Double Dose of Free Improvisation

Mudhead and Vinny Golia offer contrasting slices of freedom.

The folks at the San Diego Center for the Arts are doing exemplary work. They’ve been producing a concert series dedicated to presenting cutting-edge musicians for several years now, with absolutely zero concessions made to commercial potential.

On Jan. 16, the organization went with a double-header event featuring local free-improvisers Mudhead (Sam Lopez on pump organ and kora; Sean Conway on trumpet, vocals and homemade instruments; Scott Nielson on saxophone and electronics; Esteban Flores on guitar; Nathan Hubbard on bass drum, bell and electronics) opening for Vinny Golia on reeds, Kristian Aspelin on guitar, Jerome Bryerton on drums and Nathan Hubbard on percussion and electronics.

Mudhead: As Lopez pumped ethereal harmonies into the air, Conway began singing indistinct lines that had an Eastern vibe to them, although a post-concert chat indicated that the style was Appalachian in origin. At any rate, it was very creative and it set the stage for Mudhead’s ostensible directive: long, static events with a premium placed on listening.

Hubbard stood and plinked minimally on a tiny keyboard placed atop his huge bass drum, while Nielson sent washes from an analog synthesizer into the mix. Much of the sonic curtain came from Flores, who’s multi-effected pedal board provided a continuous drone around which Hubbard would layer a funereal bass drum beat, as Conway shifted from blowing into a long plastic funnel to wailing foghorn effects from a balloon attached to a length of PVC piping.

Lopez switched to kora and Conway moved to trumpet, eliciting long, clear tones as the group downshifted towards a minimalist conclusion.

Golia, Aspelin, Bryerton, Hubbard: The group opened the first improvisation with the busy sounds of brushes activating, small, inverted cymbals laying on top of his snare and floor toms. Golia, on bass clarinet, blew soft notions peppered by plaintive shrieks as Aspelin chopped manic clusters and Hubbard activated strange, white-noise loops on a drastically modified cheap sequencer.

The quartet built toward a maelstrom crescendo with both drummers at full whack level and the guitarist sourcing distortion-laden "skronk" while Golia poured endless melodies out of his serpentine sopranino saxophone.

For the final improvisation, Golia began on tenor saxophone in duet with Bryerton, accessing his inner Ayler to the drummer’s Sunny Murray. Golia reached ecstatic highs, screaming over the obstreperous percussion, which featured both drummers dragging lengths of chain across their floor-toms and manic, kalimba-like strokes from the guitarist. Golia switched back to the bass clarinet, slowly steering the group down from the squalling vortex into a slow descent toward pianissimo conversation, and an eventual pin-drop quiet conclusion.

It was creative enough to earn a "breathtaking" description. It was especially gratifying to see a full-house at this concert, with both bands earning rapturous applause. Nicely done!

 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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