center Sculpture Garden and Nature Walk brings the stroller to a very great deal of perfectly situated nature too. The prairie grasses, tree barks that peel and climb, ravines and plains: All sometimes distract from the art...

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Old Friends in Low Places: On the Front Line with Jazz Sextet: The Champaign Connection

Poster by Kerry Helms
Back in August, I discovered one day that a notice had been ripening for several days on my neglected Facebook page. Jazz Sextet: The Champaign Connection was playing from six o'clock until nine Central time that very evening at a wine bar in Urbana, Illinois. It was one o'clock in the afternoon that I read this. Columbus is in Eastern time. With the hour's lag between time zones, five hours would be just enough time to make the three-hundred mile drive. I was on the road in under a half hour.

It still makes me happy to remember the sense of victory I felt  upon arriving with ten minutes to spare then even finding a tall stool empty at the bar, a spot a little isolated, placing me above the inevitably noisy crowd. People pack the house to hear these guys; the two bars where they play (the beer bar—Iron Post—and the wine bar—Buvons) are as tightly packed as a liquor distributor's order book. And they play as a group only in Urbana-Champaign, where all of them teach, taught, studied, or are enrolled in the University of Illinois School of Music.

The front line is the permanent core of Jazz Sextet. On alto and soprano saxophones is Clevelander, Howie Smith. Everything about his full-throttle, athletic playing—his all-out enthusiasm for everything he involves himself in—belies the sober sophistication of his website photographs. Trombonist and fellow composer Morgan Powell, the one group member who has remained in Champaign since the '60s, reminded the crowd that Smith and he have been playing together for forty-five years, since they were graduate students together. Not only have they been partners in jazz, but Smith has been a performer whom composer Powell relies on for interpretation of his work.
Jazz Sextet in June, 2011 at the Iron Post. Left to right: Chip Stephens, Howie Smith, Ray Sasaki, Kelly Sill, Morgan Powell, Joel Spencer
Powell and Ray Sasaki met at Illinois as faculty members when Powell had left the ranks of graduate students to join the composition faculty, and Sasaki came was hired to teach in both his areas of expertise, classical and jazz trumpet. Powell has often written for Sasaki, notably on his 1995 CD, foRay froMorgan: The Beastly Beatitudes. When violinist Dorothy Martirano needed coaching with the extraordinary challenges of learning a piece Powell had written for her, she turned to Sasaki for tutelage in the composer's idiom.

Chip Stephens, of the University of Illinois School of Music's Jazz Studies Division, is the current pianist of choice for the Sextet. I've heard Stephens on several occasions, including as pianist with midwest tour of the Woody Herman ghost band. Again, I've never heard (or seen) anyone like him. On the bench, he would appear to be in a trance, focusing his unmoving face into the short distance while his entire upper body rocks in the gusty wind his maelstrom of music generates. He's like Gaudi architecture, all riffs and adornments straight from nature—from music that you know—and the more amazing for being that way since he links every phrase into a whole that the most artful patissiere would envy: a finely spun wonder of the imagination from the same ingredients that usually bring us Pop Tarts.
Larry Gray and Jay Sawyer at Buvons

The August ensemble was completed by fast-track drummer Jay Sawyer, a native of Grand Rapids, Michigan, graduate of Western Michigan University, and currently a graduate student in Jazz Studies at Illinois; and the redoubtable Chicago bassist, Larry Gray, who is a Jazz Studies faculty member as well. When Gray, Sawyer, and Stephens get cooking, the rest of the room can disappear, there is such esprit, joking, and vivacity in their music; such grins and jibes among them. On Jazz Sextet gigs in the past I've heard drummers John Von Ohlen and Joel Spencer, bassists Kelly Sill and Arlene Rosenberg. It's one hell of a bar band.

What matters here? Is it all the pedigrees and careers? The fact that you can look up their websites and find their further affiliations with the jazz greats that even people who never listen to music have heard of? 

For me, it's the certainty that I'll hear extraordinary music, amber while it's still alive and flowing, before it sets into preciousness. What I see and hear in this group—that could just as well be playing the Village Vanguard in New York or Chicago's Jazz Showcase—is that they play only twice a year, reunited virtually as playmates, inspired by their own familiar ground of happy associations. They perform with the spirit of boys at play, happy men blowing with abandon and no thought but of music, themselves the music itself. This is as compelling a form as art can take.

