In spite of the huge quantity of recordings that I get to listen to on a monthly basis, this triplet of discs represents my very first encounter with Stanley Schumacher’s output. A technically advanced trombonist also utilizing the voice (who actually began with the euphonium), Schumacher has covered several roles in his career, which comprises experiences ranging from Dixieland and swing to modern orchestral compositions. An assortment of situations and projects saw him actively involved until – in 2003 – he founded the ever-changing Music Now Ensemble. All of the records examined in this article were recorded under this flag. According to the liners, “at any given time, Stanley may be heard playing unorthodox music in unorthodox places throughout the Mid-Atlantic states”.
Released in 2006, this album contains an energizing collaboration between the leader, Hans Tammen (guitar, electronics) and Ricardo Arias (balloons) except for the final “See Sharp”, which features Richard Smith on tenor sax and Larry Pittis on bass and electronics. The trombone belongs to the category of instruments which, in the right hands, can maintain a slight extent of lyricism even in the most absurdly noisy circumstances. In that sense, Schumacher seems discreetly content to keep his timbral regularity in check, utilizing a corpulently concise and slightly garrulous approach throughout, despite repeated attempts by his cohorts to deviate the whole towards the extremities of audio range.
“Bad Diversity” is the lone episode which proposes the leader’s vocal ingenuity, with not really memorable results. Tammen’s endangered guitars, whose innovative yet nonchalant vibrancy is still culpably underappreciated, chew splinters and shards of regular chords with impassiveness, the substances deriving from those dissections a fundamental element in the economy of interplay. Arias, who extracts mercilessly ear-distressing squeals and yowls and impressive low-frequency quaking from manipulated latex, is the somewhat antithetic constituent (or indispensable divergence) of the trio. The Schumacher/Smith/Pittis track is a completely different proposition, a static piece that gives a sign of respect both to Phill Niblock and Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band and their “long-tone-reverberations-in-a-cistern.”
On paper, this is a superb line-up: the nominal boss as ever on trombone and voice, plus Nate Wooley on trumpet and David Hofstra on tuba. The upshot is substantially agreeable, yet somehow I was expecting additional adventurousness, while the music remains confined with few exceptions to the limits of a “familiarly dissonant” counterpoint (at times eliciting Stravinskian reminiscences to yours truly). Things don’t change when the artists try to explore disparate kinds of pitch in a modified ambiance – the title track utilizes some degree of processing, but those echoing juxtapositions end up sounding stale, especially when the voice is involved. In general, a major issue is the excessive homogeneity generated by timbral contiguousness. While it is true that the instrumental ranges are (obviously) different, their mass and cholesterol-increasing fattiness is exactly what prevents the interplay from really taking off.
Even the passages where, hypothetically, “the listener can no longer follow the contrapuntal lines and must instead focus on textural evolution” (as per Steven Eversole’s words), it results in unimposing, if always completely listenable music. A welcome exception is to be found in the three movements of “New Idiom, Now.” In the first, appreciable is the concurrence of Wooley’s muted mosquito phrasing against a relatively static groundwork from Schumacher and Hofstra, who play lengthier, sparser tones. In the second it is the trombonist who acts as the “soloist” in a beautifully sombre chiaroscuro setting, silence playing an important part in the overall sonority. The third section returns to larger doses of harmonic awkwardness and rhythmic disparity, the trio’s colloquial expertise yielding more sustained interest. The beginning of the concluding “Double Trio” is another high point, the musicians appearing as single protagonists of their respective registers, yet demonstrating a cohesive unity more here than anywhere else in the record.
DON’T ABANDON YOUR BABY
The “recent” CD in this triptych dates from 2008 and is correspondingly the most histrionically oriented release, influenced (rather sardonically, we suppose) by German Expressionism “which, in music, reached its zenith in the operas of Alban Berg, which explored the dark, subjective side of our existence”. Partners in crime are Rosi Hertlein on violin and vocals and Evan Lipson on double bass. Professor Musikmacher – a fictitious character described as “a long-time associate of the State Mental Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania”, of course played by Schumacher – is the implicit fourth element, credited with “oral arts.” These “recitations” arise specifically in the title track and in the final, somewhat tiresome “Free Us From All Anxiety.” A mother’s sense of anguish deriving from the abandonment of a newborn should imply the ideological foundation of this cross-pollination of conceptual weight and impromptu virtuosity, yet my focus instantly fell upon the superlative technical eminence of the involved parties. The notes shine, growl, talk and exclaim, the listener inclined to fuse the distinct personalities into a sole entity to appreciate the consistency of the collective interrelationship, which generates several episodes that connote the model of a sophisticated chamber trio (case in point the excellent “Second Thoughts”).
In particular, Schumacher’s playing sounds as modest as it does intelligent, privileging the highlight of selected nuances and connective fragments to the necessity of playing forcibly front and centre, his presence fundamental to furnish the music with a peculiar class of dissonance. The strings are a spectacle in themselves, vivid examples of authoritative idiosyncrasy in somewhat heretical talent. Hertlein makes us forget about the lenitive virtues of violin, depriving her charm of any residual saccharine in favour of a enviously irrefutable skill, whilst Lipson easily stands among the best bassists I’ve heard lately, his terrifically strapping tone epitomising the decision to really learn how an instrument works. Once again, though, it must be told that the vocal constituents – which amount to a lesser quantity in each program – are not on a par with the exquisiteness of the instrumental blend, acting more as detractors from the overall excellence than functional elements in the great scheme of things.
My ultimate impression after three days spent with this material is essentially optimistic. I may be reluctant to agree with the most exaggeratedly theatrical insertions, which are frankly unimpressive to this writer’s ears, but as far as technical deftness and transparency of intents are concerned, Stanley Schumacher is unquestionably a name to consider. Amidst an ever-growing number of posers, he is a craftsman who plays his instrument instead of disemboweling it, an artist who ceaselessly looks for new collaborative methods. I’m quite sure that fans of the late, great Paul Rutherford will be eager to give these discs a serious try.
~ Massimo Ricci