‘Outset’ and ‘Confluence’ series: improvisation institutions

Creative Music Guild series bring both local and touring creative improv performers to Oregon audiences

Story and photos by PATRICK McCULLEY

Coffee shop/vintage clothing/used record store by day, and bar and music venue by night, Northeast Portland’s Turn Turn Turn has become a host, laboratory, and hub for the city’s small but thriving improvised and non-traditional music scene.

“Local” is the operative word here. The Creative Music Guild, which creates and promote concerts for improvised and/or experimental music throughout Portland, uses its Outset Series to showcase local talent every first and third Wednesday.

Outset showcases the local scene’s diversity. Last December, in a nod to their round robin duo performances from the Improvisation Summit of Portland, the CMG put together an ad-hoc improv night that randomly selects from a pool of musicians four ensembles which take the stage in turn to bring to life, to improvise, twenty minutes worth of completely new music.

Dead Death killed it at the Outset Series.

The first band of the night, with Blue Cranes saxophonist Reed Wallsmith, Derek Monypeny on guitar, and TJ Thompson on drums, sizzled, spat, and shimmered with the noise of free improvisation in the beginning of their set. But the feeling soon changed as Thompson’s driving, tom-heavy groove began to drive the band in a more rhythmically structured direction, with minor-key melodies from guitar and saxophone fluttering on top. After several minutes their intensity dissolved into an arrhythmic, nebulous, bright wavering of tone, dominated by distorted guitar and and shimmering cymbals.

The following band, with Andy Raybourn on bass clarinet, Tim DuRoche on drumset, Blue Crane Joe Cunningham on tenor saxophone and slide whistle, struck a more humorous tone. Rayborn’s bass clarinet melodies flapped and wandered like some kind of zany forest creature between DuRoche’s sporadic snare and cymbal hits. Cunningham added another zoological element to the music with the bird-like utterances of his slide whistle. As the set progressed, however, and Cunningham’s saxophone joined the fray, our musical jungle soon echoed with plaintive wails and screams of large, extinct creatures, as well as a strangely appropriate melodic fragment from Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” And oddly enough, although I doubt it was intentional, the set ended with a similar exchange of melodies and utterances with which it began.

Next, a woodwind powerhouse infused with expert percussion (Rich Halley on tenor sax, Noah Bernstein on alto sax, and John Niekranz on drums, and Max Katz on flute) produced powerful and chaotic music. Halley’s punchy arpeggiations on tenor contrasted nicely with Bernstien’s altissimo alto sax squeaks, all balanced well with the sporadic rhythms of Niekranz on drumset. I often found myself straining to hear the flute through the cacophony, though, except towards the beginning of the set when Halley took a break and the volume died down.

They resembled the last group (Grant Pierce on drums, John Savage on alto saxophone, and Lee Elderton on soprano saxophone), each saxophone vying in a contest of scalar swoops, fluttering, and squeaking, with the biggest differences being the bullet-like intensity of Pierce’s drumming. His playing was particularly sensitive to the other performers, demonstrated by a willingness to stop playing at times and let the saxophones have at it. Towards the middle of the set, the saxophone’s content produced a particularly frenetic tension as Savage and Elderton vied for dominance with a series of multiphonics and incomprehensible squeals.

Caspar Sonnet performed in CMG’s Outset Series.

The January 3 Outset saw local bands Casper Sonnet and Dead Death performing experimental music. The band Dead Death is altogether something unique even to Portland’s experimental music scene. The band is an outgrowth of Joseph Bryan’s attempts to reconcile conflicting emotions over his father’s suicide and then his daughter’s birth, both in 2011. As such the he draws on source material of French Satanic black metal bands, Romanian surrealists, and Tibetan mystics.

With a combination of electric guitar (Paul Schaefer), electronics (Colin Rackelman), vocals, art, and puppetry (Joseph Bryan), they create a theatrical collage that is more than the sum of its parts. The music is mostly a nebulous cloud of bowed electric guitar that grates and sizzles, and the atmospheric hum of synthesizers that together evoke an underworldly tone, like fog rising off the river Styx. This atmosphere creates the canvas for Ryan’s vocals and puppetry whose relatability and consonance at times both juxtaposes and complements the music of guitar and synth. As you’d expect, death metaphors are a huge part of the band’s performance. Dead Death’s songs are sung in a quasi religious style and during the performance you here everything from plainchant, to spiritual, to metal in the style of their vocals.

The evening concluded with a solo set from Caspar Sonnet, a local multi-instrumentalist who combines slide guitar, harmonica, bells, song, and spoken word to form an eerie, droning, folk music like songs from a psychedelic delta. Caspar Sonnet’s set was a solid half hour of music full of contrasting sounds: blues licks picked out on slide guitar, disconcerting drones of harmonica, minimalist textures, haunting vocals. The grand unifying element of the set was the way that it slowly meandered and blended from one idea to another, as if the listener was watching different items float down a river.

Ian Christensen Quartet performed at Turn Turn Turn.

