Friday, March 1, 2013

Douglas Ewart
and Wadada Leo Smith

Gelvin Noel Gallery
Krannert Art Museum
Champaign, Illinois
February 28, 2013

Douglas Ewart, alto clarinet, sopranino saxophone, didgeridoo, flutes, percussion, electronics
Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet

Elaine and I were fortunate to hear Douglas Ewart when he was last in east-central Illinois, for a week-long residency at the University of Illinois’s Allen Hall/Unit One. Last night’s performance was part of a second Allen Hall residency devoted to teaching and improvising with students.¹

Ewart and Wadada Leo Smith met in 1967 as members of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. They brought to last night’s performance — a single improvised piece, somewhere over an hour long — a long history of musical empathy. The two musicians made a striking contrast: Ewart sitting or standing before of a table full of instruments, some modest electronics in front of him, a cloth covered with little instruments and tops at his feet; Smith with one instrument and two mutes. Their communication was a matter of deep listening, as Smith rarely if ever opened his eyes while playing.

The performance offered a great variety of musical textures: muted trumpet against didgeridoo, open trumpet against alto clarinet, a long wooden flute pinging and popping like a percussion instrument, sopranino saxophone playing multiphonic parallel fourths, sopranino and trumpet chasing one another and bouncing off the walls, and at times nothing more than tiny bells (fitted to a crepuscular stamping stick) and whistling columns of air. Ewart was often the supportive figure, furnishing a rumbling foundation for Smith’s fanfares, growls, half-valve effects, multiphonics, and brilliant, round sound. Most striking to me were three somber interludes — two for sopranino and trumpet, one for flute and trumpet — that sounded like spontaneously composed music for mourners. The performance ended almost as it began, with short muted trumpet statements, this time against alto clarinet. Then, as Ewart’s sonic tops spun and fell, Smith commented on our hapless, hopeless Congress, and Ewart commented on the need for greater government support for the arts — support, he said, that would be paid back “nine-hundredfold.”

Last night’s performance was a rare blast, and at times a rare whisper. Great thanks to Jason Finkelman for continuing to bring the news to east-central Illinois.

¹ Lucky students. Our son Ben was among them last time around.

Related reading
Douglas Ewart
Wadada Leo Smith
Douglas Ewart and Stephen Goldstein (Krannert 2011, my account)

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