Improvisation Summit of Portland review: spontaneous community

Creative Music Guild's annual two-day celebration of improvisation embraced varied forms of music and dance


Once a year the Creative Music Guild puts on the Improvisation Summit of Portland, featuring local experimental and jazz musicians of all stripes interspersed with other regional and national artists. The roster includes some of the best dancers, instrumentalists, electro-acoustic, and electronic musicians that the region has to offer, performing over the course of two days at the Kenton neighborhood arts space, Disjecta. The volunteer-run festival’s vibe of nerdy musician meets block party is Portland at its fundamental best, a venue for musicians to produce the weird, the deep, and the outrageous amongst other like-minded individuals. And it expresses a deep sense of community that seems lacking in other parts of Portland’s music scene.

Austin & Kleine’s ‘DUETS.’ Photo: Jonathan Sielaff.

Drum Dances

One of the integral parts of the ISP is improvised dance. This year’s festival, which took place June 30-July 1, included five dance performances ranging from entirely improvised to some that were decidedly more choreographed. Dancers Andrea Kleine and Linda Austin’s performance of DUETS with Mike Gamble and Fabian Rucker on synthesizer juxtaposed precise movement with chaotic sounds of two microbrute synths. Percussionists Lisa Schonberg and Heather Treadway improvised a provoking and complex rhythmic framework for dancer Danielle Ross to improvise movement. Similarly, Carla Mann’s improvised dance interwove with crackling energy of Brandon Conway’s freely improvised performance on electric guitar.

Two dance performances that stood out at the ISP both occurred on the festival’s last night. First was New York based dancer and choreographer Andrea Kleine’s SHIPS, a reimagined selection from her larger work Screening Room, or, The Return of Andrea Kleine, based on images from a film by Yvonne Rainer, with New York drummer Bobby Previte compositions as a musical backdrop.

Kleine’s ‘SHIPS’ at ISOP. Photo: Erica Thomas.

The performance began with Previte, Grant Pierce, and Andres Moreno on percussion and Fabian Rucker on baritone saxophone, slowly building a low rumble of drum and saxophone into what would become a swaying cacophony. Amid this, the dancers rose gracefully from their seats in the audience, moving slowly to the center of the room, performing movements that were independent of each other but nonetheless similar in their tranquility.

Later, the group’s movements became more similar and interactive, transitioning through several scenes until, finally all participants were left lifeless and unmoving on the floor. Except for the lady barking like a mad dog at Rucker as he exited with his bari across the dance space.

Amenta and Intisar Abioto. Photo: Erica Thomas.

The other standout dance performance was duo Amenta and Intisar Abioto’s set of electronic and vocal music and improvised dance. Amenta, using voice, mic, and loop pedal constructs percussive beats that imitate different aspects of a drum set. Her tap on a microphone creates the illusion of a bass drum, her claps like a snap of a snare drum, her looped vocals affect a choir, and her lyrics tune the audience into the meaning of Intisar’s movements.

Their first piece, featuring Amenta’s lyrics “wade in the water” and Intisar’s joyous movements was filled will the symbolism of rebirth and renewal. Their second began with a mbira solo by Amenta and transitioned into a mbira-fused, percussion-filled, physically energetic ballad. Amenta’s juxtaposition of the lyrics “dark skinned sister” and “black-winged bird” acted as metaphors for strength, character, and freedom. Although the meanings and allegories in their set might have seemed straightforward at first, Amenta and Intisar’s performance was spiritually deep, intensely emotional, and symbolic.

Synth Textures

Another large part of the Improvisation Summit of Portland is an exploration of different aural environments using synthesizers. These ranged from the complex and non-rhythmic cacophony of Mulva Myassis to the quiet, textural, and visually influenced work of Mathieu Ruhlmann and Lance Austin Olsen.

Personally, synthesized music is probably one of the most difficult genres for me to listen to. For a musician who has spent a majority of his musical existence listening to and performing instrumental and vocal music, the lack of conventional rhythms, forms, and pitch concepts can make accessing synthesized music difficult.

Yasi Perera and Alissa DeRubeis at ISP.

But after an insightful conversation about the nature of synthesized music with a friend of mine, I realized that synthesized music has the potential to express a wider emotional range because of its less-conventional aspects. Certain types of synthesizers are constructed in such a way that inhibit the production of conventional rhythm or pitch, so the music created is instead textural and entropic in nature, with unpredictable juxtapositions.

A good example of this was Alissa DeRubeis and Yasi Perera’s set, where a combination of modular synthesizer and muted vocal recitation gave their music a quality of dreaming a conversation where you couldn’t make out or remember the specifics of the other person’s words.

Wobbly performed at Improvisation Summit of Portland. Photo: Daniel Flessas.

