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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Improv Collective performs annual show

Hit-or-miss show rewards patient listeners with eclectic jams

Published: April 18, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

Improvisational music remains one of the most exhilarating forms of performing art. Artists who can tame its fickle muse have the power to manifest the flotsam of a group’s collective unconscious, exploding traditional notions of creative conception. When they fail, however, the results sound more like a bad acid trip. When I went to see the Brandeis Improv Collective on Monday night in Slosberg, I came with the skeptical expectation of experiencing the latter, and I can’t say that certain moments didn’t validate my presumption. Nevertheless, several transcendent breakthroughs by the final ensemble reestablished my faith in the sacred art of the jam.

The director of the collective, Tom Hall, introduced the ensembles, interjecting little bits of musical and philosophical wisdom between the performances. “The improv class is based on the assumption that…all humans are improvisers through their very nature,” he mused. “Whether you’re cooking or driving a car or playing music, improvising is part of what we do naturally as people.” Three ensembles of different instrumentations and musical styles tested this assumption that improvisation is a natural human impulse, alternating between painfully stilted constructions and whimsically spontaneous creations.

The first ensemble, comprised of a guitarist, bassist, pianist, and drummer set the tone for the first half of the show, which was dominated by meditative, minor key atmospherics. Despite being introduced they were introduced as a “groove-based ensemble,” I never quite bought into the idea that their lugubrious reflections fit the descriptor.

While the drummer displayed a knack for slicing through the thick layer of crepuscular haze with tight high-hat rhythms, he couldn’t quite compensate for a lack of overall structure. The pianist, on the other hand, tended to contribute to the ensemble’s murky ambience, though at his best he called to mind the stark beauty and warmth of Norweigan jazz pianist Tord Gustavsen. The weakest link of the quartet proved to be the guitarist, who wielded a repertoire of motifs smaller than his selection of effects pedals (which says as much about his cornucopia of reverb settings as it does about his limited musical palette). His uninspired three-note riffs make Joey Santiago sound positively baroque by comparison.

The second ensemble adapted the elegiac strain of the first group to the context of a duet featuring piano and stand-up bass. The brooding romantic tone called to mind Beethoven, one motif bearing an eerie resemblance to the “Moonlight Sonata.” The pianist’s use of pedal point phrases and descending chord progressions made the jams sound like they were constantly spiraling into oblivion. Unfortunately, if the duo seemed to turn around in circles, the centrifugal force often wasn’t strong enough to hold them together.

After the lukewarm success of the first two groups, the final ensemble—featuring piano, bass, drums, guitar, and two saxes—stole the show. Bursting at the seams with creative energy, they were by turns raucous, jazzy, vociferous and just plain weird. Bypassing genre constraints, they found no problem inserting squalls of avante garde between passages of impressionistic jazz.

The backbone of the group was a muscular rhythm section in which drums interlocked alternatively with rollicking piano chords, skittering bass lines, and even dexterous sax riffs. The final jam of the night was a high point, especially when the guitarist pounded out a ricocheting chord progression that sounded so unmelodic and clubfooted that it actually passed itself off as a killer hook. The funny part is that the group didn’t even have to reject the acid trip paradigm to achieve success; they did just as well by embrace its mind-bending majesty.