Sunday, May 15, 2016

Like hearing with new ears: Ataraxia at the Grackle Art Gallery, 5.14.2016

"We're Ataraxia," said the musician and visual artist Dennis Gonzalez at the end of his new trio's performance, their second-ever public outing, at Fort Worth's Grackle Art Gallery last night. The occasion was the opening of "The Enigma of Divination," a show of Gonzalez's works on paper that runs through May 28. A quick google search revealed that Merriam-Webster defines "ataraxia" as "calmness untroubled by mental or emotional disquiet," which makes it the perfect appellation for the unit, which was formed on the quick when Gonzalez had a date to play at the Benbrook Public Library's "Music Monday," and scheduling conflicts prevented Yells At Eels, Gonzalez's regular trio with his sons on bass and drums, from making the gig. Unlike YAE, a unit whose intensity is informed by Aaron and Stefan Gonzalez's love for punk and metal as well as free jazz, Ataraxia's music is quiet enough for them to be able to play in a residential neighborhood like the one where the Grackle is located without generating noise complaints.

Ataraxia occupies the same sacred and ritual space as YAE does in its quieter moments, and the setting, surrounded by Gonzalez's artwork, replete with magical and dreamlike images ("I have no idea what they mean," he maintains), was conducive to contemplative listening. (Perhaps a space that's not lit for an art exhibition might be even more so; a thought for next time.) The set began ceremonially, with the sound of gongs, bells, and small instruments, before bassist Drew Phelps -- fresh from a country gig with Ginny Mac at Fred's Texas Cafe -- started the opening tune, "Namesake," which Gonzalez originally recorded in 1987, during a period when he was performing and recording with the cream of the American and European jazz avant-gardes. Sri Lankan percussionist Jagath Lakpriya picked up the rhythm on tabla, propelling the music forward with a light but certain touch. Gonzalez's trumpet was run through a couple of electronic effects, including a harmonizer, that gave his sound dimension and depth. One advantage of this format is how it throws the physicality of music making into more brilliant relief, accentuating the nuances of sound production.

The trio paid tribute to David Bowie with a straightforward reading of the A section from "Black Star," the title track from the iconic rocker's final album. They continued with a Phelps original, "Boink," that Gonzalez said was in 31/8 time but proved to be a muscular groove for the bass and percussion to lock in on, with a tortuous line on which Gonzalez shadowed the composer the way Don Cherry used to shadow Ornette. The next tune* was sung in Spanish by Gonzalez, with wordless vocal counterpoint from Lakpriya. The closing number, Gonzalez's "Hymn for Julius Hemphill," was an appropriate choice for a show in the late reedman-composer's hometown, with Phelps digging in and playing some deep blues that an observer characterized as "gangster." Comparisons between Ataraxia and the jazz-"world music" fusion trio Codona reminded Gonzalez of the time he almost collaborated with Codona tablaist-sitarist Collin Walcott (before that musician's tragic and untimely death in a car accident while touring East Germany in 1984). But the new group's sound is their own, a blank slate, like hearing with new ears. It'll be interesting to find out what directions they follow as their identity develops.

* ADDENDUM: Dennis Gonzalez writes, "The song is called "Herido (Wounded)," first recorded on The Hymn Project CD with Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, with words by St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic, a Roman Catholic saint, a Carmelite friar and a priest who lived in the late 1500's in Spain."


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