Wobbly has been molding his approach to synthesized music for more than two decades. The result is music that uses multiple mobile devices to create rhythmic, structural, pitched beats of early synthesizers and juxtapose them with the textural complexity and unpredictability of modern ones.

Several solo performances at the ISP didn’t really fit into any specific genre. Ithaca, New York percussionist and composer Sarah Hennies played a physically demanding and complex composition with bells and mallets on wood blocks. Seattle based cellist Lori Goldston played a set whose improvised music used a supposedly refined instrument in an exploration of earthy, ancient, and timbrally rich wash of sound.

Baritone saxophonist Jonah Parzen-Johnson played several songs from his new album I Try to Remember Where I Came From. Parzen-Johnson combines his saxophone, looping pedal, electronics, and use of circular breathing to create a continuous flow of melody like in his song Cabin Pressure. He showed that he could include more silence and space in his introduction to These Shoulders, Those Shoulders, a kind of musical “what if” scenario of combining the emotion of bluesy licks, sustained tones, and futuristic electronic sounds. His composition Too Many Dreams, composed of a beautiful, fluttering, pentatonic melody juxtaposed with an impactful electronic beat was the highlight of his set.

Performing as Dolphin Midwives, Portland harpist Sage Fisher used harp, looping pedals, and electronics to create an exciting polyrhythmic texture similar to the music of an mbira ensemble. Next, Dolphin Midwives teamed up to exchange pentatonic melodies with Paul Michael Schaefer on hammered dulcimer while Andy Rayborn supported them with a low, constant drone on bass clarinet.

Dolphin Midwives (Sage Fisher), Andy Rayborn, Paul Michael Schaefer at ISP.

Free Jazz

Most of the groups that play at the ISP could be loosely grouped in those nebulous genres known as non-idiomatic improvisation and free jazz. In the first category we could include the cacophony and complexity of ALTO!’s duo of drum sets and electronics (played by Kyle Emory and Steven T. Stone) with guitar played by Derek Monypeny and the frenetic quartet of Dewey Mahood (electric guitar), Fred Chanelor (electric bass), Ben Kates (alto saxophone), and TJ Thompsom (drums).

In this category we could also squeeze in the comparatively gentle and melodic quartet of Reed Wallsmith (alto saxophone), Jonathan Sielaff (bass clarinet), Joe Cunningham (tenor saxophone), and Luke Wyland (keyboard, electronics), as well as the humorous musical antics of multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney (tenor saxophone, pocket trumpet), Tim Duroche (drums), Andre St. James (bass), and Dan Clucas (trumpet).

Andrew Durkin’s Breath of Fire at ISOP.

Two bands displayed the jazz-centered side of free improvisation. Pianist, bandleader, and composer Andrew Durkin’s refreshingly funky Breath of Fire (Noah Bernstein on alto saxophone, Lee Elderton on tenor saxophone, Ryan Meagher on guitar, Todd Bishop on drums, Andrew Jones on bass)  may have been the most accessible band of the entire festival, their performance packed with energy, excitement, and masterful soloing.

The Rich Halley Quartet was on top of its game with its improvising too. With Carson Halley on drums and Andre St. James on bass laying the foundation of groove-centered complexity with their musical mind meld, they gave the horn players a canvas on which to paint. Los Angeles-based Dan Clucas’ aggressive trumpet shouts vied with spouts of spiraling scales and arpeggios Halley’s tenor saxophone playing. The Quartet was equally at home with the quiet and gentle. Their second song started with a languid exchange between Halley and Clucas with a variety of timbres expressed between the instruments. During the entire set Halley seemed to be channeling a Sonny Rollins-like tone, while Clucas channeling a free-form Miles Davis.

Rich Halley Quartet performed at Improvisation Summit of Portland.

New Brew

Bobby Previte, a percussionist and composer based in New York who has collaborated with musicians like Tom Waits and Charlie Hunter, has spent more than twenty years transcribing and performing the music of one of jazz’s most celebrated albums, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew. On Friday night, Previte’s Voodoo Orchestra brought that 20th century musical monument to life, with Previte acting as conductor while playing drums, his longtime collaborators Fabian Rucker on alto and bari saxophone and Portland’s Mike Gamble on guitar, and local musicians Jonathan Sielaff on bass clarinet and electronics, Noah Bernstein on soprano saxophone and electronics, Andrew Jones on electric bass, Andre St. James on acoustic bass, Wayne Horvitz on fender rhodes, Luke Wayland on keyboard and electronics, Chris Johnedis on drums and cymbals, Darian Anthony Patrick on percussion, Matt Carlson on modular synths, and Caroline Chaparro dancing.

Previte & Gamble at ISOP 2017. Photo: Erica Thomas.

