Earnest and Joyful: the Joshua Kwassman Sextet

by Bill Ballard

Bill Ballard, a piano technician in the area for over forty years, became a jazz devoteein 3d Grade after seeing Louis Armstrong and his All Stars. He and his alto saxophone, Sophie, are regulars at the Vermont Jazz Center Wednesday Night Jams, the Summer Workshop, and in the BeBop Boot Camp VJC Student Ensemble.

Joshua Kwassman and his Sextet put on a concert at the Vermont Jazz Center, on Saturday March 24th, to celebrate the release of the ensemble’s CD “Songs of the Brother Spirit”. On the program were seven of Joshua’s extended compositions, mercurial, ecstatic and contemplative. They were also more in the realm of classical chamber music, and thus very challenging for the musicians. Material like this, which stretches across multiple pages, is difficult to get right in the first rehearsals, and for real justice to be done, needs frequent maintenance regardless of how often or seldom are the public performances. The music that evening was better even than the CD’s sessions, and getting to know these musicians, I would be happy to spend an evening hearing each in some other setting. The music aside, it was amazing to witness what a group of young and fiercely dedicated musicians can accomplish.

The first thing which strikes one about Joshua’s music is its relentless dynamic. Its textures and colors are constant flux, and remind one of cloud formations changing in fast motion or dreams unfolding with their own logic. The next impression would be of Joshua’s wide orchestral pallette. Some of this he shares with Maria Schneider, such as the use of a soprano voice and accordion (with Joshua, the melodica). Unlike her, Joshua doesn’t need a semi tractor-trailer to get all the necessary instruments to a concert. He covers the required range and and spectrum with a well-chosen few: soprano and alto saxes, flute, clarinet, contra-alto clarinet (the step below Bb bass clarinet), Peruvian ocarina, and melodica. (Run the ocarina through some digital delays and it sounds like Paul Winter’s pack of wolves.) He uses these instruments early and often (to paraphrase the grizzled politicians), frequently passing through several in a short minute. Soprano Arielle Feinman handles a glockenspiel part while also singing. Guitarist Jeff Miles conveys numerous personalities, from rough to ethereal. Rodrigo Recabarren’s drums could be the storm shaking heaven and earth, or his soft accents could be something afloat in a gentle breeze of sound.

So this is the secret of Joshua’s music (not counting his ability to capture it on paper): instruments which share ranges but differ in color, and the musicians to make an artistic whole with them. It was fascinating to see pianist Angelo Di Loretto’s strategies for managing the dozen or so page turns on a piece. Joshua was the only one without a music stand, not surprising for a composer who could quickly fill in should another’s leading line fail to appear. But Arielle hardly looked at hers. When asked if memorization came easy for her, she said, no but with this group it came naturally.

Solo space existed sometimes as bridges between sections of a piece, or as in the guitar solo on “We Were Kids”, across an extended string of chord changes, as daunting as white-water kayaking. The cohabitation of improvised and written sections was seamless, and took me back to another ensemble, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi sextet. But the overall feeling of the music was the organic in it’s progression. It’s common spirit is nothing less than miraculous. These musicians found each other in the great Jazz Melting Pot that is New York City. As Joshua described it, “I met most of the band at venues where I was playing. Craig Akin (bass) and Jeff Miles (guitar) were playing after me one night and I heard them both and was blown away. The main exception is the vocalist, whom I met on the first day of college at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Once I heard these people play once, I knew they were right for this music. It took many years to be able to work with them all though! We began rehearsing half of the charts seriously in early 2010, and the other half in early 2011.”

Is it jazz or is it chamber music? Who cares. It was a stunning evening. VJC’s space was there for Kwassman Sextet’s self-produced concert (as it was for another young band, Manner Effect, last year), and we all came away, much the richer.