Friday, April 5, 2013

The Tone Road Ramblers: "Always Some Surprises"

Thirty-two is a good age: At thirty-two, we are smart, energetic and ready to take on the world. 

The power of a musical ensemble at thirty-two? It's off the charts. For a group to reach thirty-two with original members is remarkable in the first place. Rarely do six musicians have a history of cooperative musical and personal relationships deep enough to withstand the many challenges to solidarity posed by the sawing edges of personality, taste, and ambition. 
Tone Road Ramblers on the stage at Roulette, March 1, 2013. Photo by Doron Sadja for Roulette.
The Tone Road Ramblers have such strength, flexibility, and love. They formed as a leaderless ensemble to play experimental concert music, and their music continues to be renewed by the life experience and musical passions of its members. Personal openness and second-nature sensitivities to the world of sound have led them to create a nonpareil, protean, yet timeless music. 
Jim Staley. Photo by Doron Sadja.

The Ramblers arose out of relationships established at the University of Illinois School of Music. Now far flung as virtuosos with eminent careers, four founding members knew each other and played together in Champaign-Urbana during the late 1970s. They are composer and trombonist Morgan Powell; Jim Staley, trombonist and founder-director of Roulette, the New York venue for new music and performance; composer John Fonville, maestro of the flute in all its forms, and professor at the University of San Diego; and Ray Sasaki, virtuoso of jazz and classical trumpet both, and professor at the Butler School of Music, University of Texas at Austin. (Powell and Sasaki have appeared before in this blog in the September, 2012 article about Jazz Sextet: The Champaign Connection.)

I have written before about clarinetist and new music specialist, Eric Mandat, professor at Southern Illinois University, who joined the ensemble during the mid '80s, replacing the original clarinetist. Ron Coulter, a senior lecturer in percussion, also at Southern Illinois, in 2012 became the third percussionist with the ensemble. 
John Fonville and Morgan Powell. Photo by Doron Sadja.

With its core of enduring relationships, the ensemble's members are cooperative and patient; it's no wonder that their performances seem to come as the result of instinct. 

The Ramblers' primary mode is group improvisation. They appear on stage as a new music ensemble in the traditions of classical music: They arrange themselves formally in a "U" and remain seated; they read music from stands some of the time, thus disguising from the audience the long passages they improvise within scored work. Their core interest in improvisation is, in fact, usually associated with jazz. 

Powell, Sasaki, and Staley are all jazz musicians. Sasaki splits his time between jazz and classical trumpet, teaching a large studio from which his students go into both types of professional work. Powell plays jazz day-to-day. Having been brought up with the big band music, his heart is now deeply devoted to traditional jazz. From his Illinois days, Staley moved from traditional and mid-century jazz into free jazz and the avant-garde. 

Fonville and Mandat weren't raised with early training in jazz or improvisation. They each have played a variety of classical, world, new, and electronic musics, though Mandat's love of klezmer has taken him into that spontaneous, ornamental tradition.  
Eric Mandat. Photo by Doron Sadja.

In traditional jazz, musicians improvise as soloists, one at a time, within a formal structure that dictates when and for how many measures each will take a solo. They know the key, they know the tune, and, if they've played it often enough, some of their improvisation may even have become a matter of "licks," or  habitual patterns they've developed to fill the solo-improvisation spaces; spontaneous creation has taken the back seat.

Sasaki likens group improvisation to conversation in the sense that everyone has something to say and through listening to the others finds the best way to say it. The conversation will be as rich, intelligent, and interesting as the participants are attentive to their interlocutors. If no one is listening, nothing will come of the intercourse; no one will have an appropriate response or gambit; there will be no definition or sense to the flow of words.

The Ramblers do play some scored music written by its members. These works often include sections of unspecified duration open for group improvisation. Such writing is characteristic of Powell and Mandat. In Powell's daFunkaMonkus, played at their March performance at the University of Texas, there is a staged, pugnacious verbal discussion among the ensemble members about committing to their musical ideas—"playing their own way"—despite audience objections. The rough dialogue leads into an exciting extended quotation about jazz from W. C. Handy, which points the listener to a big connection between Rambler music and its roots in the impulses of jazz—to the freedom and the drive toward change and surprise. This passage is sampled here from TRR's University of Texas dress rehearsal of Morgan Powell's DaFunkusMonkus on March 27, 2013.

