To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Here, writer Jon Morgan shares his perspective on the Sonic Universe Project, featuring Douglas R. Ewart, Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, Oliver Lake, Antony Cox, and Hamid Drake.
The stunning disposition of Saturday evening’s Sonic Universe Project is akin to the long-spun yarn of Satchel Paige facing off against Josh Gibson in a pivotal 1942 playoff game. The legend tells of Paige, the ace of the Kansas City Monarchs’s staff taunting Gibson, the most feared hitter of the Homestead Grays, by telling him exactly what pitches he intended to throw, yet still managing to beguile him with three tosses. As counterintuitive as it seems, creative improvised music has as many edicts and axioms as baseball, yet whether on stage or on their respective fields of play, the musicians and athletes held in highest esteem thrive on uncertainty and live for the precarious. Even after 50-plus years of fostering and developing a uniquely codified musical language, the theater’s patrons were still rendered awestruck after the last notes of the magnificently mercurial 80-minute collective improvisation drifted into the air. Like Gibson, we had a sense of what was coming, but were still utterly unprepared.
While the men brought together by reedist/percussionist Douglas R. Ewart had never previously shared the stage together at one time, the majority had been members of either Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) or St. Louis’s Black Artists’ Group (BAG), a fact that ensured they have a shared communal history and a seemingly like-minded musical aesthetic. Similarly, even though trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and reedist Roscoe Mitchell are known for their unique compositional frameworks and vocabularies, each of the musicians in this ensemble is well-versed in collective improvisation and extended techniques on their respective instruments. Additionally, these six musicians have recorded quite prolifically, appearing on roughly 500 recordings between them, as each has spent decades experimenting and refining their own musical voices.
The piece began in a slow and deliberate manner, as each musician concentrated on giving an equal amount of attention to dynamics and empathetic, active listening, specifically allowing the music to breath by giving weight to the silences as well as the notes played. Frequently the ensemble refrained from all playing at once, instead pairing down into duos or trios, exploring a thematic kernel, then reflecting and expanding with floating long tones and brief meditative motifs. Percussionist Hamid Drake and bassist/cellist Anthony Cox were careful to imply rhythmic ideas and subtle shadings while refraining from propelling the music in an obtrusive manner. The first part of the piece was marked by patience and discipline, as the music evolved organically, weaving a rich tapestry marked as much by the exploration of the shadows as the wide palette of tonal colors.
While Ewart switched from small percussion to various homemade flutes and reeds, Mitchell, Smith and alto saxophonist Oliver Lake began upping the ante. The three embarked on building tension, with Lake’s knotty alto lines running against Smith’s smoldering, darting trumpet declarations. In the meantime, Mitchell uncoiled long serpentine sopranino saxophone offerings that utilized circular breathing and alternate fingerings. At times, it seemed that if the group was drifting towards too tranquil a theme, Mitchell would prod the piece along by utilizing an extreme timbre in order to guide the music into different textural terrain.
If Mitchell, Lake, and Smith represented the music’s primary acceleration and tension, Ewart’s poetry offered the cathartic release, as he calmly recited his thought-provoking words over a ruminative musical backdrop provided by Drake’s augmentation on a variety of percussive devices and Cox slowly working over the fingerboard. Throughout the piece, each of the six musicians demonstrated their mutual respect and trust, which is imperative for a spontaneous composition of this length to not go off the rails.
The Sonic Universe Project is not a repertory band attempting to reverently rehash music of a past era, but rather a modern ensemble devoted to the continual exploration of musical possibilities. The sextet created music that was alternately plaintive and challenging, thrillingly threatening to go akimbo, then just as swiftly taking an unforeseen detour and yet another daring departure. Ewart and company proved that there is still a great deal of fresh sonic terrain to be discovered as this music enters its sixth decade and continues to surprise and delight.