Artists Celebrate Connie Crothers & her Improvisational Spirit at Michigan’s Edgefest

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John Hébert performs at Edgefest in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on Oct. 28.

(Photo: Abby Dotz)

The 20th edition of Edgefest in Ann Arbor, Michigan, took place Oct. 26–29 and fulfilled all its promises. It showcased some of the most forward-looking artists in jazz and improvised music, and the constant stream of stellar performances kept the audience engaged and enthralled throughout the four-day festival.

The second day started in a bittersweet fashion with a remembrance of the late pianist Connie Crothers, who passed away Aug. 13. The organizers had originally booked TranceFormation, a trio featuring the pianist with vocalist Andrea Wolper and bass player Ken Filiano.

For this tribute, Wolper and Filiano invited multi-reed player Vinny Golia and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson to join them. Before the set actually started, Wolper made a poignant statement—overcome with emotions at one point—about her beloved cohort and friend.

The first minutes of their fully improvised act showed that their celebration of Crothers’ life would not be mournful. The musicians threw themselves into a maelstrom of notes, best illustrated by Golia’s flurries on the sopranino. The lead voice alternated between members, and the state of flux gave the music new direction; the group also broke down in duos or trios as they saw fit.

Wolper alternated between wordless vocals and lyrics delivered in psalm-like fashion, occasionally ending her phrases with a sigh. Golia, an equal opportunity woodwind player, kept switching between flute, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet and clarinet to match the constantly evolving tone of the musical environment.

Filiano’s nimble bass work featured effects and bowing techniques that, at times, lent his playing a vocal quality. In that regard, he was a perfect foil for Wolper. Thompson also provided valuable support; he often acted more like an auxiliary percussionist than a drummer, privileging colors and accents over rhythms.

Together, the four musicians came to a poetic and ethereal conclusion, a most proper ending to a heartfelt performance. As an ultimate homage to their departed peer, they shouted “Thank you, Connie!” over the applause.

The piano trio is a quintessential jazz format and pianists such as Satoko Fujii, Myra Melford and Vijay Iyer have written music for this configuration with the goal of expanding its possibilities. Among those also pushing boundaries is pianist Kris Davis, who presented her daring trio comprising bassist John Hébert and drummer Tom Rainey on the third evening.

This adventurous trio quickly set the mood with “Twice Escaped,” an older piece that the pianist has been keen to revisit with her various projects. She provided violent thrusts and staggering blows through repeated attacks. In such an environment, it would have been easy for Rainey to get carried away. Instead, he showed the necessary restraint and hovered above the drum kit with agile movements.

Whether plucking or bowing, Hébert could add some tension or be as blunt and hard as the leader. They followed with “Active Membranes,” which opened with a thunderous and threatening movement before Hébert gave the music a minimalist orientation and Davis probed her lines as if in a trance.

In recent times, Davis has been infatuated with John Zorn’s Bagatelles. That night, the trio tackled “Bagatelle No. 59,” a fast-paced and intricate composition which also included flashes of the jazz tradition.

They concluded with “Fragment,” another multi-faceted Davis original that drew to a sudden and unexpected close. The trio performed each composition as an eventful journey, starting at one point and ending at another. The fact that Hébert’s and Rainey’s eyes seldom strayed from the charts laid in front of them illustrated the demands of Davis’ music and arrangements.



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