High Notes: Witness jazz masters in the flesh with a season heavy on the horns

Legendary guitarist John Scofield joins the Jazz St. Louis season.
Legendary guitarist John Scofield joins the Jazz St. Louis season.

High Notes: Witness jazz masters in the flesh with a season heavy on the horns

Local fans of classical music usually rally around the world-class St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, but on Wednesday, September 19, the celebrated organization might divide rather than unite. As if forcing its patrons to pledge loyalty to either the traditional or modern camp, the SLSO is hosting two disparate programs in one evening. For the traditionalists, the group plans a Pops Concert on Art Hill in Forest Park, sprinkling favorites by the likes of Mozart and Sousa with kid-friendly selections from The Wizard of Oz and Pirates of the Caribbean. For the modernists, select members of the symphony will perform daring works by twentieth-century composers during an installment of its Pulitzer Concert Series at Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, the organization's outlet for relatively intimate performances of music that appeals to a smaller niche audience.

The SLSO's Pulitzer concert focuses on piano duets, starting with Maurice Ravel's disarming Ma mère l'oye [Mother Goose] suite and the woozy En blanc et noir by Claude Debussy. The evening closes with John Adams' 1996 cinematic composition Hallelujah Junction, the sonic embodiment of watching dotted lines pass in a blur on a desolate stretch of Wyoming interstate.

Hallelujah Junction's repetitive patterns draw frequent comparisons to Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley, the triumvirate of composers attributed with birthing the minimalist movement of modern classical music. Terry Riley himself makes an appearance at the Sheldon Concert Hall on Monday, September 17, this time predating John Adams' work, so to speak, by performing in St. Louis two days before he does. Riley's previous local performance, a joint concert with the Bang on a Can All-Stars and Philip Glass in 2004, was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of his earth-shattering masterpiece In C. The Sheldon concert sees Riley on piano and vocals, accompanied by his guitarist son, Gyan Riley. Together, the Rileys have performed fully written works, vaguely scored pieces and completely spontaneous compositions. Predicting what the duo will perform on any given evening is futile, a testament to both musicians' versatility and their restless spirits.

Terry Riley's performance is curated by the HEARding Cats Collective, an organization formed in 2009 by former SLSO percussionist Rich O'Donnell and his wife, Anna Lum, after parting ways with the St. Louis New Music Circle. Their departure didn't deter the long-running philanthropist of the avant-garde; the re-staffed New Music Circle, with the notable addition of local electronic improvisational legend in the making Jeremy Kannapell (a.k.a. Ghost Ice), continues to promote cutting-edge concerts 50 years after the group's formation.

While New Music Circle's schedule lacks a headliner with as much pull as Terry Riley, its eggs are well distributed among its many baskets this fall. Mephista Trio, the headliner of the Saturday, October 6, season opener at the ballroom of Washington University's 560 Music Center, is a strong thesis for NMC's mission supporting collaboration and experimentation. The unconventional New York group consists of drummer Susie Ibarra (who is praised by the influential jazz magazine DownBeat), pianist Sylvie Courvoisier (who appears to be John Zorn's go-to pianist as of late) and laptop-wielding sound manipulator Ikue Mori (who previously played drums in pioneering no-wave band DNA). Mephista Trio's gorgeous improvisations display Zenlike concentration and near telepathic communication. While similar to free jazz, the group's sound can't be confined, even within that loose a genre.

For those who prefer the (slightly) more structured and (again, slightly) more conventional side of jazz, the New Music Circle hosts the Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet at the Luminary Center for the Arts Saturday, November 3. A dynamic cornetist and composer, Bynum is more of a ringleader than a bandleader. He guides expert musicians, many of whom also play with saxophonist and avant-garde icon Anthony Braxton, in half-sketched exercises that collectively recall Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis or Ascension-era John Coltrane. Of particular note in Bynum's group is Mary Halvorson, an unassuming guitarist capable of wispy gentleness and unnerving explosions, two skills she freely employs in Bynum's sextet.

Despite her abstract tendencies, Halvorson's style is far from inaccessible. Just imagine her as the evil twin of established guitarist John Scofield, who performs Friday, September 28, and Saturday, September 29, at Jazz at the Bistro. The 2012 Jazz St. Louis season boasts contemporary masters Marcus Miller and Terence Blanchard, but Scofield is this fall's wild card. Like his buddies Medeski Martin & Wood, John Scofield is known for blurring the lines between the funk, jazz and jam-band scenes. Although some have viewed his crossovers as pandering, his cross-genre success is a product of his chameleonesque musicianship. Scofield is one of the best team players in jazz, a promising attribute in his current trio with unpredictable drummer Bill Stewart and upright-bass pioneer Steve Swallow.

Music fans who thrive on the outer fringes of classical and jazz, or those who are simply looking to extend their palates, have much to look forward to in the coming months. Whether the offerings from St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, HEARding Cats Collective, New Music Circle and Jazz St. Louis are traditional or modern, conventional or abstract, consonant or dissonant, composed or improvised, the music within is certain to be both perfectly executed and absolutely stunning.

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