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Sea of Sounds

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Note the Wah-Wah Pedal: Cellist Jimmie Dye, a member of Brother Ah's World Music Ensemble.
Toot Allures: Joel Futterman rips through a set at Harmonic Baltimore.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/24/2002

Harmonic Baltimore

Harmonic Baltimore


With nary a warning, Brother Ah strolled onto the stage of Morgan State University's Turpin-Lamb Theatre at the Carl Murphy Fine Arts Center and slammed two mallets onto the large bass drum, startling the waiting crowd with a venue-filling boom. The countdown had begun. Nantambu Milton Russ II and Madd X joined Brother Ah, and the three took places at congas, kettle drums, and various percussion instruments and established a pulsating voodoo rhythm that recalled the electrifying intro of Archie Shepp's "The Magic of Ju Ju." Brother Ah took leave of the percussion, approached a microphone, and began an ecstatic chant, the only English words of which were repeated cries of "Bud Powell" and "Sun Ra."

Over the next five-odd minutes, musicians joined in until they numbered 10--harpist Victoria Payton, vocalists Imani and Adrienne Collins, bassist Vattel Cherry, violinist Phyllis Fleming, cellist Jimmie Dye, and guitarist Ryan Tucker. All wore colorful robes or dashikis, and each found a comfortable place in the insistent groove. Brother Ah exchanged one small African wind instrument for another and conjured soaring, singing lines that darted in and out of the rhythmic rumble. Finally, he raised his hands, and the entire ensemble settled into a holding pattern. He pointed a finger at Dye, and the cellist bowed acrobatic notes that the group fell in behind. And for nearly an hour, the Washington-based Brother Ah and the World Music Ensemble embarked on a beautiful musical journey, including a devastating interpretation of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing."

Local bassist Cherry, organizer of the inaugural Harmonic Baltimore festival, couldn't have arranged a better opening salvo, setting a boisterous vibe that percolated over the event's two nights as modest but attentive crowds heard some of the finer free jazz and improvisational music Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia have to offer.

Baltimore trio L3 had the unenviable task of following Brother Ah's euphoric mass. The intimate, gestural improv between guitarist Brian Kooken, drummer Wes Matthew, and multi-instrumentalist Calvin Tullos brought the energy level down but not to a halt. L3 explores textural tension, preferring subtle nuance to overwhelming power. It was occasionally innocuous, but when Kooken exchanged his electric for a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar and strummed North African-inspired lines out of it à la Sir Richard Bishop's Salvador Kali, the group coalesced into a more interesting whole rather than three sparring parts.

Local reeds/flute player Jackie Blake and his band Kahana--pianist Michael Gayle, bassist Percy White, and drummer Rick Slye--closed opening night in delightful fashion. This sophisticated, versatile quartet can swing, power post-bop workouts, or caress melodic ballads. The seemingly ready-for-anything rhythm section provided a stable base for Blake's engaging tone and Gayle's fiery playing, which leapt fluidly from angular Andrew Hill runs to Herbie Hancock chord outbursts.

Night two was staunchly avant-garde. Pianist/soprano saxophonist Joel Futterman and drummer Paul Murphy are seasoned vets in the dissonance-is-bliss school of the free idiom, and their manic dialogue set Saturday night's bar high as they sprinted from sparse set pieces to stacks of densely patterned fury.

As L3 had the night before, Philadelphians Todd Margasak (cornet) and Toshi Makihara (percussion) embarked on a musical dialogue that was sparse compared with what preceded it, but this elegant duo was one of the more engaging performances of the entire weekend. Neither uses his instrument in an expected fashion; Margasak is bebop-fluent but prefers sotto voce aspirations, while Makihara uses his hands, fingers, elbows, and feet as often as he does sticks or brushes to sound his kit. Theirs was improv as dance, as comedic and carefree as Buster Keaton.

Lafayette Gilchrist closed Harmonic Baltimore with an epic display of his piano-playing panache. With the New Volcanoes Gilchrist favors funky; here he went bluesy. Paired with drummer C. Anthony Bush, Gilchrist explored a recurring motif--a gospel-tinted, almost funeral-march pattern that he and Bush extrapolated in several directions but always returned to. Twenty minutes in local tenor saxophonist John Dierker wandered to center stage, and the trio continued its ongoing ebb and flow from melodic motif to frantic morass. The resulting nearly 45-minute roller-coaster ride was blessed with the same chaotic soul as Albert Ayler's "Spirits Rejoice," which may have been intentional: It was the late saxophonist's birthday.

The festival wasn't entirely flawless. Cherry, perhaps overextended from keeping a festival of this caliber running relatively smoothly, joined Futterman and Murphy halfway through their set and took a while to mesh with their high- energy assault, though he eventually found his place in the frenetic pace. The volatile Hamid Drake, billed to play with Gilchrist and Dierker, was unfortunately unable to attend, but Bush measured up to the playful, energetic pair. And the downtime between sets opening night was occasionally inordinate.

But it hardly mattered. These two nights gave Baltimore more memorable musical moments than some cities see in entire months. And if you weren't there, consider what you missed: At one point, Brother Ah picked up a conch shell and laid into it; that was just the kind of vibe that was going down. Of course, Brother Ah didn't merely "play" the shell. He played the living hell out of it.

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