Review: John Petrucelli’s Presence Brings Considerable Talent To His Merging of Classical and Jazz
Presenting a concert in a multi-disciplinary world
Picking up where The Glassblock left off last year and as part of a Recital sponsored partnership with the New Hazlett Theater, we are presenting a series of editorially-independent previews and reviews of the 2017–2018 Community Supported Art (CSA) Performance Series. Below is our review of Presence by John Petrucelli, a collaborative response from Recital editor David Bernabo, season review panelist Maree ReMalia, and guest panelist Jason Baldinger. Read their bios at the end of the review. And read our preview of the performance here.
By David Bernabo
For the second performance in the New Hazlett Theater’s CSA series, saxophonist John Petrucelli’s suite Presence melds classical music composition into his jazz practice with the assistance of an all-star crew of musicians. This meeting of a jazz quintet and a string quartet produces a beautiful and deeply engaging set of compositions, but while the playing is consistently on point with musicians admirably navigating tricky and heavily composed passages, there are few moments of true magic — that instant electricity that moves the crowd to inch forward in their seats or to raise their hands in applause for a solo.
It might be a matter of intention — and context. The CSA series has historically presented multi-disciplinary works, works that utilize the space in support of the work — site-specific or at least, site-responsive. Artists are implicitly asked to be intentional with the visual and aural elements in their work.
Presence, presented as a merger of a concert and a recording session with piped-in pre-recorded electronic interludes, tries to walk a few lines without really addressing the visual information on stage. The sense of place is elusive, and without a sense of place, the audience is not entirely sure how to react. Is the setting a concert where we clap for solos? Or should the audience minimize noise for the sake of the recording?
On an elegant stage set with instruments in an oval shape, the band sans its leader casually walks onstage during director of programming Bill Rodgers’ opening remarks. After a short pause, Petrucelli enters and opens the Presence suite with a gentle, tentative solo. Soon, the band kicks in and works its way through a quick and complex series of time signature changes. The piece, “Intentions,” is a fascinating composition, layering harmonies from the string quartet underneath Petrucelli’s saxophone melody, a melody that twists and jukes, leaving behind any audience member trying to count the beats. The effect is instantly exhilarating.
This opening number essentially sets the template for the evening. The compositions, complicated with time signature changes, begin with the head — the first and last chorus or melody of a tune — often backed with string harmonies. Solos emerge, and the strings provide occasional backing figures for the solos as horns often do in a big band or expanded jazz ensemble. Often a brand new section is introduced before the head returns and the piece closes. While classical music elements are added to the mix, the compositional structure places the music in a jazz environment.
Throughout these gnarly compositions, the rhythm section of pianist Brett Williams, bassist Paul Thompson, and drummer Gusten Rudolph ground the ensemble. Rudolph busily works on a polyrhythmic level, dancing around the always solid and centering bass playing of Thompson. Pianist Brett Williams tastefully accents the compositions while providing the evening’s solo highlights — at times channeling the quartals of McCoy Tyner or the elegance of Eric Reed’s Impulse years; providing an engaging solo introduction to the third piece; catching some real fire and reaching an emotional high through interaction with Rudolph in “Summon (the spirit),” a solo that received one of the few audible responses from the audience.
It does take the ensemble a little time to warm up. At the start of the set, there is a visible nervousness, but that feeling fades as the group achieves a few wins — well-executed harmonized melodies from Petrucelli and guitarist Peter Park, a gorgeous ascending closing arrangement to a mid-set tune that seems to lift the stage, and trio moments where the rhythm section works with small, subtle details.
As trumpeter Wynton Marsalis often says, “jazz is music that swings,” and while Marsalis’ definition can be limiting, swing can be an elusive thing especially when you apply the rigidity of classical music to jazz. In the late 50s, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre and horn player Gunther Schuller integrated classical music and jazz, and they did it with a serious swing. That tradition is alive today in percussionist John Hollenbeck’s seriously grooving, but seriously difficult Claudia Quintet and Large Ensemble groups. Balancing adhering to advanced compositional structure with the freewheelin’, no limit opportunity of jazz is difficult, especially if the ensemble isn’t consistently gigging together.
