Alchemy Sound Project Goes Metaphysical

Alchemy Sound Project is comprised of highly gifted musicians—each of whom has had another career as freelance soloist or ensemble player—brought together by the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. This program was started by the American Composers Orchestra and Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, the ultimate purpose of which is the compose jazz-influenced pieces for the symphony orchestra. Under the direction of composer-trombonist-educator George Lewis, the Institute picks 38 jazz composers at various stages of their careers from a national pool of applicants for a one-week summer intensive with leading writers, performers and conductors. The sparkplug for this new band seems to have been tenor saxist Erica Lindsay, who attended the first JCOI session in 2010, then encouraged Sumi Tonooka and Samantha Boshnack to enroll in the 2012 session. Eventually they met David Arend and Salim Washington, spent a lot of time together discussing music and bonding, and eventually moved off into this explorative new group of their own. For this initial recording they were supplemented by trombonist Willem de Koch and drummer Max Wood.

I was so intrigued by this CD that I wanted to ask them a few questions by way of prelude to my review. I was fortunate enough to be able to do so via e-mail.

ASPstudio De Koch, Arend, Wood, Tonooka, Washington, Boshnack, Lindsay

Left to right: Willem de Koch, David Arend, Max Wood, Sumi Tonooka, Salim Washington, Samantha Boshnack, Erica Lindsay

Art Music Lounge: Before we get into group questions, I have one for the founder, Erica Lindsay—although any of you may chime in if you like. Erica, what was it that you heard in these specific four musicians that made you decide to make them part of the group and not others who had taken part in the Jazz Composers Orchestra workshops?

Erica Lindsay: It was Sumi Tonooka who was the primary instigator of this musical enterprise. Sumi and I have worked together many times before, including our jointly led quartet release with Bob Braye and Rufus Reid entitled, “Initiation.” After her experience composing for orchestra we talked of our desire to create a project that would allow us to combine the inspiration we derived from working with an orchestra to a smaller chamber jazz setting, allowing for both genres to be sources of inspiration. Samantha Boshnack was one of my first composition students when I started teaching at Bard College, so I have known her since she was a freshman in college and introduced her to Sumi when she moved out to Seattle. It was Sumi, who met both David Arend and Salim Washington in the Jazz Institute CA session (which Samantha also attended) that thought up the alchemical combination of all of us playing together. I had met Salim previously in NY, but I did not meet David until we met to record this CD.

Also, after our recording took place, David collaborated with Salim and wrote a piece for tenor saxophone, solo bass and orchestra which came out this year as well.

Hi Lynn. Sumi Tonooka here. I am the founder of Alchemy Sound Project, in that I thought to conceive the project and I wrote a group email to everyone suggesting the idea that we all unite to continue to grow and explore together, inspired by the the orchestral thrust or emphasis that we received from the JCOI program.

The reason I decided to use this particular group of musicians had to do with a certain synchronicity of connections, some of which were new (meeting David Arend and Salim Washington at the JCOI for the first time) and some of which were already in existence (Erica and I going a long way back musically and as friends). Samantha, who was a student of Erica’s at Bard, was the first musician I had met in Seattle. We met at Erica’s suggestion that I contact her to talk about the music scene when I was considering moving there. Sam just so happened to apply to the JCOI the same year that I did and we both received the honor of acceptance without us being aware that the other had applied to the program. There were 38 amazing composers and musicians in the program that year, all of whom would have made interesting groups! David, Salim, Sam and I gravitated to each other and kept the bond moving forward. Erica had attended the program the previous year and without her having not only suggested that I apply but really pushing me to do it, none of this may have happened. Frankly I wanted to get us all together not only as composers and players but also as friends to play and hang.I thought it would be fun to see what we could cook up musically. I had an idea that it would be something pretty special but I did not have an idea as to the specific chemistry, nor what we would end up writing.

AML: When listening to the recording, I heard a great deal of respect paid to the jazz-classical pioneers of the 1950s, particularly Mingus, Miles, George Russell, Chico Hamilton, Brubeck, even a little soul jazz. Am I correct in thinking that their work had some influence on your own?

Sumi Tonooka: I have been influenced by the work of Miles and Mingus for sure. We are all a product of our times, and the composers you mention here have been influential, open to world culture and have brought various unique and personal contributions to the music. What makes Alchemy Sound Project special is that we are all composers, instrumentalists, and bandleaders operating as a collective to foster and support each other and produce new work. Our backgrounds are all very different, generationally, experientially, musically, ethnically and even conceptually. United, we bring out something different in each of us and in joining together there is a symbiotic cohesiveness.

