We're in Brooklyn at Ibeam, named by the New York City Jazz Record as one of the top five music venues of 2012, for The Coastal Suite by pianist Alan Blackman. This is the radio premiere.
From outside, Ibeam is just a notch in a long warehouse near an industrial canal (and EPA Superfund cleanup site). Inside, it's a warm community space dedicated to presenting experimental music.
"We are as close together as we're ever going to be," Blackman says, "and that's a good thing."
"We" are Blackman's dear friends, bassist Max Murray and drummer Frank Russo; Brazilian guest percussionist Rogerio Boccato; and, up front, saxophonist Donny McCaslin. The audience is toe to toe with McCaslin.
Blackman loves water and music. "The idea for this new work came to me on a trip up the coast of the Pacific Northwest to write music that could sound like what one sees, hears, and dreams while on the beach from before dawn until after sunset," he wrote in a message projected on the wall prior to the performance. "I knew at once that the work of Ruth Brownlee, Shetland Island artist and relative of my wife, contained the necessary elements of light, emotion, ambience, and the sea."
The ten movements of The Coastal Suite spin out as one uninterrupted arc, with solo flights from each player linking the movements, which are accompanied by a slow slideshow of Brownlee's paintings.
In bassist Max Murray's words, "It's a long blow, it's an hour's worth" of stamina, and the paintings have begun to affect him deeply: "You can imagine the temperature, humidity, mist, dew point."
Boccato is a colorist, sitting on his cajon (wooden box) in front of a silver djembe and choosing judiciously among dozens of instruments and toys. As Blackman says, "I need someone that can sound like the rain, shells, the coast," but also have rhythmic input alongside drummer Russo. In "Rising Tide," Russo, a musical painter himself, shifts from sticks to mallets like the moon pulls water.
Between "Steps in the Sand" — a seaside soprano sax melody with a harmonic hint of "Giant Steps" — through his tenor improvisation into the climactic "Coastal Theme," McCaslin "is just as adept at being ambient and free in his improvisation as he is at playing over a great groove with traditional changes," Blackman says. And throughout the suite, Blackman makes like Duke Ellington at the piano, conveying a sense of place in the score and highlighting each musician's unique contribution.
Blackman credits foundation support for the piece being "worked out over a long series of rehearsals, and that was a luxury, and the piece is a lot better because of that." The Coastal Suite is just out on CD with a Brownlee painting as cover art.
The Coastal Suite is made possible with support from the Chamber Music America's 2011 New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.