Last night in the Capp Street Concert Hall of the Community Music Center, bassist and composer Lisa Mezzacappa launched her latest project during the second set of the second of the four new music concerts of the annual Outsound New Music Summit. That project, avantNOIR, is a response to the “call” of noir genre fiction in general and two specific authors from different eras and opposite sides of the country. The earlier of those authors was Dashiell Hammett, who wrote about San Francisco during the first half of the twentieth century. The later is Paul Auster, who began publishing during the last quarter of the twentieth century and is still active. One of his earliest works of fiction involved the loosely collected noir stories of his New York Trilogy.
The title of last night’s concert was Comprovisation: the art of compositional improvisation; and it was clear that Mezzacappa had found a “sweet spot” for uninhibited improvisation within a well-defined framework. During the Q&A that preceded the concert, she dropped some hints about what that framework was and how it came to be. Most important was that Mezzacappa came to know Hammett by reading him, rather than through the Hollywood adaptations of his fiction. (She confessed, however, that it is very difficult to read the words of Sam Spade without hearing the voice of Humphrey Bogart in her head.)
What impressed her most about Hammett’s writing was his skill at description, an ability to evoke rich imagery through the scrupulous limit of a few expertly chosen words. In many ways Auster shares that preference for saying more and more with less and less (to paraphrase Buckminster Fuller); and, as a result, it would probably be fair to say that avantNOIR was motivated by a desire to rethink this highly refined approach to the text type of description in terms of the rhetoric of jazz. Note that this is not an exercise in “musical imagery,” such as what one encounter in much of the music of, for example, Claude Debussy. Instead, Mezzacappa’s music gives the impression that she is more motivated by insightful turns of phrase and the powers of those turns to evoke images, rather than the images themselves.
The resulting music amounted to a sort of suite in two sections, one for each of the authors. The Hammett section, which opened the set, was heavily dominated by a sense of place, including a variety of street names, most of which no longer resemble the streets as Hammett knew them. (In the case of Army Street, even the name has changed.) However, there was also a “character sketch” of “Big Flora;” and “Bird in the Hand” made the obligatory nod to what is probably Hammett’s best-known work, The Maltese Falcon. The Auster section, on the other hand, was somewhat more abstract, perhaps reflecting that his fiction is not (yet?) as well-known as Hammett’s.
The music was provided by Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch quartet, whose other members are Aaron Bennett on tenor saxophone, John Finkbeiner on guitar, and Jordan Glenn on drums. She expanded this to a sextet by adding Tim Perkis’ computer-based electronics and percussionist William Winant, alternating between vibraphone and a “Foley table” of commonplace objects for the creation of sound effects. The group, as a whole, had no trouble moving between the domains of composition and improvisation; and all four Bait & Switch players had ample opportunities to cut loose with some awesome improvisational turns. Yet it was also clear that wit was a fundamental element in this musical “response” to the “call” of a familiar literary genre. There were any number of throwaway gestures that reflected the frequent use of a jaded tone of voice in the text, and Winant handled his sound effects with the sort of deadpan attitude that tends to be obligatory for at least one character in any work of noir fiction.
About the only downside of the evening was the need to sit through the opening set by Cabbages, Captain, & King before getting down to Mezzacappa’s brass tacks. Those three nouns serve as the name of the trio of Jon Arkin on drums and Karl Evangelista on electric guitar playing with leader Eli Wallace on piano. During the Q&A the name of Keith Jarrett came up as part of the context for Wallace’s work. During the performance, however, it was hard to be aware of even a remote connection. This might suggest that Wallace had succeeded in finding his own voice, but it was the voice of someone who may have had some exposure to Cecil Taylor but had not yet really learned how to listen to him. Indeed, the whole trio seemed to suffer through the problem that, while the musicians could cue each other, there were few signs that they were actually listening to each other. Fortunately, the discipline and wit of avantNOIR did much to dispel most of the bad vibes from Cabbages, Captain, & King.