This past weekend of October 20 & 21, Michael Ehlers designed a musical explosion of a birthday party for the 5 year-old Conway New Music Society in Amherst, Ma. As is Ehler’s forte, he never fails to bring many times, new, and always outstanding musicians to the Meetinghouse arena.
There were three major sets to the weekend. The first began on Friday night with the folk/blues performance of Mike Cooper from England followed by the drum and saxophone duet of Donald Robinson and Joe McPhee.
Cooper sat on the stage of the Meetinghouse. On his lap was his steel guitar. As he began, the music hinted at tabla combined with Spanish guitar as a heavy rhythm was mapped out for the first instrumental. Cooper sang the next number; it was slow and restful and wholesome. Cooper sang tunes composed by other well-known folk singers as well as his own. His playing was wonderfully automatic; it extended out of his arms and fingers as a part of who he is. He has a style of ending each piece with a left-handed upstroke along the neck of the guitar which stroke issues out a high final pitch. Next, a lullaby allowed him to show the delicacy of the way he picks at the strings; his fingers on the right hand dance on the guitar----on the tips of those fingers he wears little steel picks that become like toe shoes. His left hand holds a small steel tube with which he strokes and slides over the strings on the neck of the guitar.
Cooper’s singing voice carried a little huskiness midst its strength. And sometimes in between numbers, he improvised phrases on the guitar while he told a story about his life or the song he was going to sing or he talked with the audience. The subject of the songs varied from politics to "island places". The rhythm did not change markedly from one number to the next; his style maintained an unwavering integrity. When he concluded the last tune on the set, he decorated the last stroke on the strings with a twist of his wrist as his hand brushed across the air in front of his upper body with finality.
(Later on in the night’s music, Cooper would return to the stage with an electronic splurge on his steel guitar laid out on a table instead of his lap. The electronics offered an array of sequential sounds that took the audience on a tour of the world accompanied by a metaphorical clock ticking, cathedral bells tolling, water gurgling & rushing, jungle animals awakening. The continuous flow ended with a musical line that had a Hawaiian twinge.)
There was a break and reassembling of the audience for drummer Donald Robinson from Oakland and Joe McPhee from Poughkeepsie who themselves were rejoining having first played together in Vancouver seven years ago.
McPhee began on his glistening soprano sax a tender angelic melody as Robinson coincided with soft touches to the cymbals. Clusters of runs on the sax rose in waves to peak on single notes; the brushes on the drums sustained a quiet rhythm. The low pitches struck quickly by mallets on the toms and snare balanced with McPhee’s fingering on his horn. McPhee made circular motions with his sax as its sound moved into a crescendo, fluttering and driving hard to a split tone. The drums were continuous; they echoed the intensity of the sax. The horn stopped. The drums stopped. Robinson picked up the mallets and began a quick-paced round of the drum set. McPhee squeezed out a high note which became air in the midrange of the register. The cymbals hissed. The soprano fluttered and then the sound became hollow and then a fluid tune. The two players switched modes: Robinson beat out a rhythm and McPhee blew contrastingly sharp, basic notes. The fluttering on the horn began again. McPhee’s body swirled; he squeezed a high note for a long time; it rang, rang , rang to mid-range and left. Robinson kept the brushes delicate on the drums; then there was silence, then the snare vibrated. The sax repeated a two note phrase, then a multi-note melody. Using sticks now, Robinson picked up the rhythm on the drums; the sax kept climbing in pitch, stayed on a plateau, then climbed again. The drums and the sax hit a blend. Like a hurdle being jumped over, the blend disappeared. McPhee’s sax climbed the register again, moving to the mid-point when he switched keys to a crescendo and then stopped playing. The drums stopped as well.
McPhee had the tenor in hand for the next piece. Robinson had his mallets. Robinson ripped out close-packed strokes, cymbal to cymbal. McPhee stood in the background embracing his horn in his arms and listened. McPhee finally raised his horn and matched runs on the valves with the rapid movement of Robinson’s mallets. The cymbals elicited an atmosphere while McPhee would stop and go with the horn. Each time he started the sound would be large and then melt into a wrenching melody. He blew pitches mixed with air, delicate low tones came out midst tweeting that floated through the reed. A breath/tone mixture produced more fluttering. Robinson’s brushes were now moving all over the drums. The tenor moved in and out of a melody repeatedly; coherent groups of notes went up and down the register again and then again; there was an endless driving towards a mysterious closure. McPhee speedily clapped the lowest valve on the bottom curve of the horn to end the piece.
A short piece ushered in a nearly Latin beat on the drums that imitated a melody which was pressed to a clearly defined limit on the tenor. When the limit was reached, Robinson stopped using his mallets on the drums and moved them to the cymbals. McPhee took the tune out again to an edge that reached a serenade. As it circled around, his body took over the strain of blowing tiny high notes. Robinson’s rhythm in tandem stopped. The piece was over.
Robinson listened as McPhee rang out on the soprano. McPhee put life into the instrument that one would not dream of being there. Quivers of air intermingled with tunefulness and as McPhee stayed in the upper register, Robinson entered with the cymbals. The two musicians demonstrated nothing BUT controlled motion. Robinson only shook his brushes in the air, over and over again in the same number of shakes. McPhee played a tune, then simple separated pitches, then pitched air, then went out. McPhee clutched his sax in the background as Robinson took the lead. Robinson’s mallet strokes on the toms were matched with the solemnity evoked in his audible breathing. There was an aura of healing and prayer. The cymbals were struck to make deep rich tones; Robinson picked up the tempo, played the cymbals, then fell to the drums; cymbal to drum, cymbal to drum one after the other. The two musicians were now silent. The set stopped. It had been a beautiful, graceful journey.
The evening’s music was a highly anticipated pleasure since the set of concerts last year at the same venue. I always leave the concerts fulfilled, inspired and deeply moved. This music is in its spontaneity a means to experience every second of the time’s passing with great joy and mindfulness.