David Arend: All of the music I have ever heard influences my composing. This includes jazz, classical, rock, funk, world, hip hop, soul, disco, electronic, noise, you name it. All compositions are informed not only by music but by elements from life such as sounds in nature (and city), books, film, food, other art forms, travel, friendships, family, all of life’s experiences. The human brain is an amazing thing and it is impossible to say where an artistic idea comes from! What makes every composer’s music unique is that our compositions filter down from the core of the universe (this could be God or whatever you consider to be the source) and through our brains and bodies, and no human life is similar, no experience is identical. We experience the same piece of music, art work or life event differently based on our psychologies. As far as we can tell, reality is probably the sum of all of our experiences and perspectives mapped onto a single moment in time (assuming time exists).

AML: I suppose the creative process is a little different for all five of you, but at least in this debut album I heard several traits that all of you have in common, among them the willingness to effect tempo changes within each piece, sometimes even suspending a forward momentum while the music takes its time to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. This gives each piece the feeling of a brief multi-movement work. Was this conscious on your part, or did it just sort of happen in the performing end of each selection?

ST: I think that we were all focused on writing in a way that would allow us to explore aspects of all that we do not only as jazz composers but also as improvisors, and give ourselves the liberty to experiment and mess around in whatever ways we wanted. We were aiming to bring more orchestral style/classical experimentation into the mix as well. The other joy was knowing that we were writing for each other and having some idea as to the color and sounds we were writing for. We each penned two compositions with not much discussion as to what they would or should be. It was a musical pot luck and together made quite a musical feast.

DA: Given that we composed this music in the early 21st century and that we are a group of open-minded individuals who have many influences, we have a very broad concept of what is possible in a composition. We are not attempting to fit within a specific genre, but are experimenting in an effort to each find our individual artistic voice. It offers relief and empowerment to know that we have a mini-community called Alchemy Sound Project where our experiments are safely received and expertly brought to life.

AML: I realize that you are a quintet, with trombonist Willem de Koch and drummer Max Wood added for this initial session, but to be honest with you I really enjoyed the extra textures that the addition of the trombone made in each piece. It gave a chance for one of the saxes, for instance, to combine with the trombone and trumpet or flugelhorn when the other sax was playing, a chance for the trumpet and trombone to play off the reeds (sometimes oboe or bass clarinet with tenor sax), etc., which added richness to the scores. Do you think there is any chance that you might consider using a trombonist (or perhaps a jazz cello) on a regular basis for that very reason. or do you wish to remain a quintet without trombone or drums?

EL: We actually came up with this particular instrumentation for the very reasons you have outlined and we plan on continuing this specific instrumentation in future recordings. We are also considering the option of substituting other instruments in order to explore different textures and combinations in the future.

ST: I think Erica answered this really well. Trombone will most likely be a mainstay, but we are also excited about having different guests for different projects. Possible string quartet, and / or percussion, possible electronics and out of the box collaborators.

DA: We are not a quintet per se, but rather a composer-performer collective seeking to explore possibilities. We augment our initial composer-performer core with other musicians; this is based on logistics such as where the recording could conveniently take place given our diverse schedules and home locations, and for the reasons you outline above.

AML: This gives me a chance to discuss sound texture with you. I noticed that most of you have full, rich tones on your instruments, almost (I would say) a classical sound that you’ve transferred to the jazz idiom—again, a hallmark of a lot of late ‘50s-early ‘60s jazz, when this was finally becoming the norm rather than the exception. When you play as a group, do you listen as much to each others’ particular timbres as much as the notes played? In other words, when one solo follows another, are you trying to capture the specific sound of the preceding solo, whether it be mellow or a bit edgy, in constructing your own?

EL: For myself, I would put it the other way around, as my experience as a saxophonist has always been in the realm of jazz and jazz improvisation. The ability to blend and create certain textures as an ensemble is applicable to both genres, and reacting to the musical conversation that has just preceded one’s entrance is of course as an improviser an influence in one’s own response. Not in a conscious way, but just a natural flow of musical expression.

