Wowed in Kent, CT! This past weekend, Saturday and Sunday, The Sherman Chamber Ensemble performed its annual “Jazzing Up the Classics” with three core members and three guest musicians. With five composers on stage and with an adept arranger in Susan Rotholz (who has recently joined The Orchestra of St. Luke’s), they created what appeared to be a 1970s Happening where talented musicians pushed each other into virgin growth. Classical musicians were asked to play jazz and jazz musicians were asked to play classical music. On the surface this sounds like a proposal for disaster, but these musicians were so talented that their eclectic menu delivered a mercurial cornucopia of delight. They were on stage having fun, exuding contagious pleasure.
The Ensemble (Eliot Bailen playing acoustic guitar and without drums) opened with Sam Reider’s “The Murderer,” a meandering yet haunting elegy influenced by Enrico Morricone. Reider, accordionist, piano player, and singer was a wunderkind jazz player who has turned international folk composer with strong American roots. Having recently toured in seven countries, he performs with regularity at Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as numerous festivals. “Swamp Dog Hobble,” a funky jazzed country tune (video of this tune appears below). Reider, playing in Bill Evans style, switched to piano for “Wanderings” which allowed each instrument to perform a solo variation on a mellow, meditative theme. “Skeleton Rag” began with gypsy-inflected jazz, then segued to Brazilian jazz with an attractive solo by Rotholz before plunging into American folk. Reider’s inclination is to find musical links between disparate styles and genres.
With formidable bang, drummer Chris Parker (who had been sitting unobtrusively on the sidelines) began an original, amusing jazz rant entitled “Inferno Avenue.” Bailen on cello, Rotholz on flute, and Reider on accordion performed excerpts from Felix Mendelssohn “Songs Without Words.” I didn’t quite know what to make of this unusually novel arrangement; it was exciting yet I would have to hear it again. Reider’s ballad “Too Hot to Sleep” followed. This chameleon-like piano piece with the whole Ensemble is the restless title melody for Reider’s new album with Silber City Bound, due out in February.
Changing gears, Rotholz on flute and Eddie Barbash on alto sax, played two opera duos from Mozart and Rossini. Rotholz and Barbash had invented a sax arrangement for one of the two flutes. The Mozart contained smooth mirroring that contained an attractive baroque balance, while the Rossini, based upon a folk tune, permitted more dynamic contrasts, especially in the explosive conclusion.
Next year is the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. In anticipation for the celebration, the Ensemble played “Some Other Time” from On the Town with exuberant verve. They followed with Bob Dylan’s sardonic “Don’t Think Twice” with Eliot on guitar. The modest yet excellent bassist in the back, Thompson Kneeland (also a composer and arranger) provided a new arrangement for Duke Ellington’s classic “Angelica.” This was a smash and worthy of recording.
Eddie Barbash took to the floor for a standout solo of the ever-popular Mexican melody, “The Mariachi Song.” The flute line of this tune sounds like an Irish folk melody yet all the other instruments sound as if they have consumed more tequila than is sensible. Nearly equally raucous, they concluded with Sam Reider’s “Baku,” composed in 2016, when he was traveling abroad with the band Silver City Bound as good-will ambassadors sponsored by the U. S Department of State, a program I presume is now defunct, since the current regime appears not to believe in either good will or diplomacy. This piece was a mélange of Azerbaijanian, Syrian, Turkish, Kurdish, and American tunes.
While the concert program at St. Andrew’s Church in Kent (they had played to a nearly full house the day before at Christ Church, Pawling) appeared to be all-over-the-place in terms of period and style, there was such energetic intensity of music and confident familiarity with varied tangents that I found the music intoxicating and arrived intellectually at what they were all hinting at: music as an Otherworldly healer, domestically and internationally.