TWINS at La Dynamo: A 21st Century Jazz Experiment

October 16, 2017

 TWINS is a French-American collaboration consisting of French musicians Stéphane Payen on alto saxophone, Edward Perraud on drums and percussions, as well as Chicago musicians Fred Jackson Jr. on alto and soprano saxophone, and Makaya McCraven on drums, with an electronic twist. This cross-border collaborative effort features unique, unconventional instrumentation with two saxophones and two drums, without the presence of any other rhythmic instruments commonly featured in traditional jazz ensembles, such as the piano or the double bass. Additionally, the group engages in free improvisation with Mike Ladd, a spoken word artist and rapper, rendering the performance all the more interesting in what can be considered a 21st century jazz experience, or a jazz experiment exploring the new, endless possibilities and transformative powers of contemporary jazz.

The concert commenced with an opening act consisting of the duo of Julien Desprez on guitar, and Rob Mazurek on cornet and electronics. The performance featured unique instrument combinations played in non-traditional ways. For instance, the first piece started with oscillating, almost distorted sounds on the cornet, not the type of sound and melody typically expected from such an instrument at the start of a piece. As Mazurek played the cornet, he incorporated movement into his performance, moving the cornet in circular motions in accordance to the ups and downs of the music. At times, the cornet was played in such a way that the music sounded like a whisper – nothing but an airy, wispy sound on the cornet. Desprez’s electric guitar also incorporated movements, such as the sudden jolts of energy on the guitar as the music built up to certain climaxes during the performance. The guitar was played in a non-traditional way in the way Desprez plucked the strings of the guitar, as well as the use of the bottleneck slide to create a quicker, different type of glissando sound than the glissando typically heard in more traditional blues-style music. He also found other uses for sound-making on the electric guitar, such as tapping and using the body of the guitar, its sides, and the fingerboard as a percussion instrument.

The piece also incorporated voice, technology, and cowbells. The voice improvisation coordinated with the build up of the music played by the electric guitar and cornet. Technology was used mainly by Mazurek with the cornet, where loops were recorded and manipulated by the instrumentalists to create ostinato patterns using an effect pedal. The loops consisted of melodies played by the musicians, as well as more percussive elements resembling the sound of pots and pans, all of which served to accompany the ongoing free improvisation. The most striking of all was no doubt the incorporation of cowbells near the end of the piece, adding yet another new element to the fusion of melody and rhythms.

Amidst the multiple layers of sounds, the screeching and dissonance, the accumulation of different instruments and voice, lies an interaction between the two musicians as they improvised and coordinated to simultaneously accelerate and build up the music through gradual crescendo. The performance was as much about the musicians’ interactions with each other on stage, as it was about their interactions with the audience. Such improvisation demands incredible amounts of coordination between the musicians, made possible by a common flow of energy felt between the two in the music they co-create. Along with the lighting, which changed in intensity, brightness and flashed in accordance with the music, the environment in which these interactions take place has also become an integral part of the musical experience as a whole.

TWINS’ double drums and alto saxophones duo featuring Mike Ladd was also innovative and experimental in that it dealt with a unique instrumentation where the pairs of instruments each played a different role in the process of improvisation. For instance, one drummer kept a steady, repeating beat throughout, while the second drummer engaged in freer, experimental improvisation. In a way, the first drummer’s steady beats served as the rhythmic backbone of the entire ensemble – a reference for a common tempo between the instruments as each took turns with their solos and improvised. The common, steady rhythm could be felt by the five musicians, as seen in their body language and in the way they interacted with each other while having conversations with each other through their music.

The percussive sounds made on the drums were especially interesting, since Perraud and McCraven employed non-traditional techniques and tools to play the drums. This included using different sticks to achieve different sounds on different parts of the drums, using smaller cymbals to hit other cymbals, bending cymbals by hand to create a more muted sound, scratching the surface of the drums using a cymbal or the ends of sticks to achieve more crisp sounds, sweeping the sides of the cymbals with a bow, etc.

It is also worthy to note the different stylistic origins and influences of some of the non-traditional techniques which were incorporated into the jazz improvisation performance. There was the use of less conventional instruments such as the cowbell by hillbilly musicians (Stimeling, 2015), or Schoenberg’s use of the cello bow to sweep the edge of the cymbal in the fourth of his 5 Orchesterstücke, op. 16 – a product of the expressionist movement in classical music (Del Mar, 1983).

Interaction between TWINS musicians was equally as important as it was in the performance of the Desprez-Mazurek duo, since TWINS’ performance consisted of five musicians, all of which had to simultaneously engage in free improvisation. Mike Ladd’s slam poetry made up a large portion of TWINS’ performance. Ladd remained facing the other four musicians during most of the performance, instead of towards the audience, since such improvisation necessitated establishing eye contact with the other instrumentalists. This was especially true in sections of the piece where Ladd seemingly engaged in a “conversation” with the saxophones. Ladd would rap and take part in what seemed like a question-response with the saxophones when he repeats… “what it will be”… “as it should be”… Lad also interacted with the audience in the last portion of his rap, where he freestyled in French, in telling an emotional story about his father and his pipes. With the help of the other musicians, who moved the music according to the lyrics of the slam poetry, Ladd succeeded in conveying emotions to the audience, and evoke feelings of sympathy.

TWINS’ concert at La Dynamo was a prime example of the combination of free improvisation and interaction using new instrumentation in jazz music. It is worth noting that most of the musicians involved in free jazz improvisation did not know each other prior to the performance, and that TWINS only met with Mike Ladd briefly, directly prior to the concert for a quick run through of what was to be expected, and the general direction in which the music would flow and develop. In the spirit of spontaneity, it also happened to be Ladd’s first freestyle in the French language. As we can tell from the concert, no one performance of jazz improvisation is the same. Jazz musicians are experimenting with new instrumentation now more than ever, and interaction between musicians remains an integral part of the performance – it is what holds the different sources of sounds together.