Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT) can squeeze 65, maybe 75 people into the large front parlor of the house it inhabits. It’s at the top of a hill in Berkeley, just blocks (very uphill blocks) from campus, in a quiet, almost wooded neighborhood populated by grad students and associate professor types.
So CNMAT’s David Wessel and his helpers had their hands full as they packed ’em to the rafters Friday for two sets by Roscoe Mitchell and the legendary — now even more legendary — Henry Grimes.
Mitchell comes to the Bay Area every now and again — it’s likely he and Wessel go way back — but Grimes, celebrating his 75th birthday sometime around now, was a rare treat. He’s moved back to New York, and despite a high-profile concert at Los Angeles’ Redcat last weekend, he’s not likely to come back West very often. (If you’re not familiar with Henry’s longshot return to the music world, read the details here. Great story.)
Those of us who couldn’t squeeze into the 8:00 set were allowed to buy tickets for 9:30. I walked back to Shattuck Ave. for a bite to eat and returned to find the first set ending. People were filling the doorway, peeking into the house; I’d later learn that others were in the stairwells and hallways, unable to view the stage but just listening.
I waited with a few others lingering in the outside courtyard. We heard Grimes’ violin and bass painting colorful, darting backdrops for Mitchell’s sax.
The second set probably followed the same format as the first: a 50-minute improvisation, then a sort, energetic capper. No break, and no words from either performer until the “thank you” at the end. Mitchell cycled through four saxophones, while Grimes shifted from one bass technique to another — bowing, different modes of pizzicato — with a short stint on the violin as well.
Mitchell held off the fireworks at first. For one long, early stretch, his alto sax stuck to multiphonics and high, unnatural squeaks, a solo built of extended technique and sculpted sound. I have to admit my attention wandered, but Mitchell’s stamina was admirable.
That stretch set the audience up for a more traditionally jazzy phase, where Mitchell suddenly unloaded a merciless barrage of notes, full sheets-of-sound mode. Crowd-pleasing stuff, in a sense, but it helped give you the sense that, yeah, this guy is a big part of jazz history, and he’s still got it. Definitely a highlight.
Grimes’ playing followed many of the patterns on his solo album: scratchy bowing cycles, fast pizzicato. He added some jazz walking as well, providing a rhythmic step behind some of Mitchell’s excursions. That worked well, with one exception, when the sax mood (I’m remembering it as a plaintive march) just didn’t mesh with an upbeat walking rhythm. It was a diversion, a pause at a roadside stop that didn’t turn out as interesting as expected.
I couldn’t see much of Mitchell, which is why he’s in no photos here. I could see Grimes’ hands, though. His violin playing was much more deliberate than I’d guessed. Parts of his solo album sound like wild sawing, but visually, his playing seemed deliberate, fluttering from string to string rapidly, tossing double-stops into the mix occasionally. The violin was a good rapid-fire foil for some of Mitchell’s sax excursions.
Speaking of which — the encore was a brief, fast, upbeat improvisation with violin and soprano sax. Grimes bubbled over with energy, and Mitchell produced wolfing, hongking noises while bobbing up and down, eyes wide, as if he were a muppet playing a horn too big for him. They played it up for laughs, and it was a nice way to end the evening.
Bonus: The bass Grimes played is the one that belonged to Matthew Sperry. (See this entry.) Phillip Greenlief has been babysitting the instrument, lending it out to his students and supplying it to visiting musicians for concerts. There’s still music in it yet to be played.