Joëlle Léandre rips it. She leans in to the double bass with eyes sealed shut to block out all but tactile and audible information. It is self-imposed sensory deprivation because improvising is difficult—making music in that manner requires a certain kind of focus. Perhaps it compares to singing with virtuosity and dancing with choreography at once: the reason that so many pop artists choose the way of lip-sync performance. With Joëlle Léandre, the dance is in her fingers that pluck the fat strings of a double bass. Her fingers are an ecstatic chorus line.
The Creative Music Guild continues to draw obscure yet internationally renowned musical talent to their programs and to perform with Portland’s finest improvising musicians. A Board of Directors comprised entirely of like-minded artists (who often perform these events but did not for this one), CMG is revamping the organization with the greatest frequency of events produced by them in more than twenty years. In the business of presenting non-commercial music, every event is a risk. Joëlle Léandre did not manage to fill the pews of Redeemer Lutheran Church this Friday, but her sound, in collaboration with several local players, contained the space.
Something awkward was in the air throughout, which of course affects the sound because that is how sound travels: by air. Thirty minutes after the scheduled start time, I was still watching Board Members messing around with lighting to no conclusive end. The audience waited quite patiently, happily chatting until a humorous and awkward Artistic Director introduced things. On the schedule that night were two blocks of music: first a duet with Dana Reason, the pianist, and second, a series of short improvisations with Juniana Lanning (electronics), Doug Theriault (electronics/guitar), Doug Detrick (trumpet), Jonathan Sielaff (bass clarinet), Andrew Jones (double bass) and Ken Ollis (drums).
Dana and Joëlle have worked together before and they also share a connection to Mills College in Oakland, CA: Dana received her Master’s degree in composition there and Joelle is a Visiting Professor there. Their performance together was furious and moving, and sometimes disconnected. Piano is a weird instrument to improvise on, but Dana is definitely solid with it and has an extensive academic career to back up her styling. It is just that the piano is a machine with fixed notes. Listening to a pianist improvise with someone as wild on the double bass (a chromatic instrument) as Joelle is, means listening to someone struggle to match a tonality that just doesn’t exist on the keyboard. And when two people journey together across sonic landscapes, there is a greater tendency to become lost. Although the trail is narrower, the terrain is rockier and the distance longer.
Joëlle finds all manner of sound in there. At one moment with head down, eyes closed, I thought I was hearing a truck passing by. But upon looking up, Joelle’s fingers rapidly tapped up the neck of the bass, moving a fixed harmony across every quarter-step at a time, bowing the strings at a significantly slower pace. This is like tapping all the points of a hexagon precisely on top of your head, while rubbing your belly in a perfect figure eight motion at half the speed at which you’re tapping your head. She does this kind of stuff all day long. She reserves herself too; she is dynamic. Dana is following all the notes, changing tonal centers accurately, rapidly dropping her fingers along the 12-note 8-octave machine, working in between the notes with quick release and staccato dispersion of harmony.
There was a brief intermission before performances restarted with the above-mentioned gang of locals. I struggle to recall the exact order. There were several formations, some of them without Joëlle at all, which I found interesting and good, to break up the norm as well as give the ripper a break from her ripping.
To my knowledge, all of these formations were first-time improvisations. It tends to come off as a beautiful disaster, even to myself whose experience with improvised music is relatively extensive. These seasoned improvisers worked with each other patiently and carefully, listening to the utmost for each others’ cues.
Doug Theriault and Juniana Lanning were the two electronic music artists in the mix, both of which have a meek presence about them, staring at laptops that further electrify pedals and effects on a tabletop. It was a refreshing change from so many acoustic instruments being pushed to their respective limits. I recall one moment when Juniana provided a smooth exit of lilting harmonies from a raucous quartet that included herself, Joelle and Andrew Jones on bass, and Doug Detrick on trumpet.
One reed instrument mixed in to the whole thing: Jon Sieloff’s bass clarinet. Perhaps most famous for Golden Retriever, a Portland-based duo, he rarely performs without electronics to boost the instrument’s power. He proved his chops with a strong call and response style, running through scales as he heard them, bending long notes over the more harmonic sections.
That sense of disconnect or awkward vibe might have been most noticeable in a duet with drummer, Ken Ollis. He scaled himself way back, playing a lot with bare hands and muted drumheads. He is capable of playing just about any style on the drums. He is a regular pick up drummer in the jazz scene and has backed up some of the greatest players out there. In this case, they seemed to be on separate islands, and this might have been Joëlle’s doing. Trying to respond to her as a drummer is like running on banana peels. Things worked a bit better in the final improvisation of the night that (I think) included Dana Reason again on piano. Actually, I would love to see a duet between Dana and Ken.
It was almost a two-hour concert there in that church and the audience was gleeful enough to offer their standing ovation. Some discerning ears felt that it was not the strongest night for most of these musicians, but it was still good, and any lover of the genre accepts the transcendence of good and bad. A bad performance by a pop musician means the artist just could not hold together their highly rehearsed structure—the safety net of lip-sync again comes to play—but for talent like Joëlle Léandre and company, it is a pleasure just to watch them work. Almost voyeuristic, I would suggest. But every time she opened her eyes between improvisations, I saw the wonder of a human exploring new worlds, and whatever side of that you’re on, it is awesome.
It is hard for me to be critical of a volunteer non-profit org. but this was not one of the better CMG productions I have witnessed and it should have been. From a purchased ticket audience member perspective, the presentation of a highly regarded international artist was borderline disrespectful and embarrassing. Too casual, too unprepared. I know the CMG can do better, I’ve experienced it.