ST: As jazz artists I think that we are trained to be in the moment and respond in various ways as it happens. Quite honestly, we had so much music to learn and pull off in less then a week, that I think we were all focused on trying to play as well as we could and concentrate on the task at hand. We really did not have the luxury of thinking about all of that, not consciously anyway. But being improvisors, being open to sounds and one another, listening and responding is the stuff we do.

DA: I think all musicians hope to cultivate their sound, regardless of genre. After all, sound is the medium through which we operate. Jimi Hendrix had a great sound and he was neither jazz nor classical, or perhaps he was both and much more. The richness of our individual tones is the result of many years of tenacious practice and careful study. We each have been influenced by the sounds of other musicians who came before us. When we play as a group, sonically we are the sum of our individual selves. One aspect of musicianship that we all develop is the subtle, unconscious ability to blend into the sonic landscape (or to stand out when appropriate). This happens on an unconscious, pre-verbal level and is something musicians cultivate over the course of their lifetime.

AML: Do you have any live performances lined up for Alchemy Sound Project as a group and, if so, are any or all of you also pursuing solo careers outside the group or are you committed to staying a unified whole for now?

ST: Right now we are trying to pull together a tour for Alchemy Sound Project on the West Coast and East Coast and hopefully the recording will help the process along. We are all pursuing solo careers outside the group, along with a commitment to continue pushing Alchemy Sound Project into new territory. We are all also very active with our composing outside the group.

I was composer in residence with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra last year through the New Music USA program. My last symphonic work was composed for jazz trio and orchestra, dedicated to and inspired by Malala Yousafzai and performed by the NorthWest Symphony Orchestra this past February. I also wrote a composition called Rust for the Seattle-based new music group Scrape.

We are all interested in using our experience to fuel Alchemy Sound Project on an ongoing basis and to push ourselves as composers and as a band to greater heights, individually and together.

Erica composed Mantra for drum set and orchestra, which was performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Other orchestras have expressed interest in programming this piece. She is constantly active in writing arrangements for various projects at Bard College where she teaches composition and arranging.

Samantha recently composed an orchestra work called Global Concertos featuring a diverse array of world music soloists. She is also active in several Seattle-based groups who perform her jazz and rock-tinged compositions.

Salim is writing and performing jazz music in Durban, South Africa with South African musicians and is on faculty at the University of KawaZulu-Natal.

DA: Our band members live in Washington, California, New York and South Africa, so gathering all members as a group has been a rare occurrence! The entire group has been in the same room at the same time for less than a week total. It is a testament to the modern world of communications and technology that we can form a collective across such great distances. We will utilize our recordings to apply to international music festivals, and we are looking into booking short tours.

I have spent 30 years playing in jazz combos and 25 years performing in orchestras; my life is split equally between jazz and classical. My academic degrees are in classical, which granted me greater access to classical performers. Therefore I have written more works for classical settings than for jazz.

For example, I composed Voyager: Three Sheets to the Wind, a double concerto for double bass, tenor saxophone and orchestra. The recording with the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra (Astral Travels, Navona 5015) features Alchemy Sound Project member Salim Washington as soloist. I also wrote a piece for Alchemy Sound Project member Erica Lindsay. It is a double concerto for violin, saxophone, strings and harp called Viritidas. In both works, I weave improvised elements into a larger through-composed structure. One might consider these works to be a blending of classical and jazz, but ultimately these pieces reflect much broader influences.

AML: I’m wondering how much of the finished performances follow any sort of score, or is much of the “routining” improvised as well as the solos? In other words, are these written scores with holes left open for solo work or are the entire compositions malleable, so that not just the order of the solos but portions of the work could change from performance to performance?

ST: All of the compositions on this recording have scores and the solos are improvised, with the pieces being choreographed in a way that provides for group improvisation as well as individual improvisation. The pieces are malleable in that the scores allow for a variety of approaches and a combination of possibilities.

AML: I’m sure that the compositions I heard on this first CD are just the tip of the iceberg. You all must have other, perhaps many other, scores that you want to record for posterity. I guess what I’m saying is, I hope there is another album in the works, and if so, when do you think we might see it?

ST: We have another recording in the works for June of this year, which will be released sometime in the next year or sooner.

AML: Thank you for your valuable time! I really loved your CD and want to hear more!

EL: Thank you so much, Lynn!

ST: Thanks, Lynn. Thank you for your enthusiasm and positive response. It is greatly appreciated!