On January 17, the Ian Christensen Quartet (Christensen on tenor saxophone, Noah Bernstein on alto saxophone, Jonas Oglesbee on drums, Andrew Jones on bass) played songs from Christensen’s album Finding, starting off with “8 Bars of Poetry,” a tune with a playful Monk-esque melody that evolves into an energetic freeform exchange between alto and tenor saxophone. Many of the songs that the quartet played that night had that quality. A tune that started off straightforwardly and direct would evolve or devolve into a fluid exchange of melodies and ideas among all performers, eschewing traditional jazz form: play a melody, solo, solo, solo, play a melody. But there were grounding elements within the music. As the song “Clot” progressed, and the band’s energy became more chaotic, a single melody played throughout held its disparate elements together.

Occasionally, a local band will open for a traveling one. That night’s headliner, the touring trio Mughal Muesli, defied listener expectations. You could be forgiven for thinking Mat Muntz on bass, Vicente Hansen on drums, and Xavier Del Castillo on tenor saxophone were merely offering jazz in the vein of other trios with similar instrumentations. What Mughal Muesli offers is beyond jazz without being completely divorced from it. The style and sensibility are there, there is swing at times, there is improvisation, but many of the songs are so detailed in their composition and so varied in their stylistic influences that to call them jazz would be to undersell them.

One song early on in their set had the wandering, percussive, floating feel of gamelan, deconstructed and reinterpreted through the lens of the altogether non-gamelan instrumentation of sax, drums, and bass. As it picked up speed and morphed into a very different (and much louder) song later on, its asymmetrical time signature made it more energetic and reminiscent of eastern European music than what came before. Yet the previous melody and implied harmony were still there in part, suggesting that this was indeed just a continuation of the same music, rather than a transition into a completely different song. Del Castillo later explained this tune was named The Saint to honor a composer of Indian classical music, which explains the song’s slow beginning and furious ending, typical of forms and tempos in many traditional Indian ragas.

Mughal Muesli performed at Turn Turn Turn.

Much of Mughal Muesli’s set was like this. A song would blend jazz influences, styles, and improvisation with very clear non-western, non-jazz idioms and forms, making the music wholly new and unpredictable. Much of what I heard and liked most about their set is very new, recently written. Their 2015 album Imperial Cereal is a bit more like straightforward jazz than what I heard that night, but has some of the same influences and surprises. One of the band’s stated goals is to explore “an alternate-historical merging of cultures represented by their most imaginative musical exports.” In that they have succeeded.

For all the musical firepower that the Outset Series brings to its audiences, the audiences seem to be smaller than you’d expect for such high caliber musicianship. Although crowds are typically small on Wednesdays, the size of the venue makes even a small audience appear sizable, and I feel the Outset Series is under advertised, and mostly draws crowds consisting mainly of friends of musicians and diehard CMG supporters, rather than packing the space with curious newcomers looking for a musical adventure.

Creative Confluences

Not all CMG events are like that though. When Lewis and Clark alum Tim Berne’s Snakeoil arrived in Portland last September for CMG’s Confluence Series (for visiting artists), the room at the Fremont Theatre was so packed that latecomers had trouble finding a comfortable place to stand, much less sit. The instrumentation, with Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Oscar Noriega on clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith on drums, vibraphone, and percussion, results in something that almost sounds like Eric Dolphy’s classic 1960s jazz album Out to Lunch. Their performance displayed much of the same feeling and style. The ensemble moved effortlessly between cacophonous, wild solos, where multiple players exchanged ideas simultaneously, and then transitioned smoothly to periods of spacious quiet and wandering melody.

Creative Music Guild brought Tim Berne’s Snakeoil to Portland.

The Confluence Series also gives local musicians a chance to display their skills. Opening for Snakeoil was Abuccus, a quartet that played purely instrumental, uptempo, psychedelic surf rock led by Mike Gamble on guitar, but with a polyrhythmic element from veteran Portland drummer Alan Jones that gave it an intense depth. There were tunes that were intensely melodic as well, where Noah Bernstein’s vocalistic alto saxophone shone.

The Confluence Series will continue with its mission later next month, June 21, with drummer Dan Weiss and his ensemble Starebaby at Mississippi Studios and featuring local band U Sco. The Outset Series continues to host local musicians at Turn Turn Turn every first and third Wednesday, with Cogito and Grant Pierce on June 6.

Abuccus performed in CMG’s Confluence Series.

CMG’s Extradition Series, which explores graphic scores and structured improvisations, has its next concert on July 21 at the Leaven Community Center. And of course at Disjecta July 6-7, CMG offers its next Improvisation Summit of Portland: a multi-day festival of experimental music, dance, and visual art that brings talented Portland artists to perform with their counterparts from all over the country.

Patrick McCulley is an Oregon-born saxophonist, educator, and composer with an M.M. in saxophone performance. He is the saxophone instructor and director for the Portland Music Collective. His non-musical interests include tea, cats, rain, science fiction and international travel.

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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    CMG is one of Global Village PDX’s most vital orgs.
    We are lucky to have them!

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