It might seem at first blush that group improvisation would create a chaos: sounds from six performers who "do their own things" simultaneously—the ultimate clash of self-involved cross-purposes. In fact, it is the result of exquisitely attuned listening, focused on knowing where the individual can be make the clearest, most relevant, useful, and distinctive contribution. 
Roulette, on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Photo by
Angela Gaspar.

The Ramblers' brief tour during March took them to the University of Texas at Austin and to Roulette in New York City. Their concert at the University of Texas contained scored works by Powell, Mandat, and Sal Martirano, as well as improvisations. The New York concert, at Roulette in Brooklyn, was improvisations exclusively.
John Fonville. Photo by
Doron Sadja
Roulette has graciously provided rough cuts of recordings from the Ramblers' April 1 New York concert that I've sampled here to give my readers some idea of the range of sounds and the level of mutuality both of mind and virtuosity that this music demands. In SAMPLE no. 1 we hear flutist John Fonville open a piece supported by percussionist Colson. One Fonville creates the sound of at least two flutes through his mastery of overtones produced fluently, in flight, in an atmosphere shaded by the use of a subtle palette of microtones. These tones between the scale tones we are attuned to place his sound in neither minor nor major key, but in a zone of his own devising. So delicately, so vividly, so dramatically, Fonville initiates this group improvisation. It's not hard at all to understand how the rest of the ensemble will become charged with ideas and energy from the get-go. 

Ray Sasaki's lyrical trumpet leads to the close of another improvisation in SAMPLE #2. The beauty of his playing can only be experienced: his level of control over dynamics and seemingly endless phrases uninterrupted by perceptible breathing; the molten quality of his sound into which he injects brief passages of tonguing as quick and light as attacks of hummingbirds. Here, he plays blues in a way that proves the evolution that Handy spoke of. This is not blues as structure: there are no measures to count off, but a languorous, sensuous, mournful beauty; a necklace to which the ensemble attaches charms and pendants of differing weights and colors. His line is ornamented by the sounds that accrue to it. And still Sasaki delivers a seductively personal, conversational tone. It's not the tone of a man talking to himself; I think he's talking above the crowd, to us.
Ron Coulter. Photo by Doron Sadja.

I chose this THIRD SAMPLE to
show how adroitly the Ramblers propel themselves through a spontaneous composition—for it's important to understand that they are not merely making sounds together until they lose steam, but that they are executing a spontaneously created composition. Their improvisations have beginnings, middles, and ends, with evident transitions along the way. On one of their CDs on the Einstein label, Tone Road Ramblers: The Ragdale Years , all of the tracks are improvised. Lacking awareness of this fact, there is nothing to suggest that they are not playing from scored parts. 

In this sample, the ensemble is moved from the massed urgency of low, dense voices by the entrance of the piccolo, which cuts through the rumbling just as a fife is meant to do. The new voice redirects the trombones and calls forth sounds similar to its own. Lilting bird songs respond to the dance of the piccolo. The bird songs are generated by: bird calls. Coulter manages the Ramblers' serious arsenal of noise-making toys that are used throughout, as inspiration guides them.

The Roulette Store is the best source for Tone Road Rambler CDs and for CDs by Staley, Fonville, and Powell issued on the Einstein label. The iTunes Store also carries three albums and the individual tracks (including The Ragdale Years and their most recent, Dancing with the Ramblers, with music by Fonville, Mandat, and Powell.)

For a more in-depth profile of the Ramblers, the reader can access an article by this author posted on Powell's website: Off the Charts. 


  1. Great post on a great band!

  2. Lovely band, I always liked their music, thanks for post, it is an excellent article about them. I always listen their music when I play a roulette online. They bring me luck.