It's never that these old friends are reclaiming anything lost; there's no nostalgia. Their reunions are like the resurfacing of a vital, relentless spring of music that continues to flow underground, a wide-branching system that converges as a spectacular geyser a couple of times a year, at its original site. This music is never not a part of Sasaki, Powell, and Smith, wherever they go individually. Twice a year it erupts, and fans gather again to experience Old Faithful's explosion, Champaign-style.
Champaign Connection at the Iron Post in Urbana, full house in June 2011.
While the Jazz Sextet's front line's constituted of an important composer and two definitive interpreters of his work (hear, for instance, the incomparable Destiny and Desire by Powell, a duet played by Smith and Sasaki), their voices and modes of playing are breathtakingly distinct. In jazz rather than contemporary chamber music, the surprise might be in finding these three in the same lineup. Not only am I amazed by the art and musical personality of each, but also by the integrative power of jazz itself.

Ray Sasaki with Chip Stephens
Ray Sasaki practices in two sessions every day, one devoted to classical, one devoted to jazz. This discipline comes home—one hears and feels it—in the considered perfection of his solos: in his articulation; his round, open tone; the converging of emotion and his control over it. "Stardust" is a signature tune, and, with self-mocking humor, he opens the Sextet's performance of  STARDUST here.

When Sasaki plays, his eyes are open and he looks like he is inspecting the music as a material that he's sculpting as it emerges from the bell, as if it were molten gold to which his breath imparts elegant form.

Howie Smith draws on power sources unfathomable to me. The man is kinetic, seeming by the end of a two-set, three-hour session just to have warmed up. His presence is declarative and frontal; when he solos, he takes the stage like a thespian delivering the soliloquy that reveals the heart of the matter. Notes cascade from his horn as words do from a master of revenge drama; he explores changes as the betrayed hero rehearses his fury. Here's a sample from THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER YOU.
Howie Smith

Still, I particularly admire Smith's way with ballads; he makes full use of the sweet possibilities of the alto and soprano voices. He's told me that the ballad is, in fact, his favorite mode. While I find myself gripping my barstool, not to be blown off by his athletic runs and chases, I lean forward and shiver to the emotional radiation from his rendering of WHAT'S NEW.

When Powell is up front, he plays softly, almost diffidently it would seem, and listeners have to bow in, sharpen their ears and even, perhaps, suspend their chatter to hear what's going on. Subtlety is his mode. Where others play the melody or play along the melody's harmonic changes—in a more traditional way—Powell calls our attention into the middle of the band itself, away from our outside perspective in the crowd. Every musician's ears have to be tuned to the ensemble; as improvisers, their music is at least as much the product of group decision as of personal ones. But Powell demonstrates this more radically, often by using his trombone not as an instrument of melody, but to join the rhythm section or to respond to or interact instantaneously with his fellows. In this sample from STELLA BY STARLIGHT we hear Powell playing with Stephens at the piano, using his trombone percussively, allowing the rhythm section sometimes to assume the melody. No role is fixed; it's all trust and play. Powell's friend and colleague, Dorothy Martirano, has more than once said that Powell is a musician who elevates the playing of everyone around him: This passage is one example of what she means, as he shares "his solo" with Stephens, bassist Gray, and drummer Sawyer. 
Morgan Powell

It's folly, of course, to write only of the styles of soloists, anyway, for the magic of an ensemble is precisely what Powell illustrates: the interplay of sounds, ideas, decision and impulses among the group members, listening to each other on the fly. Even solos are always shared. What we hear is only partially the result the each musician's skill in blowing, striking, or plucking: Their skills in listening and responding have no less weight. As listeners, we are the ones with options. We can float on the current; or we can saddle up, take the reins, and listen back.

It's a big disadvantage with any music not to be there when it's made, not to see as well as hear, for we hear with all our senses when we have the chance for our eyes, our deep muscles, and even our skin to react to the physical sensation of sound; to the visual information that improves or enhances our understanding of music's structure and surfaces.

But the chances are very small that most of us will make it to a bar in Urbana-Champaign on one of the weekends when Jazz Sextet plays, so with the kind endorsement of the band, I post several whole samples of this rarely heard music. "Basin Street Blues" and "It's You or No One" are tunes they nearly always play, freshly inspired by them every time, especially with changing rhythm sections.

This excerpt from a first set medley includes Powell's "Body and Soul," then a throw-down of comedy and heart-break staged by Stephens and Gray in back-to-back "Stompin' at the Savoy," and "Sophisticated Lady."

Close your eyes, spend some time, and be there.
Poster for June, 2011 by Kerry Helms
With particular thanks to Howie Smith for his recordings, and to Tom Johnson for coaching me through audio edits. Blame for inconsistency in the quality of these samples is to be attributed to me alone.