DA: Thank you Lynn. Your thoughtful review shows your knowledge and love of the jazz genre and beyond!

AlchemySoundProject - Cover

FURTHER EXPLORATIONS / WASHINGTON Charcoal, Clear, Beautiful All Over; The Call. LINDSAY Further Explorations; Beta. BOSHNACK Alchemical; Divergency. TONOOKA Waiting; Joie de Vivre. AREND Her Name is Love (after Janáček); Archetype / Alchemy Sound Project: Samantha Boshnack, tp/fl-hn; Willem de Koch, tb; Salim Washington, oboe/a-fl/bs-cl/t-sax; Erica Lindsay, t-sax; Sumi Tonooka, pn; David Arend, bs; Max Wood, dm/perc. / Artists Recording Collective (no number, available as download from Amazon and the artists’ website, http://www.alchemysoundproject.com/recordings.html)

Here is the debut release of a new group reflecting the state of jazz in 2016, yet also reaching back to the pre-freeform and fusion days of the late 1950s. All the many and varied influences of that long-gone era seem packed into their explorations in sound: cool jazz (Charcoal, Clear, Beautiful All Over), funk jazz (Alchemical), modal jazz and experimental jazz. One hears echoes of the Chico Hamilton Quintet, the Miles Davis Quintet, the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, plus touches of Charles Mingus and George Russell. And what did all these groups (except the Ramsey Lewis Trio) have in common? A blending of classical elements with jazz, which is the Alchemy Sound Project’s stated intent. In short, Further Explorations is a treat for the ear, a smorgasbord rather than a tightly planned and scheduled musical meal. We get bread, salad, soup, entrée and dessert, but not in the normal order! And, as it turns out, this is the way Sumi Tonooka describes their work in the accompanying press release: “Everybody brings different dishes to the table and we’re all enjoying and tasting and delving in and creating something new out of it. That makes it fun for us and interesting to the listener because it’s not just one flavor. It’s all of us.”

Starting things off is Salim Washington’s Charcoal, Clear, Beautiful All Over, and despite the varied musical styles within this CD this opening track is a good indication of the way you hear the band: as diverse threads rather than as an ensemble unit. Like the music itself, this septet is comprised of different threads coming together, not a solid sound in which brass plays against reeds as in the old days. This opening track is a ballad, centered around the composer’s lovely playing on bass clarinet, with different threads of sound and texture emerging and dissipating as the musical flow seems fit. This is followed by the deceptively simple-sounding Further Explorations by Erica Lindsay, taken at a slow 3/8, built around a simple but elusive ground bass on piano with Washington now on alto flute, backed at times by Lindsay on tenor sax and at others by Boshnack on trumpet. This piece almost has the feel of an Alomzo Levister type, except that Levister usually wrote out nearly everything including the solos. One of the more striking features of this recording is that, like the old Red Norvo Orchestra of the 1930s, they keep the brass playing low in their registers in order to effect a more unified blend when they mix with the reeds. Here and there in this piece the tempo becomes suspended and we get a small taste of Mingus-like “free” playing (from the era before “free jazz” meant polyphonic chaos). Since Washington is on flute here, I would assume that the tenor solo on this track is by Lindsay; it’s striking in that her tone sounds more like an alto than a tenor. Possibly taking a cue from some of those ’50s players? Later on, when the tempo relaxes into suspension once again, the soloist is Arend playing an arco solo on bass.

One thing you quickly learn with this ensemble is that they are listening to each other intently; no one is flying “off the handle” here, and this is particularly important in the funk-soul-groove piece Alchemical by Samantha Boshnack. The hard bop/slightly rock beat is modified by the shifting rhythms of the bass and drums which keep it from sounding too much like a disco piece. Tonooka’s piano comes to the fore here in a surprisingly (for this type of music) flowery solo, mixing trickling runs with chunky chords before a tenor solo (Washington?) dominates, sounding a bit like Sonny Rollins. Not a bad thing! I was most impressed by this group’s use of space; they never quite stay in the same groove too long, but keep changing tempo and occasionally the key to mix things up—yet they always seem to maintain a musical flow.

