On September 5, 2018, violist Joanna Mattrey convened a quintet of superb improvisers that included trombonist Ben Gerstein, trumpeter Joe Moffett, bass clarinetist John McCowen, and vocalist Nina Dante. Their set was an exploration of the possibilities of minimalist improvisations in a collective context. The music began with small sounds, as if emerging from all the corners of the room, the sound from each musician seeking out the center where they could all speak their secrets to each other. Some employed drones, others uttered nothing beyond breathy rasps, while still others gave it the slightest possible shape with occasional full pitches, like barely visible brushstrokes on a canvass.
After about ten minutes, the five were really digging into an aesthetic that had collectively taken shape over the course. This exploration continued and, after a while, it felt like it needed a sense of urgency to allow it to evolve to its next sonic form. This came when Dante emerged with a confident vocal trajectory that gave the whole musical organism more shape. Clear, wavering vocals that pierced the darkness of the room. The minimalist sounds, having prospered in the shadows, coalesced around her dynamism. Dante’s vocals grew into an ethereal wave that eventually evaporated over the rest. Gerstein then used trombone burps to signal movement in a new direction before McCowen seemingly brought the improvisation to a close with a long fade. But just as it was about to die, others conspired to revive it. The snapping of Dante’s fingers seemed to give the music the spark that it needed: a percussive structure for the first time in the drummer-less ensemble. Soon all five, with Mattrey, Moffett, and McCowen in the lead, formed a chorus of dissonant voices, shimmering against dark backdrops. This moment of coalescence then dissolved into a more aqueous aesthetic that further evaporated down to a Gerstein solo that concluded the improvised set.
Note: The room was too dark for photographs, but the darkness only enhanced the sensory experience of the music.