Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Jazz quartet from Kalamazoo presents a suite at Butler University based on a 24-mile descent to Earth

What are the chances of encountering two musical compositions inspired by related scientific experiments  within the same week?

Fairly remote, I imagine. Yet I became acquainted with "Excelsior" by the Fifth House Ensemble (Cedille Records) shortly before hearing in concert "Free Fall" by the Western Jazz Quartet. It was a coincidence I fell into (without a parachute).

Western Jazz Quartet in performance elsewhere: Jeremy Siskind (from left), Andrew Rathbun, Tom Knific and Keith Hall.
The former composition, by Caleb Burhans, is a musical expansion to a half-hour of the first several minutes of a high-altitude drop by Joseph Kittinger in 1960. The experiment, called the Excelsior Project, had him plummeting to Earth in free fall until his parachute could be deployed to catch the thickening atmosphere and slow the descent.

The successful venture's successor, two years to the day before the Western Jazz  Quartet played a concert at Butler University Tuesday, was Felix Baumgartner's near-duplication of the same feat, coached by Kittinger.  The difference — for those keeping score at home — is that Baumgartner took a 24-mile journey, four miles more than Kittinger fell over a half-century ago.

Inspired by statements both parachutists have made about their experience, the Western Jazz Quartet created an eight-part suite whose titles are phrases from those statements. Apart from its artistic merits, "Free Fall" has  helped the four jazz faculty members at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo bond; three of them are new within the past two years because of their predecessors' retirement or career changes.

Best-known here among WJQ personnel are Jeremy Siskind, a finalist in the last two Jazz Fellowship Awards of the American Pianists Association, and bassist Tom Knific, who followers of this competition will remember played in the "house" rhythm section of the 2001 finals.

Siskind was celebrating his 28th birthday, drummer Keith Hall pointed out to the large audience in Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall. "Free Fall" made for a memorable celebration. It was preceded by a video of excerpts from Baumgartner's jump, providing the audience with vivid images to take into the listening experience.

The scariness and exhilaration alike were captured in the music. By the time the performance came to an end with the eighth movement, "Sand, Salt Grass, and Sage" by Knific, the audience had been guided to a safe, satisfying landing. The theme was almost light-hearted, reflecting Kittinger's joy at landing amid sand, salt grass, and sage, than which "no Garden of Eden could look more beautiful." Saxophonist Andrew Rathbun moderated his robust tenor sound to take on the buoyant lyricism of Jan Garbarek, and Knific contributed a calming plucked solo before the definitive ensemble climax.

Earlier, I was particularly impressed by "Everything Is Hostile" (the second movement), which eschewed the self-limiting channel of aggressive "free-jazz" noise in favor of something subtler. Rathbun wailed a bit, and there was a bluesy cast to the theme, plus a smattering of ironic quotation from Randy Weston's "Hi-Fly." The quartet managed an ample depiction of the stratosphere's hostile environment without feeling the need to deliver nerve-grating music.

"Awe and Remoteness" gave the opportunity for Rathbun to sound ethereal on soprano sax. Siskind displayed his ruminative side, and the piece ended with bass and piano laying down a rocking ostinato pattern against which the drummer waxed eloquent. Siskind's intricate, roiling solo on "Claustrophobia" drew the performance's biggest ovation, though it was matched in technical aplomb by his cross-hands work in the aptly descriptive "Spin So Violent" movement.

The penultimate movement, "Tropopause," described the atmospheric boundary where sudden, severe cold is the greatest danger.  The theme was appropriately tense. A piano-and-brushes episode allowed Siskind and Hall to represent the risk, and Rathbun's high-register tenor playing caught the precariousness of that part of the historic fall to Earth.

Despite a few moments when the drums seemed too loud in Eidson-Duckwall's close acoustic confines, the concert was a fine demonstration of the expressive reach of expertly played jazz into arenas of human experience little visited before. Jazzmen have flirted with outer space in a sci-fi manner (John Coltrane, Sun Ra), but rarely with such sustained attention to the facts of exploration at the edge of the world we know.