McDonas & Cline: Baking at Bread & Salt

Fresh Sound marks a late-summer concert debut on a hot September night

New-music champion Bonnie Wright has a way of outdoing herself when booking artists for her groundbreaking Fresh Sound concert series, consistently achieving high points that don’t seem reachable.

After a summer hiatus, Wright returned to Bread & Salt to set the bar even higher with a stunning duo concert featuring electric pianist Thollem McDonas and L.A. free-jazz drum giant Alex Cline. Eschewing the idea of pre-formed tunes, Cline and McDonas instead opted for seven compact improvisations that highlighted their tight rhythmic chemistry.

McDonas opened "Improvisation #1" tinkling octaves on his analog Yamaha keyboard as Cline activated waves of sound from three mounted gongs before moving to mallets on skins with inverted cymbals precariously perched. There was a delicious ebb and flow of intensity and dynamics, and by the time Cline morphed into sticks on his kit, he had churned up a wicked layer of polyrhythms that McDonas countered with clouds of grunge.

Eerie Star Trek harmonies and pitch-wheel melisma characterized the beginning of "Improvisation #2," which burbled with enough electronic mayhem to make the three-keyboard tandem on Miles Davis’ "Bitches Brew" sound like Errol Garner playing "Misty." Furious squalls came in waves before subsiding into pianissimo hushes like the shifting eye of a hurricane, and McDonas never failed to fully embrace the inherent "cheesy" proclivities of his instrument -- morphing from "Phantom of the Opera" to skating-rink organ sounds that hovered over Cline’s relentless rock beat.

Enough cannot be said about Cline. He has been at the vanguard of creative percussion for more than 30 years. It’s one thing to suggest a tribal rhythm, as many drummers do, but it’s another thing entirely to sound like an actual tribe of drummers providing the soundtrack to the boiling of a missionary.

"Improvisation #4," was surprisingly tunelike (in this context), with recognizable melodies and chord structures that reminded me, in texture, of very early Weather Report. The piece developed nicely into a jazzlike groove on the pinpoint bronze disc articulation of Cline, whose drum setup resembled the storefront of a cymbal factory’s going out of business sale. McDonas relied on a series of electronically manipulated timbral effects, especially a distortion box that was dirtier than a Kurt Cobain undershirt.

On "Improvisation #7," the duo went all out, with McDonas spewing arcs of warbled organ textures around the rock-orchestra drum drama of Cline. At times it sounded like Emerson, Lake & Elvin -- or something like that.

The concert was well-attended and enormously entertaining, with the transition from one piece to the next punctuated by thunderous applause, and even the miserable heat in the ovenlike factory building failed to dampen the spirit.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.

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