For some heading into Libbey Park for this year’s Ojai Music Festival, the first musical encounter was an oddly alluring sound installation, “Rio Negro II,” which included bamboo sculptures and rain sticks by the multi-instrumentalist and artist Douglas R. Ewart. Evoking Brazil’s black river, the installation suggested blackness and, through the impermanence of sound, the transience of nature.
Blackness and sonic transience happened to be of profound matter to the first Ojai festival in 71 years to make a jazz pianist its music director, although “jazz pianist” barely begins to describe Vijay Iyer’s musical reach. It was Ewart who put it best, bristling slightly at being referred to as an elder at one of the festival talks. Life is like this, he said. “Either you go or you stay. And if you stay, you get old.”
Iyer’s Ojai festival was not about jazz as much as it was about what it means to stay and to pay attention to those who do. Of all of today’s art forms, jazz, whatever else it is, is very good at sustaining those core values.
The flashy festival theme was that codification only gets in the way. After the opening concert (reviewed last week), the 45-year-old pianist joined the Brentano Quartet for his “Time, Place, Action,” a traditional piano quintet written in memory of Amiri Baraka; he put together an Indian-themed quartet for himself, vocalist Aruna Sairam, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and tabla player Zakir Hussain; and he closed the festival with his Vijay Iyer Sextet playing straight-away jazz compositions of the last decade.
In addition, Iyer could be heard in dialogue not only with jazz or Indian musicians but also with Mozart and Stravinsky. The Brentano played Iyer’s completion of a Mozart fragment, the E-minor Allegro, K. 417d, that the quartet had commissioned. Asked four years ago for a companion piece to “Rite of Spring” to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s ballet, Iyer created a piece for him, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and a new music classical ensemble to play live with Prashant Bhargava’s “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi,” a film depicting the Hindu spring festival in India. This was performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble at Ojai on Saturday night in a concert that began with a thin new 12-instrument arrangement of Stravinsky’s “Rite” for ICE that was most exciting in the flamboyant, vital solo playing.
But the power of the festival was, curiously, elsewhere than in Iyer’s own elegant, generous, intelligent and inquisitive music-making. The compelling feature was in what appeared to be Iyer’s own quest to find examples of how to take the next step and make the music your own.
For that he brought some of the great masters of day, with special and illuminating attention on Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. Friday night, Iyer presented the West Coast premiere of George Lewis’ brilliant 2015 opera, “Afterword,” written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of AACM. Sunday morning, the 65-year-old Lewis (who was taken in by AACM as a 19-year-old Yale student and trombonist in 1971), 86-year-old pianist Muhal Richard Abrams (one of the AACM founders) and 76-year-old saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell (who was at AACM from the beginning) got together for an hourlong improvisation.
Now, these really are elders, there is no other word for it. And hearing them on a chilly, misty Ojai morning was — and there is no other word for this, either — shamanistic, to say nothing of being in the presence of the three hippest musicians on the planet.
Staring straight ahead, not at the audience but something more third-eye-ish, Mitchell began by breathing through his instruments, making sounds, not playing notes. Abrams, his keyboard angled away from the audience and his body hunched down so that all you could see of him was his bald head, made a barely audible rumbling noise on the base register. Lewis, who worked a laptop and played his trombone (separately and together), opened a soundscape, connecting breath and rumble with the rustling trees and the sound of car tires on Ojai Avenue.
These musicians have, in the course of long careers, made more kinds of music and mentored more kinds of musicians than most of us could count. But as the Trio they leave their baggage behind and show themselves ready to simply follow the sounds into the bardo.
How they got to this enlightened point was conveyed in “Afterword.” Lewis is another of, and the best of, the uncategorizable ones. A distinguished academic with whom Iyer studied at UC Berkeley and now a professor at Columbia, Lewis has written the definitive history of AACM, “A Power Stronger Than Itself.” He illuminates the often insular music, and the far-from-insular social history, of an organization devoted to finding an original musical voice of black musicians who immigrated from the South to the South Side of Chicago.
The book’s afterword is a collage of those South Side voices, and Lewis adapts that approach for what he calls “a coming-of-age opera of ideas, positionality and testament.” There are no characters, just the voices of a great many sung by three compelling singers (Joelle Lamarre, Gwendolyn Brown and Julian Terrell Otis), as the opera elusively follows the movement: the northern migration, the founding of AACM, the argumentative forging of its ideals, a foray to Paris and finally a better sense of its identity. It is the story of developing a language that allows for complete individuality that can only be developed through community.
I know nothing quite like this opera. The two acts, each around an hour, are grueling to listen to. The vocal lines are rarely descriptive or dramatic and can produce great tedium. The musicians in ICE, who were conducted with forceful concentration by Steven Schick, seem never to play two notes the same way twice.
It takes a long while, like learning a foreign language. You start to catch on to the gibberish. Once sensing the musicians’ collective urge for something bigger than themselves — something that is, in fact, their selves — I found that not just authentic but astonishingly moving. Only when the opera was over did I feel as if I was ready to begin to hear it.
Unfortunately, that was not the case with the premiere of the chamber version of Courtney Bryan’s “Yet Unheard.” It concerns the Texas death of Sandra Bland in police custody. Bryan had the advantage of the charismatic Helga Davis as soloist, backed by a very good vocal quartet, ICE and the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, led by Schick. But the composer’s attempt to find catharsis and identity from tragedy felt like a cliché was around every corner .
The next generation was clearly evident over the weekend, with considerable attention put on Sorey. As a drummer, he is a force of nature, unstoppable. As a composer he is a force of unstoppable nature. In an hour’s worth of excerpts from his exhaustingly inventive “The Inner Spectrum of Variables” for his Double Trio, the violin, viola, cello, bass, piano and drums came unhinged.
With his hands holding as many as four batons, or a whiteboard with instructions of what to do, Sorey enticed members of ICE to reach for their inner something-or-other in an hour of mayhem — “Conduction Autoschediasms for Creative Chamber Orchestra.” This included ICE’s star flutist, Claire Chase, channeling the more extreme of pieces she played earlier in the festival, giving Sorey as much, if not more, than he asked for.
I heard nearly everyone complain that while Sorey’s pieces were extraordinary, they were far too long. But it is too early for him to edit. Let him let it all out, lest he miss something — Richards, Mitchell and Lewis once had to — and let us be patient.
Then again, Iyer may want to think about reining Sorey in a little in the Sextet. A phenomenal drummer he obviously is, but he blew everyone away almost all the time in the festival’s closing set.
Where all this is going musically, who knows? But the festival itself now heads to Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. The festival Monday announced that next year, when the irrepressible violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja is music director, she will take a little Ojai with her to Aldeburgh, on the British coast, where Benjamin Britten founded a festival.
Meanwhile, Ojai needs to pay more attention to Ojai. Six years ago, the city rebuilt the Libbey Bowl shell and did an embarrassingly banal job. There have been a few improvements since, particularly to the amplification. Right now the city is debating whether to spend a quarter-million dollars undoing the worst mistake and build an incline, restoring those with inexpensive tickets views of the stage.
Many like me caught the Ojai bug as a student on that grassy knoll. Either you go or you stay. Were yesterday’s hill today’s flat lawn with flat-screen monitors, my choice might not have been the same.