A deep breath after dropping Wadada Leo Smith at the airport (too) early on Saturday morning.
The UMass Fine Arts Center and the DEFA Film Library have just concluded an extended residency with the great trumpeter and composer, along with his counterpart from half-way across the world: percussionist Günter Baby Sommer.
If Wadada’s visit from California, where he teaches at CalArts, seemed extravagant, Baby Sommer’s trip from his native Dresden was simply over the top. The master drummer was visiting Massachusetts for the first time, spending the better part of a week interacting with artists, students and academics, culminating Friday’s historic concert. And other than a concert in Worcester, and a small performance with Marion Brown in Boston many years ago, Wadada was also a stranger to Massachusetts.
Also in town was the acclaimed German filmmaker, Jürgen Böttcher and visual artist, Strawalde, (who are one and the same), and his son Lucas Böttcher, a celebrated video artist. The elder Böttcher, who turned 80 earlier in the year, was celebrated with screenings of his films at Pleasant St and Amherst Cinema, interviews, Q & A’s with the public and interaction with curators and the collections from Mass MOCA, Clark and UMass University Museum.
The idea that Smith and Sommer could come together from such disparate backgrounds and communicate so deeply, so intuitively through sound, is one of the things that attracts me to this music. Throughout their time together, both on stage and off, theirs was a mutual admiration society; the respect they had for each other was clear. But they actually spent precious little time together during the visit. Other than the hour they spent on-air with me at WMUA-FM, and their 70-minute performance, they were with their respective entourages.
With his drumming and his open-minded and open-hearted demeanor, I have a feeling Günter Sommer made a lot of friends in the Pioneer Valley last week. On Thursday, he captivated UMass music students with his knowledge and humanity. He began with a sketch of his musical development. He talked about the seminal role Willis Conover and his Voice of America broadcasts had on him (and he said every jazz musician he had ever met from Soviet Union and Socialist Europe). He talked of his love affair with American jazz, his mastery of the rudiments.
He told them the story of his nickname: By 1964, Günter was starting to get restless. As much as he loved American jazz, and as much as he understood the cultural, racial and political dimensions of the music, he also understood that if he was going to put his whole being into this music, he had to find his unique contribution, something that reflected who he was. One day in band rehearsal, as he was adding new elements to his drumming, the director stopped the proceeding and started to yell at Sommer, “what are you doing! Do you think you are an innovator like Baby Dodds.” At which point the trombonist in the band says to everyone, “that is not Baby Dodds, that is Baby Sommers!” Since that day, he has carried the name, proudly, he says. And he started to accumulate antique and obsolete European instruments, creating a deeply personal variety of sounds.
The workshop featured some solo playing from Baby and improvised duets with three different students. The students were amazed and enthused to see a musician being creative, using a couple of disembodied pipes from an organ fitted with foot-operated air pedals for instance, or vocalizing in an uninhibited way. He told the students there are no wrong notes, that they are having a conversation, getting to know each other. The students later raved about the hour to their professor, Tom Giampietro.
Baby also played a half-hour solo set at Amherst Cinema on Wednesday, before a screening of “A Place in Berlin”, Böttcher’s look at the evolution of a massive statute of Marx and Engel, that features Sommer and saxophonist Dietmar Desner. Baby’s solo is perfect and a revelation to the audience, none who had seen him perform and just a handful who had ever heard of him. Filled with humor, technical skill, and a fertile imagination, the recital featured an endless variety of sounds and textures, deep grooves and ethereal resonances. Masterful.
The Solos & Duos Series concert was a home run. After the first piece, the audience just kept clapping and clapping, about two minutes longer than anything I had experienced in my 23 years of presenting on campus. The standing ovation they received at the end was spontaneous and heart-felt. Wadada and Baby have been performing together since the late 1970s, when the much-missed German bassist, Peter Kowald brought them together. After Kowald’s passing in 2002, Wadada and Baby decided to leave the bass chair empty. Most of their work has been in Europe. This was their fourth U.S. concert. The concert, including an encore, was about 70 minutes, but felt much shorter. Sommer was a constant bubbling presence, moving from sound to sound, alternating grooves and textures, making music (harmony, melody, rhythm) from a small percentage of his vast array of devices. Wadada, on the other hand played nothing but trumpet, but that was quite enough. Delicate stabs of melody, shards of conversations and accents provided a perfect counterpoint for Baby’s morphing bed of percussion.
This whole project was a true cultural exchange. Everyone involved seemed to sense the profundity of the moment. During a reception at my house on Thursday, in his halting English, Jürgen Böttcher presented me with a beautiful signed catalogue of his work. He told me how meaningful it was to him, to have lived through the war and the Nazi regime, and to be accepted into an American home and shown such love and respect. The feeling was mutual.