Leo Smith Ensemble

Leo Smith Ensemble @ the Jazz Standard/ Anthony Braxton works for Brass @ St. Marks Church Sept. 22, 23, respectively.

Another great year unfolded for FONT (Festival of New Trumpet) with a packed and diverse schedule as usual. The two events I attended were by the masters Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton, two of the most important alumni to come out of the AACM, and like many AACM figures, composers as well as instrumentalists, who go way beyond the parameters set by the language of Jazz.

Smith's first set consisted of three compositions, all as diverse as they can get, all utilizing the expertise of the seven member ensemble he assembled to play the work. There were many promptings by Smith within these severely difficult notated pieces. My guess, having seen other Smith scores, is that they were graphically notated.

The ensemble consisted of two cellists, one lyrical, the other more biting and frenetic, a guitarist, a tuba, a contrabass, a kit drummer, and Smith on trumpet and conducting.

All the pieces contained elements of so-called 20th century classical music, were very stilted and crossed many boundaries, the second piece having a bit of funk thrown in. Smith is more than fantastic as a composer/crafter/conductor/soloist/ensemble player. His use of the strings were a main component, almost like a string quartet within the ensemble, creating different graduations of sound and tone within the growing layers. The concentration needed and carried out by all was astounding. Expert solos by the tuba player and drummer added extra colors to this already dramatic palette. The pieces contained all the qualities of a good contrapuntal/intervallic ride. Non-linear text par-excellence capped by bright frothy runs brought over the top, bringing forth a life force that jumped from page to eye to instruments, rolling, repeating dramas, poignant, awkward, internal stanzas of the highest level of conversation.

When the set ended, Smith introduced the members, then introduced members of his family who were in the audience. He then stated that. When you wanna play hard music, it‚Äôs harder to play. Hear, it's harder to hear‚ (somewhat of a paradox.) I heard. I only regret not sticking around for the second set which I was told, though I found it hard to believe topped the first.

Braxton who was in the audience at Smith's gig conducted 2 compositions he wrote for brass the following afternoon.

What can I say about Braxton and these two textural complex pieces? One played only once before for his 60th birthday concert. The other I believe, a premiere, though both were over 30 years old.

I'll start with the second, which, like his Ghost Trance pieces, was a layered, repetitive composition that included a variety of brass instruments including trombone and relied heavily on integrated ensemble work rather than individual solos. It was a quintet, possibly 20 minutes or so in length and after the first piece seemed to me to be rather un-dramatic and flat though quite brilliant and complex, if not familiar sounding.

Piece 1, titled 103 was fantastic, witty and theatrical. It was difficult to see where composition began and theater interjected. Everyone, except Braxton, who conducted both pieces, was dressed like caped, costumed avengers. All were trumpeters, sorry I forgot the count, possibly upwards of 10, all young masters, all playing great within the ensemble and as soloists.

This was a brass track fanfare affair filled with drama, humor, events that seemed both planned and unplanned. The players had plungers, rings, cds, whistles etc. sewn onto their costumes, a lot of which were not just props, or what I refer to, as dangling participles, but tools used to generate and alter sound, within the context of the music. They wore, sewn into their costumes, some sort of anti-Aryan Nation emblems.

Melodies were repeated and were re-forged, staccato solos, hissing mutes, ambient screams. Brass rings, mutes etc., falling down the church steps, players comically acting as if bewildered, turning their backs to the audience. I kept thinking of Cyrano over and over again.

This piece is the height of intelligent composing mixed with the best of the theater of the Absurd. A mutating mutant masterpiece where one keeps thinking. Where does theater end and accident begin? Curtain. The End?