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.

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