by Glenn Siegel
Douglas R. Ewart is old school. Lately, he’s been listening a lot to Charlie Parker’s live 1950 recording, Bird at St. Nick’s. (“There’s a version of ‘Out of Nowhere’ that is my favorite,” says the 69-year old reed master.) He reveres progenitors, values relationships, laughs easily and is a trickster.
Ewart was in western Massachusetts last week, performing with pianist Matthew Shipp and dancer Ni’ja Whitson as part of the UMass Fine Arts Center’s Solos & Duos Series. He is resourceful, a collector, a tinkerer in the best sense of the word, taking what’s available and turning it into art. Before the concert and his performance workshop for UMass and Hampshire College students, Ewart had me take him to three area thrift stores to look for trinkets he could transform into instruments and sculptures.
It’s hard to know what was more remarkable, Ewart’s hand-embroidered, buttoned-filled jacket, the variety of instruments at his disposal or the fact that Ewart and Shipp have never formally performed together. Of course, that is the magic skilled improvisers bring to bear: shaping sound, telling stories in real time without a script. “I had to pay so much attention,” Shipp said right after the hour-long concert.
There are plenty of musicians with higher profiles than Douglas Ewart, but few who have had the impact and influence he has. The music is sustained on the shoulders of people like him. A historian and past president of Chicago’s hugely influential AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), Ewart had a large role in the mounting of exhibits at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the DuSable Museum celebrating the 50th anniversary of the organization. He is a world-class sculptor, instrument maker, teacher, poet and musician. He is the embodiment of the multi-disciplinary imperative of the AACM.
Ewart’s range was on full display on Thursday, Oct. 29. Ewart’s homage to the recently departed Ornette Coleman took the form of a poem filled with titles from Ornette’s songs and albums. He delivered the words with drama and impeccable timing. Ewart produced music using English Horn, sopranino saxophone, bamboo flutes, a digeridoo (specially designed with a slide), rainsticks, a painted crutch with bells, and a spinning top. All played at a high level with humor and pathos.
Matthew Shipp, a generation Ewart’s junior, is as well known as anyone in the so-called avant-garde. He has dozens of well-regarded recordings and continues to criss-cross the world sharing his music. His physical approach to the piano is unique. His arms, from the elbows down, pumping horizontally like pistons, his fingers hitting the keys with varied touch. His face contorted in concentration. Like his band mates, he relished the opportunity to expand his circle of musical friends.
“When you have the opportunity to share the stage with two jazz masters, I’m in completely. Completely,” wrote Whitson on Facebook after the gig. Whitson was in constant motion, taking exactly one, 30-second break all evening. Strong and evocative, Whitson never repeated movements, using the area between the piano and Ewart’s set-up to fill the space with beauty, power and pain. Whitson had been a graduate student at the Art Institute of Chicago, where Ewart has taught for many years.
The seed for this concert was planted at the memorial service for Yusef Lateef. I was greatly impressed that Douglas Ewart made the trip from his home in Minneapolis to be there. The conversation started that day. What an honor for me to be the catalyst for bringing three superb artists together to create something unbridled and profound for an appreciative audience.