Tonooka’s Waiting uses relaxation and space in a modern way without sacrificing lyricism. Here the reeds, trombone and bowed bass do blend together briefly in the beginning to produce a truly lovely cushion of sound, then there is a brief free-form outburst before we return to the slow-moving melody. This is a very Mingus-like trait, and indeed the music sounds even more like Mingus when it moves into the faster section with its growl trumpet (Mingus loved the way Ellington used growl trumpets and always tried to incorporate them in his own bands) and a double-time tenor solo that reminded me of the kind of work Booker Ervin did with Mingus. I was particularly struck by the way Tonooka’s piano continually shifts in rhythm as well as color behind the various soloists (and the whole band). At times she sounds like McCoy Tyner, at other times like Bill Evans, yet this is only meant to explain the effect her playing had on me. As a total unit, she sounds like no one but herself. After a couple more free-form breaks, we return to a placid mood with Washington on alto flute and more bowed bass and the music drifts along to its conclusion.

Beta is a rollicking piece, kicked off by pizzicato bass, that sounds as if it is in 6/4. Here Washington switches to the oboe and the two brasses (trumpet and trombone) alternate between playing together and playing against one another. More tempo shifting occurs, bring the piece in and out of various meters (without seeing the score, it’s hard to judge exactly what they are) before returning to the 3 ½ for some slap bass and piano improvisation with trumpet (or perhaps here it is flugelhorn) and sax interjections. On David Arend’s Her Name is Love, based on a piano piece by Leoš Janáček, the piano is omitted entirely and, again, multiple tempos vary the pace of the music. Here, Boshnack certainly does sound as if she is playing flugelhorn, and Arend varies the classical structure of Janáček’s original work by introducing solo breaks and, later, completely varying both rhythm and harmony in a manner reminiscent of Willem Breuker’s Kollektief. An Arend original, Archetype, follows, moving into a straightahead jazz feel after the somewhat complex opening. This piece sounds the most to me like the old Miles Davis Sextet, full of life and joie-de-vivre.

Boshnack’s Divergency almost seems to have a Baroque “ground bass” working underneath the quirky melody, written in 4 but with the drums (and horns) splitting up the meter in unusual ways. Tonooka’s piano continues this ground bass feel behind Washington’s oboe solo, which then leads into suspended chords before the pianist plays an unusual, sparse solo while the drums and bass now fracture the time behind her. Despite the generally quiet feel of this piece, there is so much going on in a subtle way that one must really listen to it twice to catch all the subtleties, e.g., the way time is continually displaced behind Boshnack’s trumpet solo, or the harmonic quirkiness of the quick ride-out figure.

The pianist’s own Joie-de-Vivre follows, described as being a combination of classical counterpoint with the music of Mali. Happily, the greater structure given to this piece by the counterpoint as well as by the unusual harmonic layer make it more cohesive than pure Malian music which relies on repeated motifs played by (mostly) percusion instruments. There is also built-in counterpoint when the trumpet plays off the trombone, and another moment when Tonooka plays her own left hand against the right before Mingus-like figures in very close harmonics enter the picture. A Sonny Rollins-like tenor solo follows by Lindsay while Tonooka continues to play the Malian rhythm underneath. By now this rhythm has come to predominate, so that when Washington enters on oboe he is “riding the wave” along with all the others. This is also one of the few solos on the album where a bit of “outside” playing is heard. A nice polyphonic ride-out wraps things up.

The final selection, Washington’s The Call, is also multirhythmic in a way that defies easy description, and moves in and out of brief “free” segments, recalling such Mingus pieces as Pithecanthropus Erectus. It’s such a pleasure to hear modern jazz musicians pushing the envelope for a change! Boshnack is also surprisingly busy in her solo, at the end of which the bass doubles the time briefly, making us think we are moving into a faster section (but we’re not). This is, it turns out, a compositional device used to heighten tension on and off behind the soloists as they perform. We even get a wee bit of Pharoah Sanders-like screeching in the ensuing tenor solo, but all is intelligently played and it is rather amazing how well the soloists feed off each other. They don’t always pick up on the last phrase that the previous player has laid down, but they do incorporate snippets and elements of the preceding solos in the ones following. Arend briefly flies way up into the cello or viola range on his bass, an amazing bit of virtuosic display, while Tonooka takes over again, Wood plays a rare drum solo, and we ride out on the same quirky melody with which we started.

This is a superb debut album. One can only hope that this talented group can either continue to produce music on this high a level or, better yet, become even more interesting as time goes on. I wonder, however, what they would sound like without the trombone and drums, which were “added” instruments for this first release.Can we persuade them to keep these musicians in the band?

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz

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