In an unexpected twist, the orchestra didn’t include anyone playing trumpet. This move was apparently intentional, with the motivation being that it’s a lot to ask for a trumpet player to fill Davis’s shoes in this music, yet the reproduction doesn’t suffer one bit for it. An exact live transcription of Bitches Brew is impossible anyway; the album is as much an exercise in the use of the studio and the editing room to compose a record as it is a representation of improvisation. But Previte’s treatment of it is much less a reproduction of the album than it is a successful, living, linguistic statement of the moods conveyed by the album.

For most of the performance, listeners were inundated by the energy of a beating, rock-infused groove, highlighted by pulsating rhythm and bass layered with psychedelic swirls of horn and keyboard licks, lifted straight from the album’s Spanish Key, complete with its bright and energetic ambience. Here was where the soloists shone the most, with passionate improvisation from Gamble and Bernstein.

Bobby Previte’s Voodoo Orchestra at Creative Music Guild’s 2017 Improvisation Summit of Portland. Photo: Erica Thomas.

The audience got a familiar taste of the album’s title track as well. But this time included a drum solo as an introduction, transitioning into one of the song’s frenetic melodies before introducing the signature creeping bass line and woody bass clarinet utterances. In homage to the original was an extended acoustic bass solo that felt so natural that you’d swear St. James had been taught it by Dave Holland himself. Refreshingly different from the original Bitches Brew were warring, unaccompanied, solos between alto sax and soprano, which expressed the conflicted mood of the song perfectly, demonstrating the idea of two disparate elements melding together into a unique whole.

Round Robin 

The headlining act on Saturday night wasn’t so much a band or ensemble as an exercise. For the last three years now the ISP has ended its festivities with improvised round robin duets. The performance is completely improvised, with one musician beginning with a solo improvisation. Five minutes later a second musician joins onstage to have a musical conversation. After another five minutes the first performer finishes, leaves the stage, and is replaced by a third musician and the duet continues like the passing of a baton in a relay race. The musicians have no idea who they will be paired with until shortly before they begin. The result is a shifting conversation of improvisation, where each musician shifts and molds the dialogue to complement the other player’s style and instrument.

The musicians that took part this time were Jonah Parzen-Johnson on baritone saxophone, Noah Bernstein on alto saxophone, Dave Depper on guitar and electronics, Doug Detrick on trumpet and laptop, Sage Fisher on harp, Laura Gibson on voice, Nat Hulskamp on oud, Kyleen King on viola, Lamiae Naki on voice, Ken Ollis on drums, Andy Rayborn on bass clarinet, Mathieu Ruhlman on electro-acoustic synthesizer, John Savage on alto saxophone, and Wobbly on electronics.


Jonah Parzen-Johnson and Sage Fisher at ISOP 2017.

There were times when my attention waxed and wanned throughout the set, but there were some striking moments that occurred between performers as they tried to adapt to each other’s improvisation styles. When Parzen-Johnsen began playing his bari sax with Ruhlman on synthesizer, his improvisations were more chaotic and harsh, but when Sage Fisher joined him on stage on harp he immediately adapted to the other instrument, playing more softly, melodically, and in a higher range to compliment her playing.

A similar thing happened when Savage and Rayborn were playing together. With the combination of alto sax and bass clarinet the duo dived straight into a wild and bluesy improvisation, with wide juxtapositions of volume and tempo. But as soon as Savage left the stage and was replaced by Hulskamp on oud, Rayborn toned down his volume and rhythmic movement dramatically to a low drone and occasional flutter to underpin Hulskamp’s phenomenal melodic improvisations.

Hulskamp & Rayborn at ISP 2017.

Overall, even if some audience members get lost in the non-idiomatic improvisations of some performers, the performance of the improvised round robin duets is successful through its sheer creativity. You are never certain what will happen next, what style you will hear, or how drastically it will change over time. This exercise of improvisation is basically a musical metaphor for life, and is demonstrative of life’s inherent risks and rewards, and how necessary creativity is in order to cope with change.

This hour and a half long improvisation exercise also exemplifies the Improvisation Summit of Portland and the Creative Music Guild. The round robin duets, with their variety of instruments and styles, mostly drawn from local musicians, run parallel to the framework of the organization that produces the festival. The CMG’s organization of volunteers, local artists of varying training and background, come together to provide a platform for some of the most creative musicians in Portland and the nation to express themselves. And now, considering the 26 years of momentum behind the CMG and the quality of all of the concert series it produces, and despite some of the inaccessibility of some of its music to more mainstream listeners, this organization has improvised its way to becoming an important and fundamental part of the Portland music scene.

Patrick McCulley is an Oregon-born saxophonist, educator, and composer with an M.M. in saxophone performance. He is the saxophone instructor and director for the Portland Music Collective. His non-musical interests include tea, cats, rain, science fiction and international travel.

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