by Glenn Siegel
Between the shruti box, the harmonium, the accordion and circular breathing through the clarinet, James Falzone’s Allos Musica Ensemble had the drone down. Their concert, produced by Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares, filled Hampshire College’s Music Recital Hall with deep resonance on Thursday. On the shruti box travel case was the sticker “Drone Not Drones.” I liked that.
The shruti box, a small, bellowed drone instrument, is usually played with hands Falzone explained to Jason Robinson’s Amherst College students the next day, but since he needs both to play the clarinet, he conceived and commissioned someone to fashion a bike lock and foot pedal into a system that allows him to play it with his foot.
The 75-minute concert, attended by about 50, was super sonorous, filled with material from the Ensemble’s brand new recording, Gnossienne (on Falzone’s Allos Documents imprint.) The quartet performed three of Erik Satie’s Gnossienne, a series of traditional dance melodies from Brittany (far-west France, where Celtic influence is strong), music from the Balkans, West Africa and the Middle East, and originals by Falzone. The music, like Falzone’s lovely composition, A Shadow for Thomas Merton, is clearly derived from specific musical traditions that have been mixed into a wonderfully complex casserole of distinct yet fully blended sound.
The extraordinary percussionist Tim Mulvenna, whose ‘kit’ included djembe, talking drum, (West Africa), bodhrán (Ireland), riq (Middle East), bendir (North Africa), bells and cymbals, approaches these traditional drums his own way. He has rigged snares on his bendir and he plays the instruments unconventionally. All evening I marveled at the pianistic dexterity of his fingers, and other unconventional ways Mulvenna made contact with his drums. Once you have the tradition under your fingers, you are free to serve the music in creative ways.
Ronnie Malley, who grew up playing the considerable store of percussion instruments in his home before moving to electric guitar and finally the oud, shared his belief that all music instruction should begin with rhythm. I love this idea; it’s true there can be no great music without rhythmic surety. Malley’s performance on oud and vocals had a deep and melodious charisma about it.
Accordionist Jeremiah McLane lives in Sutton, Vermont, the only member of the band not from Chicago. His New England roots extend into extensive study of Celtic and French music (where he met Falzone) and of course the accordion itself. McLane told stories of dealing by Skype with a master Italian craftsman who was making an instrument for him, without benefit of a shared language. When the conversation turned to Myron Floren, the legendary accordionist of the Lawrence Welk Show, Mulvenna said that he toured with Floren as a teenager. Then in his seventies, Floren would dust the youngsters by playing at impossible tempos. The accordion, which McLane reminded us, is a wind instrument, joined naturally in the family of sustained sound.
Falzone exists easily in multiple musical worlds. Last year he visited with the Renga Ensemble, his new music clarinet sextet. Allos Musica had a very different sound and effect. Falzone is actively involved with liturgical music, jazz, contemporary classical, pure improvisation and folk music from many places, and works often with artists from other disciplines. He blurs, smudges, uses sfumato to make distinct elements meld into one arresting body of work.
“Allos means ‘otherly’”, Falzone writes in the liner notes, “and the ensemble which bears its name has always been a medium through which I synthesize and amalgamate seemingly disparate musical worlds.”
The band’s deep study of traditional practice, combined with its crazy level of musicianship and erudition, meant that we got to have a true multicultural experience at Hampshire College. Thanks to Professor Marty Ehrlich (a long-time hero of Falzone’s) for making it happen.