Nice article on Pittsburgh improv. Jay Matula has also performed with
Lenny Young as a duo.
Local musicians making unexpected sounds
Writer: BRUCE MILLER
Its the first day of April -- its late afternoon, but the sun is still
out -- and Chatham College associate professor Michael Pestel is floating
on a piece of dock down the Allegheny River. A small crew is pushing him
via motorboat. As he improvises wildly on a baby grand piano and highlights
his performance with birdcalls, passersby gather along the shores and atop
a nearby bridge. For the next hour or so, amidst the hoots and hollers of
his audience, Pestel realizes one half of a dream of the Brazilian composer
Heitor Villa-Lobos, who once fantasized about commanding a flaming piano on
top of a body of water. But today, the piano isnt on fire. Just the player.
Theres no doubt that bringing a project to fruition takes much more energy
than simply complaining about the whys and wherefores of that very thing
not happening. Consider, for instance, a group of improvisers who for
dozens of months now have been performing experimental music throughout
Pittsburgh, almost unnoticed: At any given performance, a single note from
a saxophone might give the cellist some ideas. The vocalist finds a proper
diphthong. Raindrops of notes are built upon, going from flurries to a gale
as players fill the room with a meter-less sound that might be coming from
early morning birds in the Amazon River Basin, or from Marrakech street
traffic. There is an obvious spirituality involved, as well as a need for
hush. Audiences for this sort of thing arent going to be big and, needless
to say, none of it would translate well at the 31st Street Pub.
Planning such musical events involves constant phone calls to other
musicians, lonely nights spent turning art work into fliers (and vice
versa), pressing CDs in quantities as small as 15, scoring gigs in Catholic
churches, yoga spaces, the loft above Construction Junction. Perhaps even
staging a late-night guerilla event on a sandbar that reaches into the
Monongahela River in Duck Hollow. Yet, this is exactly what poet, vocal
improviser and Zen Buddhist Eden McNutt has been doing for several years
now, along with a revolving cast of this areas more probing musical
virtuosi that includes woodwind player Ben Opie, guitarist Darryl Fleming,
pianist Josh Yohe, cellist Tracy Mortimer and, occasionally, the
McNutt, a Pittsburgh native, had been performing his own poetry everywhere
from Duquesne University to Ramses 2 in Homewood. Hes even hooked up with
former Lincoln-Larimer poet Lloyd Burton. But then I started to get into
something different, McNutt relates. And thats when I started to work
with Lee [Robinson, a top-notch area saxophonist]. Lloyd didnt like it,
but he thought I was getting into more of the art of it. At this point,
McNutt and Robinson attracted the attention of other improvisers such as
oboist and one-time WRCT program director Lenny Young, and the late bassist
Jeremy Steele. Early gigs had McNutt working in words between songs; slowly
they became springboards for musical conversations between Young, Steele
and Yohe. In 2001, with more musicians expressing interest in adding their
talents to the blend, Ben Opie found himself doing solo pieces before
McNutts unnamed ensembles played. Opie played a piece that had such
solidity and a development of ideas over a long period of time ? I knew
that was something to work toward.
A quick listen to what few recordings exist from this period show McNutts
words morphing from poetic announcements that sat atop the instrumentation
into repetitions and self-interruptions. As the swirls created by Steele,
Yohe and others reached a climax, the words themselves became less
important than their sounds. Finally, they were dispensed with altogether,
allowing the voice to become one more instrument, blending fully with
whatever tones and moods the other musicians created.
Though not everyone involved comes from a jazz sensibility, the music is
most easily compared to the probing avant-improv played by 70s trio MFB,
or the more somber moments of jazz-pranksters the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
There is -- no doubt -- a tremendous free-jazz tradition being drawn upon.
Nonetheless, no one solos. Everyone, whether in an economical trio setting
or a sprawling octet, plays equally. And while there is rehearsal, no one
knows whats going to happen before a given performance. The mood of the
audience, the group and the room itself are all determining factors. When
asked where the balance lies, Young explains, Theres a chamber-music
aspect of [listening to] interaction between individuals versus the sound
of the whole. A good technique decreases the resistance between how you
react in your head and how it comes out in real time.
The ensemble thus far has opted out of naming itself, as a static group of
players isnt always available. Not only that, but the nature of the music,
a development built on trust mixed with radical leaps out of comfort zones,
depends on a revolving cast of explorers for part of its spontaneity.
Drummer Jay Matula sometimes appears -- he was the musical partner of Opie
and Fleming in the days of Watershed. And recently, with the addition of
dancer Gia Cacalano, a visual element has become just as much of an aural
signpost as a vocal gurgle or sax burst.
It appears that all the flier-hanging, detailed phone messages and
connecting with someone who knows someone who has an open space in need of
sound has paid off. Performances seem to be happening bi-monthly and
connections -- however tenuous -- continue being forged.
Eden McNutt, Ben Opie, Daryl Fleming and other members of the ensemble
perform with special electronic guest musician Joker Nies from Cologne,
Germany. 8 p.m. Fri., May 13. Calvary Episcopal Church, 315 Shady Ave.,
Shadyside. $10 suggested donation. (Students $6.) 412-661-0120