Norwegian saxophonist Ole Mathisen and trombonist Chris Washburne, who met as students in Boston 25 years ago, work at the front line of the quartet FFEAR. Ole's brother Per Mathisen plays bass alongside drummer Tony Moreno in this Oct. 23, 2010, performance at Miller Theatre at New York's Columbia University, where all but Per teach.
The centerpiece is Ole Mathisen's five-part suite Mirage, for which he layers rhythmic grids and uses microtonal harmony to create an orchestration that sounds greater than a quartet. Be not afraid!
"When I started to send this music to the members," Mathisen says, "I almost had a mutiny on my hands because it looks complicated."
The range of Washburne's trombone part extended too low. Bassist Per Mathisen was agitated at being asked to play between the conventional pitches. And drummer Moreno, who took his first lessons from Elvin Jones, asked Ole in exasperation, "11/8 over 13/8? Are you [expletive] kidding me?" Beyond execution, Moreno would make this flow.
Microtonally speaking, Chris Washburne and Per Mathisen have an advantage. Washburne can move his trombone slide micro distances. Per places his fingers wherever he wants to on the neck of his bass. A bit sharp, a bit flat, and you have a microtone. Saxophonist Ole Mathisen had to invent fingerings for the in-between pitches, so vital to world music and jazz.
As Washburne explains, "If you listen to Billie Holiday, she's sliding all over the place... The way that blues singers sang — manipulating those expressive nuances of pitch — gives [jazz] its great emotional appeal."
And though FFEAR uses microtonal scales more systematically, its members want listeners to feel the subtleties as funky, earthy, visceral and emotional — as music.
So think of Mirage as a five-part journey from the familiar toward an illusion. "Haze" starts out briskly and optimistically, then enters troubled waters. The short "Shimmer" is a hallucination. As "Shapes" and "Scenes" develop, the seeds grow quickly and the music becomes dense. Each player has his own tempo and meter, locking together at points along the way.
Approaching his drum solo in "Scenes," Moreno says, "Sometimes I'm just playing for myself, commenting on the piece, looking down on the piece, making a comment."
In the fifth movement, we return to shore, changed by the journey. Washburne marvels at the group concentration, saying, "It's an exciting journey, because with four people doing it, you can go way farther than you can go by yourself." The audience agrees.
Mirage by Ole Mathisen and FFEAR has been made possible with support from Chamber Music America's 2009 New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.
Recording and Surround Sound mix by Duke Markos with Ryan Blumstein of Aura Sonic, Ltd. Thanks to Melissa Smey and her staff at Miller Theatre, as well as production stage manager Brenny St. George Jones. Thanks to Garrett Nichols at WBGO.