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Hearing Voices

Drummer Ben Karetnick artfully drew together a quartet of seemingly out of balance proportions: the members of the group could be described with a graph that measured hyperbolic waves of maturity and experience of each individual. Joe McPhee played tenor & soprano saxes and pocket trumpet; Cliff White, a player from the Western Massachusetts area, was on alto & tenor; Joe Fonda, who has worked with Anthony Braxton among numerous other musicians, was on amplified double bass, and Karetnick, also from the Western Mass. area, was on drums and percussion. This group performed in two successive gigs last weekend.

When a musical group improvises together, the members of the group are talking to each other, perhaps in ways that none has ever known before. The language of each is not known to the others. But through sensibility and prescience, somehow, the group can unfold extemporaneously with heretofore unfound confidence. Detecting the voice of each player and recognizing how the four carried on their conversation was my intention.

The first night at the Meetinghouse in Amherst, the group moved through the oppressive heat to multiple heights. The session started out with a bass/drum duo. The bass lay on its side. Fonda bowed it into the ground. Karetnick established the pulse. The more they played the more diverse the sound became. The bass stood upright. The atmosphere was set. The alto entered with constant vibratos developing into scalar descents which gave way to the increasing intensity of sound. The ground work was done. Fonda pizzed like mad; Karetnick jammed it on the snare; White took off in repeated dips. McPhee entered on the pocket trumpet with precise, bright, extended notes which he molded into a tune that floated over all the other instruments. The bass found a lazy, languid zone; Karetnick coincided with softness as he switched from using sticks to mallets on the skins & cymbals. The trumpet tune was shrill, quiet, smooth, uncracking, lilting. When that tune reached its highest note, the alto countered with a low pitch. The drums closed quietly with a loosely detailed ring of finger cymbals.

McPhee’s soprano began the next number. The texture of air blown through the instrument initiated a swaying into a place where double notes began a solo. In the background was the low tone of the bowed bass and delicate rolling of a chain of small wood blocks and shakers on the drums. The scream of the White’s tenor matched the collective density of McPhee’s soprano notes. The two pushed each other through. The drums and bass were wedded together to provide the support for the horns. The soprano coated the rhythmic backbone like melting sugar. The horns moved from placid places to raucous arenas repeatedly, finally to blend in a transition where McPhee picked up the tenor. The group was moving to a culmination. Playing tenor, White and Karetnick paired up and took off. Fonda plucked the bass furiously. McPhee surged, aiming for resolution. The two tenors intimately merged in tremolos; they countered each other in high and low note phrases. Fonda blue into to end of a flute to accent the surface with an Eastern influence. White blew deep tones and then high flutters. McPhee shut the music down and laid it carefully in a holy place.

By the end of the first set, the group was on the same page. Fonda started singing out about the heat, the sweat...real time poetry. The music evoked naturally a sultry scene. Brushes went to cymbals in swooshes, swipes and gentle taps, the pocket trumpet was slowly swinging through a melody, the bass was rocking with the drums. The alto and pocket trumpet played together working in and out of each other’s phrases. The alto climbed out of the interaction. Fonda plucked lower and lower pitches on the bass. The last song was played on the pocket trumpet. Karetnick’s hands rested on the footed tom.

The last piece of the first night was one fraught with percussive patterns which were prodded to critical masses at which point transitions would occur. The alto & soprano worked clearly to move in and out of each other’s space. Fonda bowed; Karetnick used mallets. The horns were ensconced in playing runs. McPhee rocked with the bass’s outstanding rhythmic gestures to close as Karetnick’s tom-tom rumbled.

