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Handsome Hunk and I volunteered at Earshot Jazz Festival last night. This performance venue was the PONCHO performance hall, part of the Cornish College of the Arts.

The performers were saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Vandermark and trumpeter Nate Wooley. Not surprisingly, I’d never heard of either of them, but both have produced a respectable number of CDs both have quite a pedigree and both have quite a following among jazz afficionados.

Vandermark received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999 and Cadence Magazine’s 1998 poll for best artist and best recording. The younger Wooley began playing professionally at 13 with his saxophonist father. Relocating to the New York area in 2001, the Oregon-born performer quickly gained a reputation as one of the leading trumpeters on the scene. In 2011, Wooley was Artist-In-Residence at London’s Cafe Oto.

I didn’t know who these guys were, so I was curious and eager to hear them, but also had some trepidation. The new music/avant garde labels on these guys got me to wonder if the music would be–you know–interesting; accessible.

My other trepidation came from the saxophone. There’s something about the overtones in the tenor and alto saxophones which affects me. Sometimes jazz saxophonists overblow their notes into squealing and squawking. That affects me like (literally) fingers on chalk boards or fork tines on ceramic plates. I just physically can’t stand it (although I understand that’s me and not the fault of the player).

But I promised myself that I’d roll with whatever happened, suspend all judgement and absorb the experience.

That’s one of the perks of volunteering for Earshot; once your duties are done, you get to sit in and listen to the concert for free.

We were in the lobby when the concert started so I couldn’t hear what was said. Wooley began the set with a slow, languid melody, and I was reminded why I love jazz trumpet: the music, the sound, is as urbane and sophisticated as a rainy night in Manhattan. Wooley delivered that classy bit before kicking off into his free-form riffs. Vandermark joined in and they frolicked like colts in a paddock before Wooley brought the piece back to the simple solo which started it.

We eventually joined the audience to fully experience the performances. Much to my delight, I saw or heard no shrilling saxes. Vandermark played the lower saxes, a baritone and a bass, along with a clarinet.

The concert was pretty free-form. While I didn’t understand the music (it wasn’t very accessible) I appreciated the risks they took in pushing the boundaries of what their instruments could do.

But, still, I had no frame of reference for the music itself (at times it sounded like mating season in the dragon pits of Mordor).

But dear Handsome Hunk put a perspective on it. “It takes a lot of skill to play the way they did,” he told me later. “I saw Jimi Hendrix perform once and he did the same thing–wild, crazy things but I could see he’d mastered his technique brilliantly.”

So I relaxed; I, too, could appreciate that. Reflecting back, I also saw the sophisticated game they played. These songs were not variations on the Great American song book, tunes that everyone knows so well. These melodies were angular deconstructions, and where one musician went–smoothly–the other followed effortlessly. They also introduced more melodic pieces, and some, such as Wooley’s General Sherman, dedicated to his father, were intimate and emotional, as well as soaring and sharp-edged. They moved with ease between the different styles, and the concert was perfect for such a small space. The audience was rapt and expressed its enthusiasm with a curtain call.

The two men proved their mastery in what they did, and certainly displayed that last night, October 11. For those who’ve not heard them, the two deserve to be checked out.

And me? I get it. I’m understanding more and more this complex phenomenon we call “Modern Art” and developing a greater appreciation for it now. Ken Vandermark and Nate Wooley are certainly leaders in that growth, and I’m not sorry I went and am glad to have been a part of their appearance here.

And Earshot continues to deliver such high-caliber events until November 17.

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