There are nights when the music transcends, and to be honest with you those nights are what keep me going. They are rare by definition, but in San Diego, the odds are on the side of the transcendent whenever the names of Joshua White, Mark Dresser and Kjell Nordeson are on the bill.
Take that trio and combine the extraordinary free improvising abilities of woodwind specialist Ellen Weller and new San Diego trumpet master Stephanie Richards into the equation and the stage is set for a magical experience.
On April 18, this quintet assembled, without benefit of charts or rehearsal, in the unlikely musical sanctuary known as Dizzy’s for an evening of active, masterful and balanced conversation that exceeded even the high expectations that such a gathering would inspire.
Set up in a cluster in the center of the venue, surrounded by the audience at all degrees, White began the evening alone, misting pensive, elemental droplets from a cloud of gauzy harmony before being joined by Dresser’s siren arco wail which toggled against a deep moan as Weller’s flute sputtered and Richards’ muted trumpet mocked ominously over Nordeson’s symphony of soft rimshot clicks and sharp bass drum retorts. Waves of cacophony surged and receded, as did moments of visceral swing and snatches of the blues, and above all, glorious strands of melody hung everywhere.
Nordeson is a remarkable percussionist who dodges clichés with the zeal of a prowler avoiding motion sensors, and his inexorable sense of surge from a dramatic array of unusual noise generators (like a toy xylophone and tiny bongos) placed atop and around a “conventional” drum kit had me imagining a strange union of Sunny Murray and Desi Arnaz.
Dresser activated both hands in independent hammering directions and the sonics created (scurrying bi-tones and non-tempered arpeggios) set the bar for audacity very high, indeed, but always in the service of ratcheting the music to a higher dimension.
Sometimes, White simply listened to the events he set in motion -- hands folded as if to avoid breaking the spell with additional input. When the time was right, he would re-enter with fistfuls of spiraling thematic energy and a rhythmic dynamic that could turn coal into diamonds.
This was my first opportunity to hear Richards stretch out since she arrived to take a position at UCSD -- she did not disappoint. Richards had a growling, warbled vibrato that evoked Lester Bowie flashbacks, and a tender burnish on the flugelhorn that recalled Kenny Wheeler, a combination I’ve never associated with any other brass player.
It is a crime that Ellen Weller spends so little of her time in the arena of free improvisation because she has such a singular voice -- clearly enunciated on each instrument: traditional and ethnic flutes, clarinet and soprano saxophone. Also, when she walked around the performance space clanging a bell for timbre variation. At key points in the evening, Weller isolated each member of the ensemble in duet and began dancing in intimate lockstep with startling results.
From hush to roar and back again, this was a night of virtuoso listening that left no one unmoved. One of White’s most astonishing gifts is his ability to express himself in the moment without a trace of compromise, nor did it drive the casual listener (who might not have signed on for such an adventurous experience) towards the exits.
Transformative. There is no higher compliment in my book.