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Harmonic Convergence

Harmonic Baltimore Brings Charm City's Little-Known Free-Jazz Giants to the Fore

By Ian Nagoski | Posted 7/10/2002

"I don't have a lot of catch phrases," Baltimore bassist Vattel Cherry protests when asked about his art. But he cooperatively offers something like one anyway, saying that when he plays he is "reaching for the utmost level of transcendence."

Anyone who's heard the soft-spoken Silver Spring native play in a dizzying lineup of jazz, free improvisation, or classical settings around town over the past five years can that attest he always shoots for that transcendence--and often reaches it--as he fuses a dazzling set of chops to a buoyant emotional expressionism. Now Cherry has organized Harmonic Baltimore, a two-day festival of improvised music held this Friday and Saturday, to showcase local and regional players interested in that same destination.

"They're tired of the same old thing, and feel there must be something more," he says of the musicians he's gathered for this summit. "They all want to be as excited now [by music] as we were when we first started playing."

The lineup for six sets of improvised music is short on household names but long on genuine free-jazz giants coming out of relative dormancy for the fest.

For instance, the name of drummer Paul Murphy probably doesn't ring a lot of bells for most music fans. But free-improv cognoscenti know his incendiary recordings with Trio Hurricane alongside saxophonist Glenn Spearman and bassist William Parker. Murphy also played for 12 years with saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, best known as the hyperfluent post-bop reeds player for Cecil Taylor throughout the '60s and '70s. Murphy lives in Washington and has rarely played since Spearman's death in 1998, but he's playing in Baltimore this weekend, without a big fanfare.

"Part of the idea [behind] the festival was as a celebration of the elders," Cherry says--stalwarts such as Murphy, Brother Ah, and Jackie Blake, the latter two of whom Cherry met through his involvement as a player in Baltimore's jazz and classical circles. "Everyone on the bill I've played with in some shape or form," Cherry says. "I know where they're coming from."

A buoyant and masterful player of flute, alto sax, and clarinet, Blake is an elder statesman of Baltimore's jazz scene and a veteran of some of the area's classical ensembles. His quartet, Kahana, features yet another strangely low-profile local player in versatile and fiery pianist Michael Gayle, who is as at home with gospel and straight-ahead jazz idioms as he is with a free-jazz vocabulary. Gayle is part of an intriguing lineage of creative musicians--great-grandson of "Piano Slim" Addaway and son of the fever-brained saxophone legend Charles Gayle, in whose trio Cherry played in New York for a couple of years. "Michael is a total player, very accomplished," Cherry says. "But [he] kind of keeps it to himself."

Another of the semireclusive heroes who Cherry has brought out of the woodwork for Harmonic Baltimore, Brother Ah (born Robert Northern) took his name during his 10-year stint with Sun Ra's Arkestra and has played with Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Eric Dolphy, and Max Roach, among others. He hasn't played Baltimore in years, but at the festival Ah's French horn and flute will lead an octet of two guitars, harp, voice, percussion, and Cherry's extraordinarily refined and heart-centered bass playing.

The number of undersung African-American free-music powerhouses Cherry has unearthed for Harmonic Baltimore points up the tough row such musicians must hoe, at least locally. Players not interested in straight jazz gigs may find paying work hard to come by, and the invisible boundaries that segregate whites and blacks in other areas of social congress can infect even an experimental scene devoted to breaking down aesthetic barriers. "Everyone needs to celebrate their point of view," Cherry says. "The city is 65 percent black, and that's part of [the festival's raison d'être]. Harmonic Baltimore is a we-all-need-to-live-together kind of thing. [I want] to make a bridge through the music."

Of course, several of the performers scheduled to take part in Harmonic Baltimore should be familiar to those who keep even cursory track of Baltimore's musical demimonde. Japan-born, Philadelphia-based percussionist Toshi Makihara is a regular visitor, including frequent stops at the Red Room at Normals Books and Records, several appearances at the Red Room's annual High Zero festival, and a recent performance at ad hoc music space Payan's Rugs. For Harmonic Baltimore, he is paired with Chicago/Philadelphia coronet player Todd Margasak in a duet sure to showcase not only Makihara's skill and playfulness but also the influence of vaudevillian humor and Zen gesture in his vocabulary; he plays using a stripped-down drum kit and, at times, "sticks" as unconventional as Slinkies, stuffed animals, and his own 10 fingers.

The festival also showcases more of Baltimore's up-and-coming creative music scene through sets by pianist/composer Lafayette Gilchrist and the trio L3. Though known outside of Baltimore primarily as a member of saxophonist David Murray's band, Gilchrist's maniacal, expansive boogie has made inroads locally through his Tuesday-night residency upstairs at the Ottobar with his uncategorizable band the New Volcanoes. L3--guitarist Brian Kooken, drummer Wes Mattheu, and multi-instrumentalist Calvin Tullos--combine a philosophy of free improvisation with an understanding of rock, jazz, and modern classical composition.

While Cherry conceived Harmonic Baltimore in part a showcase for underexposed free-music veterans, the presence of relative newcomers such as Makihara, Gilchrist, and L3 aboard makes clear the event is focused not on grinding axes, but playing them--in as many innovative ways as possible.

"Music is like ice cream," Cherry says of his programming. "Everyone likes music and everyone likes ice cream, but different people like different flavors."

Still, free music is still something of a hard sell, a fact of which Cherry was all too aware. "I didn't think there was [an audience for this event]," he admits. "But the response has been really great." An adjunct faculty member in Morgan State University's music department, Cherry was able to use the school's newly built Gilliam Concert Hall for the festival, choosing the stately 2,500-seat venue, he says, out of a desire to "give this music some respect." Media sponsorship by WEAA (88.9 FM), the National Public Radio affiliate on the campus of MSU, and promotional support from the High Zero Foundation have raised the festival's visibility. Private donors have stepped up to provide most of the stuffing for the festival's coffers.

With such support, Cherry is pragmatically optimistic that his latest creation will find an audience. "This world is a wonderful, horrible place, and I'm just trying to express that," he says, laughing. "Baltimore has a lot of great energy. People are willing to take chances."

Harmonic Baltimore takes place July 12 and 13 at the Gilliam Concert Hall at Morgan State University's Carl Murphy Fine Arts Center (2100 Argonne Drive) at 8 p.m. Brother Ah and the World Music Ensemble, L3, Jackie Blake, and Kahana perform Friday; Paul Murphy, Toshi Makihara, and Lafayette Gilchrist perform Saturday. Visit or call (410) 488-2733 for more information.

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More from Ian Nagoski

Notes From Home (4/1/2009)
A short tour of non-English-language music for sale in Baltimore

LEAF: The Twisty Story of a Baltimore Record (2/27/2008)

Life of the Party (8/21/2002)

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