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Quintet features wonderful saxophone pair

Collective Experience
Willow Jazz Club.
Sept. 18.

By Dave Fox
Staff Reporter

The Willow Jazz Club in Somerville offers a wide variety of quality live jazz, from nationally known performers to local groups trying to widen their exposure. Saturday evening, the local quintet Collective Experience came to the Willow and performed three sets of contemporary jazz. Employing two saxophones, their sound is very fresh-sounding, while at times calling to mind the sound of Charles Mingus.

The quintet is composed of Gloria Jasinski on piano, Eric Pakula on alto sax, Ed Harlow on tenor sax, Tony Sumbury on upright bass, and Greg Conroy on drums. Each of these musicians holds a degree from either the New England Conservatory or Berklee, and this no doubt contributes to the high degree of technical proficiency they display, as well as the quality of their original compositions. The instrumentation allows the saxophonists to play ideas against each other, which results in interesting improvisations.

I arrived just in time for the start of the second set. The set began with a rather free-sounding original piece, "Intensive Care." Jasinski sat this one out, leaving a quartet well suited for free improvisation. (In fact, except for a short head, this piece was a fine example of quality free jazz.) As one might expect, the melody in the head was rendered by the saxophones, in a kind of disjointed unison. This lead to an alto solo by Pakula, who gave the music a straight-eighth note feel in a manner similar to Cannonball Adderly. Pakula turned the stage over to Harlow, who offered a tenor solo that started rather soft and light, but rapidly grew in complexity. The rhythm section opened up their accompaniment, featuring Sumbury's drum-like bass playing and Conroy using the rims of his drum kit. This meshed nicely with the tenor solo. A dual sax groove/jam section came next, and then the saxes exited in order to give the spotlight to the rythym section. After a nice bass solo, the piece concluded with a re-statement of the opening section. All in all, it was a nicely dramatic opening tune.

Jasinski joined the boys for the remainder of the set. The second tune was another original entitled "Dogs that Fetch." This opened with a funk-oriented groove, with the piano doubling the bass. The saxes came in, in an atonal fashion that only saxophones could achieve. This was resolved into a hip sounding melody, initially in unison and repeated in harmony. Harlow took the first solo, weaving an almost "Arabian nights" feel that the rythym section picked up on. Pakula followed this with a lyrical, almost ethereal alto solo, and Jasinski added a thoughtful piano solo. Sumbury offered a clean bass solo, with Conroy adding accents on his drum rims. The original groove and saxophone melody ended the piece.

After a nice cover of Dexter Gordon's "Cheese Cake," the quintet shifted gears a bit and performed an original ballad, enigmatically named "Like Cold Luggage" (composed by Sumbury). This featured the saxophones, who rose to the occasion with some wonderfully soulful playing. (Okay, I admit I'm a bit of a saxophone partisan!) The saxes traded off the melody, with Pakula's mournful alto offering a nice contrast to Harlow's slightly more upbeat interpretation. The saxes then played a beautifully-rendered interpretation of the melody in harmony. Pakula followed this with a masterful solo, which was very sweet and forlorn sounding, and was marked with a nice use of the bottom range of the horn. Jasinski then offered a clean piano solo, and the piece finished with the saxes playing in a nice harmony.

The quintet concluded the set with an original tune, "Me and Kate." This featured the saxes in harmony, reminiscent of Mingus' sound on his "Ah-Umm" album. (Of course, I may notice this Mingus similarity because dual saxes in small groups is so rare.) Harlow offered a nice tenor solo, followed by a precise solo by Jasinski. Pakula followed this with a frantic, somewhat ethereal alto solo. After a bass solo, the saxes bounced some "relatively dissonant" notes off each other for a very striking stop-time effect. This lead to a four-bar drum break, a repeat of the head, and a nice sax duet cadenza to conclude the tune. This was a very thought-provoking tune offering nice contrasts and arresting stop-time sections.

The third set continued in much the same fashion, and was concluded with a wonderful free jazz piece (in which Jasinski sat out). This opened with a solo bass groove, which was eventually joined by Conroy. The saxes played a unison section, which lead to an alto solo by Pakula. This faded (nicely) into a tenor solo in which Harlow pulled all the stops out. He used multiphonic tones to great effect, as well as what might be termed "elephant tones." Sumbury got into the spirit of things, and offered a bass solo featuring extensive use of double stops, with a very wide vibrato. Throughout these solos, Conroy laid down a provocative drum accompaniment using the rims, sides, and other parts of his drums. The piece finished triumphantly, with the saxes offering a statement in somewhat dissonant harmony.

Overall, Collective Experience showed technical brilliance and a good grounding in tradition, but a willingness to explore new ground and exploit their instrumentation to the fullest. If their performance Saturday night was any indication, they should be going places soon.

Coda (an introduction for any new readers): My name is Dave Fox; I'm an ocean engineering graduate student and baritone sax player, and I write about jazz for The Tech. The Boston area has a rich jazz tradition, with many venues for good live jazz; I encourage all MIT jazz fans to get out and hear the music! Meanwhile, I'll try to get to most of the important jazz performances, and review them for those who missed them. Happy Listening!