Leaders of free jazz convene for a month-long homecoming



The late-‘80s were largely a tumultuous and creatively stunted period for jazz culture — but when tenor saxophonist and flautist Ras Moshe was cutting his teeth as a young player, he had the benefit of membership in a distinguished family line (his father and grandfather were both prominent saxophonists who performed with greats like Earl Bostic, Ella Fitzgerald and Stanley Cowell). What was even more important to Moshe’s growth into a performer on the vanguard of free jazz was his mentor, the late Jimmy Vass — who, along with developing a successful recording career, had been holding a series of open workshops and jam sessions at a small music center on East Seventh Street called the University of the Streets. Showing up to play through tunes with a top-flight saxophonist was key for Moshe as a student of the art. But the experience also served to create a lasting connection with the space itself, and the community of performers within it.

A couple of decades later — and with his own success as an improviser now firmly established among his peers — Moshe is still happy to have a home at the University of the Streets.

“I didn’t foresee that it would grow into this relationship,” he said, “but I’m really glad to be involved.”

It’s now clear that what Moshe received from that small community of jazzmen — the gift of musical guidance that was so vital to his formative years — is something that he has paid back in full. Along with becoming a leader of the open workshops he once attended as a youngster, Moshe will be featured as the curator of Streets’ June concert series.

Founded in 1969 and led for many years by Muhammad Salahuddeen (who passed away in 2007), University of the Streets began its curated programs last October. Moshe, who was also the curator of the March series, quickly saw the value of theses concerts not only to local residents, but also to sustaining a vibrant and welcoming community for both veteran and up-and-coming jazz musicians.

“I know the feeling as a musician, to have that quest to get your music out there,” he said. “[Working with the series] started as an outlet for my projects, and it expanded into incorporating other musicians, which made sense. Everybody I play with there is there is my friend; it’s never an elitist thing. It’s become like a family, and that’s important for the music.”

That open atmosphere will be on display nearly every night throughout the month of June within the Muhammad Salahuddeen Memorial Jazz Theatre. An intimate performance setting that seats about 60, the theater has an underground feel that sets it apart from mainstream jazz venues. Lined with peculiar shrubbery and photos of classic musicians who once took the stage, it’s clear upon arriving that — though it’s always populated by a group of tightly knit musical cronies — the music here is for everyone to enjoy.

“It feels revolutionary here,” said Leanna Ficano, a Brooklyn resident, as she sat waiting for last Wednesday’s show to start. “The atmosphere has a kind of unique heart and soul.”

Moshe, performing several times this month as a sideman, will be featured as a leader when his Music Now! ensemble plays on June 6 at 8pm, and his eponymous ensemble plays on June 8 at 8pm and June 15 at 10pm (each show costs $10).

Though he is this month’s figurehead at the University of the Streets, Moshe is not alone in his search for new heights of improvisation. Here are some other artists who plan on stretching jazz’s tonal boundaries throughout June.

The Michael Dessen Trio

Michael Dessen (trombone and electronics), Christopher Tordini (bass) and Jason Nazary (drums) will be performing, in its entirety, the seven-piece, hour-long suite featured on their latest recording — “Forget the Pixel.” Dessen’s composition is one that defies the expectations of a jazz performance piece — not just by spanning a wide dynamic and harmonic range, but also by creating a very personal and engaging portrait of his artistic mantra. As he writes in the album’s liner notes, “Music has long been a tool to change our understanding of time, to learn to feel its articulations in new ways. This music zooms in and out of different durational scales and pulse feels, stretching and savoring the grain of rhythmic counterpoint, and magnifying details of time, color and texture.”

Each of Dessen’s ideas are expanded to their intellectual limit, as he and his trio blur the lines between improvisation and composition. His superb use of electronics never dominates the music, but elevates it to a level that creates a raw and poignant representation of the rapidly changing culture we live in.

The Michael Dessen Trio will perform on June 16 at 10pm ($10). Find them online at mdessen.com/music, or buy tickets for the concert at secure.gigmaven.com/events/5416/orders/new.


TranceFormation (vocalist Andrea Wolper, pianist Connie Crothers and bassist Ken Filiano) was founded on a concept of collective improvisation that is so free — and so spontaneous — that the trio doesn’t even have to worry about rebelling against any norms or preconceived notions of their art. “We have a three-way inside track that’s based on both personal and musical affinity,” says Crothers, who studied under the legendary Lennie Tristano and recorded with iconic drummer Max Roach in the ‘80s. “We get very affected by the sounds we hear, and sometimes we respond to each other in a way that’s not very ‘musicianly.’ ”

Wolper’s addition to the trio is especially unique because of the way she constantly bends and redefines her role as a vocalist — she uses her voice purely as an instrument, spouting both lyrics and tonalities at will to create what Crothers considers a free soliloquy. Regardless of what inspires her at any given moment, “It’s not just random words,” says Wolper. “It becomes a story.”

TranceFormation will be releasing a new album later this year that will feature live recordings done at The Stone (in the East Village) and Korzo (in Brooklyn) in 2009 — but don’t expect their performance at University of the Streets to be anything like those. Every show displays a new side of the trio, and they answer to only one guiding force: personal and collaborative creativity. As Wolper said when describing her reason for choosing the trio’s name, “When I play with these two other people in this particular formation, I feel like I go into a trance.”

TranceFormation will perform on June 28, at 8pm ($10). Find them online at myspace.com/crothersfilianowolpertranceformation, or buy tickets for the concert at secure.gigmaven.com/events/5986/orders/new.