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Aardvark displays improvisational dynamic, skill

Aardvark Review

Aardvark Jazz Orchestra.

Led by Lecturer Mark Harvey.

Harvard Epworth Methodist Church.

March 5, 1994.

By Adam Lindsay

One night with the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra will prove to anyone that it is no mere "ensemble." Imagine a standard ensemble such as any seen at MIT that same night in the New England Intercollegiate Jazz Festival concert. Take away a trumpet or two, add a percussionist, another bassist, a french horn, and occasional doublings on flutes, clarinets, and tuba, and you have Aardvark. It is an odd instrumental mix (indeed, I have seen more bassoons in rock than french horns in jazz), but it all contributes to the goal of orchestral colors. That is what the Aardvark is about: these mature musicians concern themselves with sound.

I was struck by the differences between Aardvark and MIT's Festival Jazz Ensemble when I first saw Aardvark last year. The difference was this: where the younger musicians concentrated on the notes being played, the older musicians pushed past and worked on the entire sonic picture. Saturday's concert showed me even more. Within the structure of the two very long pieces on the program, events and gestures took the place of motives and themes or licks and tunes. Notes were secondary to the music; the compositions and structures were there to support a musical evocation of images. Bandleader/composer Harvey worked with more primal elements of music to create works of art.

The two-plus hour concert consisted of two suites and a short encore. The two extended pieces were similar in approach and structure, being Aardvark's and Harvey's specialty. "The Firewave Suite: a Meditation on the War Peril" began the evening with dark washes of color and sound, gradually moving into the regular beat and structure of more typical jazz. Composed sections alternated with freer solo or small-ensemble sections. Soloists were encouraged to strike out on their own, and they did. Harvey masterfully captured the flow set up by an inspired soloist, bringing in more band members as needed or determining the next composed section to play. Sometimes other band members would chime in of their own accord, building upon ideas set up by the previous soloist. Listening was essential to the creation of this music, and everyone was doing it.

Sometimes it wasn't only music being listened to. There was a moment in the first piece, during an unaccompanied electric bass solo by Jerry Edwards, when a police car passed by, siren blaring outside the window. Edwards promptly made a reference to the sound, approximating it on his bass. Brad Jones, on soprano saxophone, then came in with a more believable imitation of a police siren as a high, quick figure interrupting his melody. As his solo progressed, he incorporated the figure into the musical line, making it less of an interruption. The musicians played with ideas, not just notes.

The second piece on the program, "Passages/Psalms II," was a lighter piece, despite the dark modal colors that permeated most of the improvised passages. The composed sections lent the piece hope and included some very beautiful chordal passages. The performance featured more excellent playing, including tasteful atmospherics from Richard Nelson's volume-pedalled guitar against a stirring bass flute solo by Peter Bloom. The climax of the piece came during the final solo, when Bob Pilkington, on trombone, stood up and faced off against the percussion section. The dynamic solo dissolved into jabs at the percussion, and was brought back to the traditional jazz realm by the perceptive John Funkhouser on upright bass. Such a structure as set up by these pieces relies upon communication, and the moment between Funkhouser and Pilkington was exemplary.

The only noticeable lapse in communication was soon afterwards, at the very end of "Passages/Psalms II," when Harvey attempted to draw the piece to a close. His intentions were not fully understood by drummer Harry Wellot, and there was a little bit of groping before the piece's final gesture. High musicianship, however, kept this and any other possible missteps from being problems.

If one was compelled to complain, one could say that this style of music is such that it all sounds the same; one could exchange sections between the two different pieces without affecting the music. That may be true, for though the overall characters of the pieces were very different, "Firewave Suite" being one of conflict and "Passages/Psalms" one of peace, beauty and hope, lines became very blurred. A beautiful flute duet in the first piece may have been more at home in the second, and many of the modal improvisations in the second, including the trombone climax, were more evocative of conflict and strife.

Such issues aren't essential to the art, however. Though moments may have strayed, the overall affect was transmitted by a varied and complex whole. The responsibility for that success lies in the soft-spoken, spiritual Harvey, who clawed and slashed at the orchestra to get just what he wanted. Though he often let the players decide which way to turn, he held the road map and always managed to navigate to his final destination.

If you missed last Saturday's performance (which you probably did), you will have a chance to catch the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra at Kresge Auditorium in a free concert on April 8, at 8 p.m. The concert will include the "Scamarama Suite, a Tone-Parallel to Iran-Contra" and the premiere of a new piece by Harvey. If the evening is anything like Saturday's (and it will be), you will be awed by the power of the Aardvark.