Fresh Cello

Fresh Cello

by Rahsaan Clark Morris

copyright © 2005 Rahsaan Clark Morris

June 21st, was the date for the third concert in Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art's series Jazz on the Terrace. The featured performer that night in the imaginative series that has new improvisational music artists on the east terrace of the museum during the one free day of the week was cellist Frederick Lonberg-Holm with his trio.

Fresh from the Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, and performing pieces from his newest effort Other Valentines, Lonberg-Holm and his trio made music that was not only new in form but new in presentation, when you think that the melody instrument and lead voice of the group is an instrument usually associated with a chamber music ensemble. And in the chamber ensemble, the cello is usually a melancholy voice at that, but in Lonberg-Holm's hands, that voice is infused with wit, jocularity, and just a little foolishness.

Like throwing the audience off balance by starting the set with a fairly recognizable tune like Toots Thieleman's "Blusette". The tune was set to a three-four time signature, just like the original, but in every other aspect — melody, harmonics, structure — the tune was interestingly de-constructed. It was a sly way of preparing the audience for what they could expect from the rest of the performance.

I was already familiar with the work of Lonberg-Holm from years back when some people at the Jazz Institute of Chicago gave me a batch of what they called "avant garde" CDs and in the bunch was Lonberg-Holm's Personal Scratch, one of the most forward-thinking solo efforts for cello that I had ever heard. The pieces themselves were splintered, angular works, so quirky that I thought sure his bow would have to be frayed to death when he was done.

Then, of course, over the years I would see him in ensemble with others from the Ken Vandermark/John Corbett/Empty Bottle crowd of experimental instrumentalists, though never as a leader and never in a solo context. So, in that way, I too was kind of thrown off by the MCA performance, but pleasantly so.

With the assistance of bassist Jason Roehbke and drummer Frank Rosaly, and with electronic enhancement triggered from a small series of pedals hooked to an amp, Lonberg-Holm created some beautiful vignettes, the titles of which evaded the listener because the announce mic was not as clear as the system mics hooked to the instruments. As I listened to the group I was reminded of some of what the music critics of the '60s called the "Third Stream," which was an attempt by jazz artists such as Gunther Schuller and John Lewis to fuse classical music modes with improvisation.

One experiment that I don't think was done with Third Stream concerns in mind was the quartet of saxophonist and clarinetist Eric Dolphy with George Duvivier on bass and Ron Carter on cello, and Roy Haynes on drums for the Prestige date from 1960, Out There. The specific thing that brought the Dolphy group to mind was the way Lonberg-Holm and bassist Roehbke would occasionally both play pizzicato when Roehbke would take a solo. Most times, though, Roehbke would play pizzicato and Lonberg-Holm would be in the background playing arco, to sometimes stunning effect. One piece was done with the melody and basslines played entirely pizzicato. Rosaly's subtle stick and brush work provided the right amount of support throughout.

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