The charm as well as the challenge of the new free jazz trio Easel seems to stem from its ability to negotiate sound – not necessarily music, but a vocabulary of sound – through a series of disconnecting improvisations.
When Easel succeeded last night during its 70 minute Outside the Spotlight performance at the Rasdall Gallery of the University of Kentucky Student Center, it presented aural vignettes of startling mood and color. When it didn’t, it sounded like a band in limbo tossing out found sounds in hopes of a connection that often sat just beyond its grasp.
Sitting centerstage last night, literally and figuratively, was drummer Michael Zerang. His roots with OTS stem back to the 2002 concert by the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet that essentially launched the series, although he has been only an occasional returnee since then.
Last night, Zerang’s playing was something of a tease as he coerced long elastic sounds from the snare with his hands and later with a variety mallets and sticks. During the first of three untitled improvisations that made up the program, his percussive experiments matched the similarly exploratory sounds of Swiss reed player Christoph Erb (on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet) and frequent OTS guest Fred Lonberg-Holm (on amplified cello and guitar).
Their playing – at least, initially, purposely strayed from the tonal possibilities of their instruments. In its darker and more disparate moments, the music sounded like a tune-up – a scattering of ideas that would only briefly merge. One very intriguing point came when Zerang and Lonberg-Holm created a plaintive dialogue that sounded like the distant cries of birds. In other words, out of seeming disarray and fracture came wholly unexpected flashes of harmony.
The sounds flowed from there. During the second improv, Erb placed a bottle of water into the bell of his saxophone and shook the instrument as if it were a percussive device while Zerang used two small cables to create a vibrating hum on his drumhead – an odd acoustic sound that mimicked an electric one.
The third improv, though disappointingly short, was the pay off with the three players discarding the sound safaris in favor a suggestion of melody that brought their respective instrumentation together. The result served as an almost pastoral coda to a program that seemed to luxuriate in its own restlessness.