Live Volume III .....
yet accessible jazz duo of free improvisations with piano, saxophones,
flutes, clarinets, drum set, steel pans, vocals, and percussion.
The Dervish at the Door
Return of the Squeak
Jumpin Into the Whisper
Hostile Drums/Singing Snails
The Master is Under the Gate
A Serpents Tale
their 1997 debut of all free improvisations, "Train to
Tourmaline," the duo took their empathic approach to realtime
composition on the road for a series of six concerts, that featured
a stage full of different instruments...
Smolens - piano, voice, spoken word / narration,
alto flute, plastic 'whirlee', double-second steel pans, vibes,
West-Africa balafon and djun-djuns, ceramic dumbec, bongos,
Native American drum, cymbals
Sheldon Brown - Bb clarinet, Turkish G clarinet,
bass clarinet, soprano saxophone, flute, drum set
we were planning on just two volumes of live duo pieces. But
there arose a set of rather quirky yet very distinctive improvisations
that didn't really belong in volumes 1 or 2, which are much
more clearly rooted in a jazz aesthetic. Even at our quirkiest,
there is still a lyrical underpinning. From this collection
of seemingly orphaned works I discovered a programmatic logic
that resulted in four suites. The first two pieces form a suite
of different kinds of clarinets with different kinds of percussion.
Suite 2 (tracks 3 and 4) consists of standard Bb clarinet with
piano recalling the style of the early 20th-century Viennese
composers (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern) complete with abstract
expressionist spoken word. Tracks 5, 6, 7 comprise Suite 3,
which focuses on improvised narration, 'sans' groove. Suite
4, tracks 8 and 9, are more purely ambient, focusing on flutes
and percussion, including steel pans. The suites were created
by deleting any dead space between the pieces to give the impression
that it was a continuous story line.
When Sheldon was in my "Kriya Sextet" (now an Octet)
from 1981 to 1991, we would always do a ballad or waltz to change
the pace in the first set, and a free improvisation in the second.
My producer at the time said to me after a Yoshi's performance,
"You know, your duos with Sheldon don't get the loudest
applause, just the longest. Think about it." ("Yoshi's
Jazz House is the West Coast's premiere jazz concert venue.)
What's funny is that because of the number of instruments we
used --18 in all--it actually took longer to set-up than one
of my bigger groups! The whole stage was just filled with instruments,
and all of the mics used to record the concerts as well. (All
of these mics and stands create some very intriguing 'scaffolling'
which appear in the CD photos).The only structure we used was
to determine the order and combination of instruments (or voice)
and to throw in a couple of 'tunes' for contrast from all of
the free improvisations. The fact that Sheldon Brown, known
primarily for his great sax and bass clarinet playing, is also
a very good drummer gave us tremendous flexibility as a duo.
The truth is that our "free improvisations" often
sound more like tunes than one might expect. I think my exposure
to and study with Art Lande was a huge influence, in addition
to Sheldon and I both being experienced jazz composers who embrace
many musical influences, some from different cultures. Basically,
use structure to help tell stories for the listener. For us,
free improvisation is literally "free" to be whatever
the moment calls for, no matter how inside or outside, familiar
or unpredicable. (My exposure to and study with Art Lande was
a huge influence.) One fan described us as "a couple who
just kept thinking the same thoughts, nearly at the same time."
And the 'vibe' of the audience was very important to us, more
than would be the case if we just playing all jazz tunes. In
fact, at every concert I would create a spoken word piece based
on an audience suggestion; there are examples of this in Volume
II and III. (An outrageous improv about a priest with a prosthetic
arm almost made into the last volume, while a twisted hommage
to Cindy Crawford can be heard on Volume II).
CHOICE REVIEW OF
THE MICHAEL SMOLENS/SHELDON BROWN DUO
"Rooted in the modern jazz of the
late '60s, their music boasts the eclecticism and expansiveness
of the spacious ECM sound of the '70s, but their classical as
well as West African, Irish, and North Indian influences put their
freely improvised duets in original realms beyond any identifiable
Derk Richardson "Critics' Choice" from East
compositions copyright ©2002-2004 Michael Smolens and Sheldon
©2002-2004 Second Sight Music.