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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 10, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 06
A lesson in structured improvisation
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A lesson in structured improvisation

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Stephen Stubbs, Mikhail Schmidt, and Bill Frisell
February 3
Daniels Recital Hall


Whenever Stephen Stubbs and his Pacific MusicWorks present a program, you can be assured of some fine music making. That was certainly the case Friday at Daniels Recital Hall. As much as I enjoyed everything that I heard, I was a little disappointed overall because the program had been hyped as an evening of improvisation. I had missed the word 'structured' that had preceded 'improvisation.' Especially because the artists were from three different fields of music (early, classical, and jazz), I expected something a little wild. Instead, we got an excellent demonstration of how important structured and un-structured improvisation has been to music of all kinds.

The idea for this program came from Tom Allen, host of the Canadian Broadcasting Company show Shift - 'From Bach to Bachmann, Haydn to The Hip' - who acted as host while providing narrative between numbers. He was charming and funny, and clearly knew a lot about music. His remarks were illuminating, helping us see often familiar musical forms in a new light.

Each of the three performers got his chance to shine, beginning with Stubbs, who played both the baroque guitar and chittarone (a large lute). Classical violinist Schmidt brought his usual vitality and sensitivity to many of the numbers. Jazz guitarist Frisell added a mellow, modern sound that reminded me of the fluid sounds of bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius. The works presented ranged from the opening 'La Folia' by Arcangelo Corelli to improvisations on some exquisite melodies by John Lennon.

There was no printed list in the program of the numbers played, but here's what we heard:

Ground basses on 'La Folia' and a Scottish Ground (fiddle variations by Matteis), and 'Espanoleta,' a Spanish ground for solo baroque guitar

Baroque violin pieces: 'The Annunciation' by Biber (with Bill looping) and 'La Vinciolina' by Pandolfi (Steve and Mikhail doing it 'straight')

Folk tunes: 'Bridget Cruise' by Turlogh O'Carolan and 'Lass of Peatie's Mill,' arranged by Geminiani

'Across the Universe' by John Lennon (Bill improvising on this lovely tune)

Solo piece written and played by Bill

A 'Ciacona' with 'dueling' by Steve and Bill

'Julia' by John Lennon (again, exquisite improvisation by Bill)

Two pieces by Bill: 'Where Do We Go' and 'Wonderland'

Then came a 'wilder,' less structured improvisation on an idea from the audience to combine J.S. Bach and Thelonius Monk. They chose the 'Chaconne' by Bach as a start, with Monkish weirdness tossed in. I found it humorous but not very successful. Last came a surprise, namely a 'sit-in' by a virtuoso on the kora, Foday Musa Suso, on a piece called 'Baba Drame' by Boubacar Traore. Unfortunately, the kora could hardly be heard, even though I was in the second row, center. The large and strange instrument had a long pole coming out of a gourd-like round base, with many strings, played with the thumbs. I would love to know what it sounded like.

This was my first concert experience in Daniels Recital Hall (formerly First Methodist Church) at 5th and Marion. I liked the acoustic, but recommend bringing a cushion, for the old, hard church pews remain in place. About 400 people were in attendance, a nice turnout for such an experimental program, and a testament to the excellent reputation Pacific MusicWorks has achieved in its short history in Seattle.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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