At the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro, the second night, the group was primed. The evening was structured parenthetically with the first and last pieces dedicated to bassist Wilbur Morris, who recently passed away. The first introduced by McPhee offered a mournful compassionate melody. Behind him were tender accenting percussive sounds and simple plucks on the bass accompanied by Fonda’s slow-paced scatting. The piece blossomed quickly. White launched into a groove that was interspersed with tremolos and arpeggios, crescendos, decrescendos, scalar runs, blurts. McPhee echoed White. Fonda’s body totally twisted itself into his bass instrument; his face expressed the contortions. The horns played in unison. Karetnick, who had not stopped playing, cut the beat in half, garnered a coolness and stayed with the bass. Karetnick’s sticks hit the metal edge of one of the drums to create a gong-like sound. Fonda plucked single notes metaphorically as if moving into a resting place. McPhee brought back the original theme. A hush ensued. The last piece for Morris was initiated by Fonda. The music combined the bari-sax, bass, pocket trumpet and a scraping of the cymbal with a bow . The music became a straight line, with a slight vibrato. An honorable gesture to a venerable musician.

McPhee began the second piece. As if climbing a ladder to the highest rung, McPhee played his soprano interlooping, interweaving, tremolo after tremolo to reach the highest pitch, to reach the highest rung. Karetnick’s awareness of the prevalent ringing drove him to play bell after bell after bell. White came in with a truly complimentary bari-sax statement as the soprano left the sound mix. This statement touched the not often heard high register as well as the animal-like groan of the low register. Karetnick rounded out the texture of the music with the mallets on drums & wood blocks and a stick to tom motion. Fonda caressed the strings of his instrument; his bowing was reverent. The resonance in the venue progressively overcame the large baffles at the rear of the room. The pace and music slowed to a shush. Fonda bowed as quietly as a mouse at nighttime. The soprano gave voice to the mouse; the alto chased it. The drums threw in a slapstick run. The horns produced one tone. The bass was out. So were the rest at rest.

Now, it was Karetnick's time: he blasted out on his drums building the rhythms over and over again, making occasional switches, returning to a repetition of the original pattern. The bass entered in ardent support of Karetnick. Oh, the longing to keep Karetnick going...McPhee on pocket trumpet and White on alto came in together to maintain the pace that Karetnick established. The horns told Karetnick to slow down; Karetnick struck to half-pace. The pocket trumpet sang. Although the pace was different, the intensity was the same as it was at the start. The pocket trumpet faded into another embracing melody. The bass played in sync with the music. McPhee and White talked to each other, swinging like never before in this context. Karetnick brushed the cymbals. The bass was barely there. The two horns had pressed their notes into only air. The pocket trumpet ended with a solemn yet loving tune.

The next piece had incredible dynamics. Karetnick used rattles on the cymbals. Fonda scatted energetically demonstrating his total involvement with this music; he stretched his pizzicatos on the bass to a point of slapping, broke the slapping with a silence and then played tunes. He squeezed ALL the strings below the bridge with this right hand and plucked with his left to create a sound like unoiled hinges trying to rotate. Fonda literally wrapped himself into his instrument. Karetnick chose (what a choice!) to play the cymbals with maracas, building the rhythmic density and strength. Fonda took a stance to bow his bass like a batter prepares in the batter’s box to hit a ball with his bat. McPhee took up the tenor: all the notes were strung together in a continuous flow. Fonda’s instrument was on its side, slapped and then picked up again. McPhee’s circular breathing let the notes on the horn go & move into the slow tribal groove that Karetnick provided and which the the bass was expanding with deep tones. McPhee launched a solo: he rocked his tenor to the ceiling and floor. He took it to its peak and then backed down; he did this repeatedly. At the point of McPhee’s climax on his horn, White joined in. McPhee stepped out. Karetnick played the drums coherently and furiously. White walked over to the bass; on the tenor White played trills and riffs and then slowed down gradually. The music stopped.

This article tells a story that matches my intention: to hear the conversation among the members of a band. I heard their voices. I heard their conversation. To be thoroughly entranced to do so is always my ultimate desire.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ben Karetnick, Joe McPhee, Joe Fonda, Cliff White
  • Concert Date: August 16 & 17, 2002
  • Venue: Meetinghouse in Amherst / Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro
  • City State Country: Amherst, MA , Brattleboro, VT
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