Contrafacts at McClintock Recital Hall

By Yasmeen Altaji

18 Nov, 2019

Live jazz wears its own brand of charm often characterized by layers of sound that follow any listener through a performance space — an acoustical dialogue born of intertwining melodies and instrumental banter. It’s an experience that, as one who appreciates jazz, I like to think I’m used to, and one that I thought I’d be ready for when it came to Monday evening’s Contrafacts, a showcase of what the Bienen School of Music described as students’ “new musical composition[s] built from preexisting one[s].”

With that in mind, upon entering the all too familiar McClintock recital hall at the Bienen School of Music, I followed through with the remainder of my show-coverage routine; I found a seat with a camera-friendly view of the performers, jotted down some notes in the program booklet and prepared to listen to what I had anticipated would be an ordinary performance and its subsequent easy write-up. 

But as soon as the first group of the night launched into the sharp entrance of its first number, I realized the novelty of that charm, how getting “used to it” is a fantasy that may never come to fruition. I was stunned, caught off guard by the immediate display of virtuosity by the musicians in front of me and wondering how I’d get my eyes off of the performance to write something substantial for this very article. Here’s what I did manage to get down. 

The aforementioned trio, the Darius Hampton Ensemble, comprised of Clay Eshleman, Alex Carroll and Ethan Siau on piano, bass and drums, respectively, clearly started the show by setting the bar high. First on the program was Eshleman’s contrafact of “I Got Rhythm,” which he dubbed “Calculus” for the nature of its chord progressions — something he called a reminder of “how hard calculus was in high school.” Despite its reputation, however, the piece seemed to flow through the ensemble with ease. 

The occasional single note repetition in the bass by Carroll grounded the piece while Eshleman scaled the heights of the keyboard in buoyant character, a practice that continued in his second composition, “922,” a bright, electrified rendition of Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean.” The piece was ornamented with percussive sizzles and running triplets in a rolling, liquid cascade of sound fit for its title. 

The small ensemble’s final number, “Coffee Habits,” penned by Ethan Siau based on “Fly Me to the Moon” by Bart Howard, showed off a fusion of Latin beats and traditional western jazz, pinnacled by a brief tripling of the melody line by all instruments that commanded the room before leading up to rhythmic switches that grabbed the audience’s attention. Siau’s writing is expressive and masterful, both traits that easily shined through this fast-paced, energetic piece that flaunted the synergy and dynamism of a combo so instrumental to the jazz genre.  

In the second act, the six-member Joe Clark Ensemble took the stage with piano, drums, bass, guitar and, in an arguably unorthodox move, two trombones. 

The troupe’s performance of percussionist Darsan Swaroop Bellie’s “Earmuffs” upheld an exchange of suspenseful call-and-response between an outstanding melodic line and the echo of the rest of the ensemble. Trombonist Emma Blau’s composition, “Soup,” and its clear and crisp piano line carried out by Siobhan Esposito alongside drums like fireworks provided by Swaroop Bellie had focus and intent laid into its foundation by Blau’s skillful writing. “The Green Light,” written by guitarist Shanth Gopalswamy, shortly followed, riddled at several points with parallel motion and a frantic yet pensive guitar monologue. 

Between the soulful improvisation by members of the three-man group who dominated the first half of the night and the detailed melodies put on paper by those in the larger ensemble that followed, Contrafacts served as further proof that Bienen Jazz is nothing short of a powerhouse.