New Perspectives on Improvised Music
Guest Writer: Sammi Qu-Kwok
I thought the time would never come, but lo and behold, on the last Thursday night of October, I finally found time to attend a live concert. The band in question was “The Universal Melody Brass Band”. So dressed in many layers, I made the trek out to East Village. I nearly walked past the Stone, with my nose pressed against the GPS on my phone. Two guys chatting and smoking on the corner kind of eyed me as I obliviously blundered right by. The discreet door opened to a tiny, but cozy scene. It was dim, with many neat rows of black plastic chairs that added to the industrial chic atmosphere of the place. Everything was either black or white. The right wall behind the bouncer was covered in black and white photos of musicians–no doubt past performers–doing their thing. The smell stood out to me, too: I got a minty, aromatherapy-reminiscent-scent at first, but as the seats started to fill up, the smell shifted to overpowering cigar smoke. Outside, it was the coldest it’s been since the start of Fall, and stepping into the space made warm and hazy from the heat of all the bodies was quite a sudden temperature change. As we waited for the seats to further fill up, I took notice that the audience was predominantly made up of older folk–all who seemed like an artful bunch (except for one random kid seated directly in front of me). By then, it was fifteen minutes past the scheduled start, and suddenly the house lights turned off. From then on, I dismally struggled to write my notes in the darkness.
The bandmembers were introduced: Steven Bernstein and Frank London were on
trumpets, Art Baron and Curtis Fowlkes on trombones, Matt Darriau and Oscar Noriega on reeds, Ben Stapp on tuba, and Billy Martin on drums. Their first notes were the definition of sudden. It was total discord. I physically jumped in my seat. It started out with just Billy Martin doing percussion. They seemed to be testing the waters and getting into the groove for the night. Without a noticeable cue, the trumpets joined in with a wistful bray. During the next few exchanges, I took note of the saxophone player making eye contact with the trumpet players. Nods. They were clearly playing off of each other. By then, the drums had become a back beat, no longer the central focus. But the drummer was enjoying himself! From there, the music swelled majestically into a very classically jazzy tune that was very comfortably familiar to my untrained ears. Then the trumpets each had their own turn to solo, and things became sporadic. As the saxophone and trumpet solos started to mingle, I was starting to lose track, so instead, I focused on the sound as a whole. The sound weaved from furious flurries to broken solos, all the while backed nearly indiscernibly by the soft and muted tuba. As the musical number grew ever more heated, even the audience couldn’t contain the energy, and someone let out a loud whistle from the seats. A quick glance showed that the entire audience was either enraptured and unblinking, or bobbing along to the beat. The man sitting beside me even let out a mighty “whoop.” By the end of the first number, the entire venue was completely engaged in the music. With no visual cue at all, the musicians all unanimously came to an abrupt stop.
Next, there was a musical interlude of sorts, but this bit stuck out in my mind the most. As the rest of the band was regrouping and preparing for the next big number, the drummer began tinkering with cowbells. The tuba player added to the percussion with an echo: banging on his instrument and making interesting sounds with his mouth on the mouthpiece. It was almost like the two of them had started dabbling with no coordination at all, and amazingly, what ensued was a sound like percussion that was coming straight from nature. I closed my eyes
and made out the sounds of clattering shells, monkeys, birds, wind and night. It was creepy. I refocused on the band just in time to see Steven Bernstein count down with his fingers. Simultaneously, the rest of the band began to play a slow, crooning tune. The imagery I got was of a slow, sensual walk at night.
One of the final pieces performed by the group that night started similarly, with the drummer playing a xylophone of some sort on the ground, in the middle of the rest of the musicians. Everyone in the audience, myself included, had to crane our heads to catch a glimpse. Once again, the tuba joined in with a light beat, puffing out little huffs. The other instruments joined in playing equally as softly. For once, the percussion was the outstanding sound. Once the drummer moved back onto the drums, the sound picked up, the beat changed, and the atmosphere shifted. When the drummer shouted, “Let’s take it higher!”, the
key changed. With that transition, Bernstein regrouped while the drummer kept the beat going. As the band once again unified, the music heightened to a nearly unbearable volume. I earnestly wondered at that point, whether there were people living upstairs. I sent them a silent prayer. At the climax, the song had morphed into a very jazzy number that seemed like it would never end. At last, the piece concluded with an earsplitting guffaw. It was as if nobody wanted it to stop. When it came time to leave, members of the band and audience alike lingered behind, reluctant to make their exit.
My night’s excitement wasn’t over, though. My partner had come to pick me up out front in our car, but just as he’d pulled up, one of the tires blew. The next hour was spent trying to fix the damage in the cold, dark night. Because of this unfortunate event however, the two of us got to chat with Oscar Noriega as he stuck around helping us out (although it was probably because he was thoroughly entertained while finishing up his smoke). It wasn’t until later on in
the night after finally making it home that I was able to reflect on the huge difference of seeing and hearing this kind of jazz in person. It had been a huge help for me to be able to assign each sound to an instrument. It made it less “strange” to listen to, and the energy that permeated the stuffy air at the Stone definitely could not be replicated through any digital recording. Besides, it really is neat to stomp to the beat, and feel the beat coming back at you from the ground through the soles of your feet.