Turning over a Blue Leaf – Adam Page and Stroma

STROMA with Adam Page  – BLUE PAGE

Adam Page (saxophones and looping)

David Bremner (trombone)

Mark Carter (conductor)


Downstage, Wellington

Sunday 9th December, 2012

This concert put me in mind of a review I once read of a performance given by the great 19th Century pianist/composer Anton Rubinstein, while on tour in the United States, the writer turning to a kind of “vernacular” in order to be able to express the wildness of exhilaration that had seized him when confronted with such music-making –

“….the house trembled, the lights danced, the walls shuck, the sky split, the ground rocked – heavens and earth, creation, sweet potatoes, Moses, ninepences, glory, tenpenny nails, Sampson in a ‘simmon tree – Bang!!!……I knowed no more that evening!….”

The concert was billed as “New Zealand s largest chamber ensemble meets New Zealand’s greatest multi-instrumentalist”.  Even though he’s Australian-born saxophonist extraordinaire Adam Page can call himself a Kiwi (or anything else he likes), just as long as he keeps his voyage of spontaneous and interactive discovery as fresh, intriguing and even as dangerous as he did with the Stroma musicians at Downstage Theatre.

Though the concert’s apex-point was Adam Page’s Space, Time and a new pair of shoes,  a work featuring this multi-talented musician’s technique of looping his own and accompanying musicians’ live improvisations into a continually enriched texture of accumulated musical impulses,  the concert featured as well works by Jack Body, Michael Norris and Jacob ter Veldhuis, all taking their starting-point as the tradition of the Blues.

Jack Body’s work Tribute to the Blues began this exploration, a work in four sections. It began with “Big Joe’s Moan” lovely, lazily loping accordion sounds, joined by various other instruments,  playing homage to jazz legend Big Joe Turner by way of setting long and lyrical lines,  over the top of an almost pointillistic soundscape, flecks and single brushstrokes of sound and colour. The following “Penitentiary Blues”,  realized by the New Orleans-based group Tangle Eye, had a sombre and definite “Singing Detective” ambience about its textures, one trying, it seemed, to ”lighten up” and escape the claustrophobia of both form and context.

John Lee’s Pluck came to the rescue, marimba and piano creating a gorgeous “carpet” with string pizzicato joining a sympatico marimba and piano, and finger-clicking from the musicians keeping the faith, as it were, in the spirit of John Lee Hooker. Contrast, if needed was afforded by “Chain-gang Chants”, with heavy bass-dragging beat underpinning a roaring sax and trombone. The lamenting winds and strings  seemed to speak for the human spirit, the roaring brass underpinning the oppression.

Finally, Mary Lou’s Dream (homage to another jazz giant, Mary Lou Williams, pianist composer and educator) presented a kind of “blues fantasia”, with cool, walking-pace rhythms leading the ear into a kind of twilight zone of eerie wind chordings and tremolando strings, until the blues gestures begin to coalesce, building up to great roulades of expression, before expiring with a muttered cadence.

Michael Norris’s Heart across night followed on from a film clip of Theolonius Monk playing his classic Straight, No Chaser, the trio of musicians responding at first with primordial sound-impulses, a muted trombone (David Bremner), rumbling double-bass (Alexander Gunchenko) and quietly scintillating percussion (Lenny Sakofsky), all kept pulsing together by the beat of Mark Carter. The composer’s own poetry was printed as a kind of word-map “paraphrase” of Monk’s piece giving us clues as to his specific visions – thus the irruption of energies could be interpreted as “hot tears crashing”, to all of which the electric double bass seemed to choreograph a kind of “danse macabre” very much on the surface.

“No rest” cautioned the poem, so that even the twilight-zone evocations contained bursts of activity responses to disturbances and terrors within. I found a kind of  perverse joy in David Bremner’s muted trombone, a lovely sound, the instrument later reverting to its full-throated voice. with Stravinsky/Firebird-like glissandi sliding like a board-rider on a molten surface of percussion-driven activity – the climactic “that’s her” getting a volcanic, exciting response from all the players.

The final two items were dominated by Adam Page’s incredible playing, firstly Jacob ter Veldhuis’s Grab It! for tenor saxophone and audio tape, the latter containing samplings from a documentary film of death row prisoners’ aggressive verbalisings. The saxophonist played a series of high-powered synchronisations  mirroring the energy of the constantly-recycled words. The whole scenario was an amazing assault on one’s sensibilities, though the combination of images, music and words drew one into the matrix of anger and despair evinced by the presentation’s various elements – a haunting, life-shaking experience.

Lastly, we got Adam Page’s own Space, Time and a new pair of shoes, a work whose improvisatory spirit created a Baroque-like panoply of melodic and rhythmic explorations processed and shared by Page himself and the whole ensemble in tandem with a looping recorder machine. The technique enabled the musicians’ contributions to and variants of the bluesy opening material to be added to the sound-picture via the recorder-machine, whose agglomerations gradually built up to near-epic proportions. Page commented in his programme notes that he had never used so many musicians when previously presenting this work live, and was thus looking forward to the “unknown” aspect this circumstance would create.

The effect was exhilarating, transporting – a total knockout! – not quite shades of “I knowed no more that evening” but instead, a kind of flabbergasted audience babbling in response, something which, had it also been recorded and “looped”, Adam Page himself would have presumably delighted in augmenting with the excitement of his own visceral, heart-on-sleeve intensifications.  And that would have been yet another work, and it would have been even harder to tear oneself away – as it stood, from Stroma it was no less than a feast of musical discovery, with Adam Page as the inspirational “lead-from-the-front” guide.








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