Given the financial and time limits of the CSA series, it can hardly be expected that the Presence ensemble would be playing at the level of a seasoned combo, but the group does reach those heights when guest saxophonist Melvin Butler (of Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band fame) enters the stage. The atmosphere immediately changes. The band starts swinging in a new way — lighter, more agile. Everyone takes more risks and plays with bigger dynamics. It’s a glorious piece, and one wishes that energy would infiltrate more of the set.
Amid the epic compositions are short interludes: environmental electronic pieces developed by sound designer Angela Baughman with tabla playing from Petrucelli. Field recordings mix sounds of nature and urban elements to provide a bright, polyrhythmic break from the angular workouts of the ensemble. The sound is clear with deep bass and a crisp high end, a distinct contrast to the sound emanating from the ensemble.
Presence is billed as both a concert and a live recording. To that end, each musician has at least one microphone hovering near them while the drum kit is surrounded by a clear drum shield. In recording, the drum shield provides sound isolation, keeping exterior sounds out of the drum mics while reducing the bleed from the drums into the other instrument microphones. In a live setting, the drum shield dulls the drum sound unless you are seated to the right of the drum kit. The cymbals lose their high end distinction. The tom drums start to blur. The kick is muted. The audience can still hear each hit and each element of the kit, but from the get-go, the most bombastic, dynamic instrument on stage is hindered.
So, at this point, we need to ask what we are viewing. Is this a recording session or a live performance? If it is a recording session, the audience is not privy to the actions of a producer or engineer or any discussion of the recording as would be expected in a studio. If the primary goal is a live performance and not a performance of a recording, why limit the quality of the sound for the audience?
The CSA series has a history of producing multi-disciplinary performances that aim to break ground. With Presence, the audience gets high caliber composition with an excellent group of musicians, but many other aspects of the performance are left unattended, specifically the visuals.
Presumably due to the complexity of the music, the ensemble has a muted presence on stage. There is head bobbing, a “woo” or two, and a few of those satisfyingly pained looks that arrive when a musician is stretching themselves, but otherwise, the musicians are stationary with heads in the sheet music. The lack of attention to visual information becomes more problematic in the optics of the stage design. The all-male jazz quintet is encouraged by the leader through smiles and gestures, while the all-female string quartet — violinists Melissa Hernandez and Ashley Freeburn, violist Olga Taimanov, cellist Katya Janpoladyan — is very sternly conducted and waved off and on with little sense of encouragement. And while there is something to the autonomy of playing jazz versus the rigid structures and tradition of conducting in classical music, there is a noticeable difference in how the string and jazz musicians interact with Petrucelli; an uncomfortable difference.
One can imagine this set of music as an exciting record — and it will be — a compositionally impressive suite of angular, exciting new jazz. Or as a nightclub gig — a loose atmosphere where the band can dig in and get wild, where it’s ok to miss a few cues because the energy is there and the audience is with the band no matter what. But couched in a performance series that asks artists to explore the space, to push their interdisciplinary boundaries, Presence only partially works. It’s a nice evening of progressive jazz music, but within the CSA context, the piece needs to be transformative.
Or another view — this performance of Presence is a great start. The CSA series is a great opportunity, but it comes with limits of funding and limits of preparation time. There is no avoiding that fact. With Presence, difficult material was performed well by ace musicians, and now is the time to take the music and own it, gig it, and expand upon the possibilities that the compositional structures allow. This is great music, but it needs more time to sink into the skin of the musicians.
Jason Baldinger is a poet from Pittsburgh. He’s the author of several books the most recent of which, the chaplet, Fumbles Revelations (Grackle and Crow) is available now, and the collection Fragments of a Rainy Season (Six Gallery Press) which is coming soon. You can hear Jason read his poems at jasonbaldinger.bandcamp.com as well as on a recently released cassette by the band Theremonster.
David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Host Skull and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger.
Maree ReMalia is a choreographer, performer, and teacher. Born in South Korea, and raised in the Midwest, her work celebrates diversity by opening possibilities for who dancers are, what they look like, how they move, and how they train. merrygogo is her platform for creating project-based performance works with communities of shifting collaborators. Through her choreography and teaching, she draws from improvisational methods across disciplines and the Gaga movement language to build community and make space for people to make new discoveries in playful and inquisitive ways.