The Resilience of Other Minds 25


Sylvie Courvoisier, piano, and Mary Halvorson, guitar, perform at Other Minds.

(Photo: David Magnusson)

The mood at Other Minds 25 — an anniversary celebration for Other Minds, the San Francisco-based arts organization dedicated to new and experimental music — was one of relief.

The four-day festival of improvised jazz had been a long time coming. The event was scheduled and rescheduled three times during the pandemic, and beset with frequent lineup changes. A month before OM 25 was to take place, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith bowed out at the behest of his doctor, and hopes of securing bassist Joëlle Léandre for a performance were scuttled by travel restrictions.

During every pre-performance introduction by Other Minds’ staff or the festival’s curator Harry Bernstein, and the panel discussions with the performers facilitated by jazz critic Nate Chinen, the repeated refrain was one of a metaphorical weight being lifted. Though everyone in attendance remained masked and had to show proof of vaccination to enter the space, it felt, as OM co-founder Charles Amirkhanian dubbed it, as if the “grand pause” that caused so many gatherings to be canceled was — for at least one long October weekend — over.

That feeling colored many of the sets throughout the four-day event. Many of the artists attacked their instruments with a renewed force. Sylvie Courvoisier’s hands remained a blur throughout her duo set with guitarist Mary Halvorson, assaulting the piano’s keys with her hands and forearms when she wasn’t drawing out jolting melodic phrases. Reacting to electronic artist King Britt’s collage of arpeggios and Moog module waves, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, with sunglasses and a focused expression on his face, took big downswings at the cymbals and turned traditional swing rhythms inside out.

Only Roscoe Mitchell, the NEA Jazz Master and AACM co-founder, seemed to hold himself and his trio in check. The quiet squeaks and warm drones of his multiple reed instruments and synthesizer forced bassist Junius Paul and drummer Vincent Davis to scale back to small touches and quick hits. The whole set felt like a fascinating Zen exercise, with the musicians seemingly asking and answering the question of how much someone can communicate by not saying much at all.

The most unbound performance of the festival came from a duo being directed by sheet music. In this case, it was a colorful score conceived by the legendary composer and musician Anthony Braxton, who was on hand to perform the work with saxophonist James Fei. Backed by a random series of electronic tones generated by a nearby laptop and guided by Braxton’s hand gestures, the two men spent the hour-long set splendidly tangled together.

The scores kept a rough structure in place. Fei knew when to switch from soprano to either alto or baritone saxophone, and he and Braxton remained in harmonic accord throughout. But outside of those loose guidelines, the men flooded the room with discordant squiggles and shivering melodic runs. It brought buoyancy to the musicians. They grinned at one another frequently, and, before one particularly spirited movement, Fei held up his copy of the notation to literally make sure they were on the same page, which left Braxton beaming with delight.

Although the emphasis of the festival was on improvised music, the opening night closed with Jen Shyu’s Nine Doors, a solo performance piece that the artist and composer has honed through multiple stagings around the U.S. In an interview with Bernstein prior to the event, he said he felt justified in bringing Shyu’s show to OM 25 as it included some improvisational elements. While those weren’t immediately apparent, there was a looseness to the work that allowed Shyu to interact with the audience and have a laugh at her own expense when she struggled to strap a drum around her waist.

Those touches of levity might have been necessary to get through what was a deeply emotional hour. Shyu created Nine Doors following the death of a close friend, and, through the lens of storytelling, dance, poetry and song, used that loss to frame her reflections on mortality. She moved deliberately through the space, stopping to accompany herself on various traditional Asian instruments like the Korean gayageum and the Japanese biwa.

Daringly, Shyu didn’t feel it necessary to connect the various pieces of this work — the nine doors of its title — by any kind of narrative thread. But there was such fluidity to it all, so that flowing from her recitation of the bare facts of the accident that killed her friend to the recitation of the Timorese myth of Ati Batik felt smooth and purposeful. In that way, Shyu felt entirely in tune with the improvised music of the rest of OM 25. How she started and where she ended didn’t feel as important as the path she took to get us there. DB

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