The wanderlust audiophiles may find themselves embarking upon a musical journey of Homeric proportions after being inspired this past week, a week where the world came to them. Living true to their name, Musical Bridges Around The World (MBAW) once again hosted the International Music Festival, enticingly paving the path for pedestrians to walk upon and then stand upon to listen.
Seven concerts intertwined to create the brilliantly vibrant musical tapestry over the course of May 14-24, and San Antonio proudly welcomed an even greater cultural palette to its already rich environment.
Sitting peacefully on my front porch last Friday afternoon, I listened carefully to his words. “My primary mode is improvisational, every sound I make is a choice,” he said. “If you really scrutinize the idea of improvisation, it is so basic to us, part of who and what we are as a species.”
From his room inside Hotel Valencia, DownBeat acclaimed jazz pianist and MacArthur Fellow Vijay Iyer indulged my curiosities as he prepped his mind for the upcoming performance at the Tobin Center. Speaking of his collaboration with the classically trained Brentano String Quartet, Iyer riffed on the moment of execution between the two musical forms.
“Classical players are used to enacting the voices of those who may often be long dead, often interpreting,” Iyer said. “The improvisation manifests in the interpretive art of classical, a lot of interaction is taking place – slowing down together, harmonizing, cueing one another, keeping things together. You could call that improvisation in a sense.”
The onlooker that evening could feel the words Iyer spoke earlier that day to me, as he meticulously yet effortlessly fell between the Quartet’s movements, movements that he orchestrated in his commissioned work “Time, Place, Action,” played only for the second time. An exquisite display of all voices (most vivacious amongst them the cellist in my opinion), Iyer continued on from his magnanimous offering in solo work just moments earlier.
Traveling back to his formative years, Iyer waxed in a sentimental mood about the moment a musical bridge was built for him. “One of the pivotal experiences was playing in Oakland with African American musicians when I was 20, they nurtured me and let me be myself,” Iyer said. “The communicative power of the music, people would interact with you, they’d testify in the middle of your solos, responding like we were all in it together. That is the feeling that has been the primary motivation.”
While I may have been amongst the few zealous (or brazen) enough to “testify” in the exquisite yet austere Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater, Iyer certainly established a bond that could be felt more in the stillness and sheer dexterity of his solo piano playing, a true out of body experience as he intended it for a piece entitled “Autoscopy.”
The piece was one of the highlights of the entire week for me; it was literally like “looking at yourself from outside of yourself,” as Iyer intended. Higher register trills coalesced with contrapuntal bass lines that allowed you to seemingly float along the vibrations, an experience that if you closed your eyes (I did) was all the more powerful.
At least for me, as a musician who closes his eyes when he solos, the week-long music was only enhanced, beauty unveiled, when the senses were altered. Colombian by birth, but more realistically from the heavens, golden-fingered Edmar Castaneda blessed the San Fernando Cathedral with a sound perhaps it had never heard, especially from a harp.
My ear buds were not virgin to the acoustic majesty and cherubic chords that were struck off the piously opulent walls of the cathedral, yet I hadn’t been moved with such sheer force by a sound. Foolishly and with too high a dose of expectation, I came in anticipating a calm mellow way to start the evening, balladic interpretations of odes meant for congregations at churches. I should’ve known better, MBAW always pulls out the stops (and the starts, and the stops, and then you think it’s over but they’re still going).
Accompanied to my right by my dear friend Casey (whom I first met at a MBAW event at San Fernando), I was infected by her spirit in interpretation of the pulsing rhythm of the percussionist (who had more instruments to choose from than limbs to play them, but somehow seemed to play all at once) lending a wave for the soprano saxophonist to ride, while Castaneda kept the gentle torrent of wind flowing and blowing the ship along.
A funny woman who had walked by earlier, seeking shelter from a nonexistent storm, or just a place to sit, had been sitting next to me for a few songs, kindly putting up with my dancing in the pews.
“I hope my dancing doesn’t bother you,” I said. She looked at me quizzically. “I hope my dancing is not disturbing you, it’s okay if I dance?”
“Oh, you like dance, yes?” she asked.
Casey asked where she was from.
“Russia,” she replied, and Casey laughed and I started speaking Russian to her. It’s not as sharp as it used to be, so she didn’t get the full intent of the message, but said she liked to dance too and so we enjoyed the rest of the concert in a fun banter of simple ideas and silly dance moves. A musical bridge connecting more worlds.
Somehow I went more than a week without seeing another MBAW show, but perhaps just whetting my appetite for the final performance. It was a true culmination of the week’s circumnavigation through song, back to the roots of all musical expression, the mystically simple and equally powerful Africa.
Donning a wide-brimmed hat with cultural flair yet jazz finesse, progenitor of African roots and jazz rhythm and story-telling from the ’60s onwards, Randy Weston graced the stage of the Ruth Taylor Recital Hall at Trinity University to take the packed house of 308 on an expedition to the place of his inspiration. “We all are instruments,” Weston said. “We have a heart for a drum, and a voice for an instrument, and we each have our own color to share.”
It was clear to anyone with a sense of what live jazz music has the capacity to sound like that we were witnessing not just a stellar, but an interstellar ensemble (sailing to the stars while staying perfectly grounded and rooted in the tradition and playing so cool you’d never know how high they fly).
While the music of Africa is associated for most with the percussive element (which was dynamically present and all too dangerous and exciting for the lesser tame limbs in me) the man who seemed to take the show in Weston’s ensemble was bassist Alex Blake.
Powerful in posture and poised with a mustache meant to put the greater Cowboys and the Cossack to shame, Blake cradles his double bass with tender ferocity, not plucking but plowing through the strings, striking them with such force but with such placement, we weren’t sure if we should be shocked or amazed. Clearly it fell on amazement, as each blow came across as a caress through the sound, singing in time to the duel with himself only affirming even more so that this was the most virile yet sensitive way he could hope to present his instrument’s full potential. Uproarious applause was an understatement to the magnitude of the presentation.
Such an impression is all the more special because it came amidst the honored guest performance from the more delicate yet sensually savvy Billy Harper, Houston-born and tenor-sax held for some decades now. Seemingly unbeknownst to him, he gifted the audience a solo ballad at the kind behest of Weston (a humble and deferential bandleader, letting so much light for his men to shine). The Hall’s carefully crafted design allowed for a rich tone to play off of its walls; a welcome dip in the wave of sound that was about to come.
The pre-finale took us to Africa, specifically to Morocco, a country sacred to Weston, to which the entire ensemble broke out and powered through a delicious and homegrown 20 minutes of organic growth and musicianship displayed in a true African manner. I was whisked away with eyes closed to the continent that I once called home (six years ago now, if not six thousand).
As I danced ecstatically to the finale with my dear friends, while audience members came to the back of the room to more fully experience the joy of the music, I felt the true gift of Musical Bridges Around the World. The human element was so rightly expressed in that moment as each person experienced it in the way that felt right to them, individually evoking their own perfect energy and sending it back out into the space for all others to enjoy. Through that energy a bond was created, a powerful resonance left in the air that sits with us today and will continue every time we commune together and let music tell our story.
You can purchase tickets to next year’s International Music Festival here, and support all their other great initiatives by becoming a member today.
*Featured/top image: Casteneda’s percussionist builds bridges with the youth through his vast percussive display. Photo Courtesy of MBAW Facebook page.