Friday, August 30, 2019

The Great Black Music Ensemble will perform in Minneapolis. Here are 3 reasons to go.

The Great Black Music Ensemble by Michael Jackson
Originally published at, August 30, 2019

The Great Black Music Ensemble (GBME) will make its Twin Cities debut at the Cedar on Friday, Sept. 6. These Chicago-based musicians are masters of improvisation and creative music. Here’s where we might add, “The GBME is like so-and-so, or sounds like so-and-so,” except there’s no comparison. They are wholly original.
The Cedar, the American Composers Forum (ACF) and the Schubert Club have partnered to bring the GBME here. This is a collaboration we don’t see every day: the eclectic West Bank music venue, the national service organization for composers and booster of contemporary classical music, and Minnesota’s earliest arts organization and presenter (mostly) of classical recitals.
The three nonprofits found common ground in wanting a Twin Cities audience to hear and experience this singular group – how it sounds and what it stands for.
For the ACF, Friday’s concert is a kick-off to its daylong Racial Equity and Inclusion Forum, which will take place Saturday, Sept. 7, at TPT. The forum is free, but reservations are recommended.
ACF President Vanessa Rose said in a recent interview, “I want nonwhite artists to have the platform and space to tell their own stories, write their own music, and be recognized on a greater scale than our organizations have done in the past.” The concert and the forum are steps in that direction.
Schubert Club Executive and Artistic Director Barry Kempton has been broadening his organization’s audience since 2014, when he launched a new series called Schubert Club Mix. Designed to take the formality out of classical music, the concerts are held in nontraditional venues and the music is a mix of old and new.
For the Cedar’s Executive Director David Hamilton, the chance to co-present the Great Black Music Ensemble “comes at an opportune time for the Cedar as we’ve started to expand our historical definition of global music by including more experimental and improvisational music and jazz in our programming.”
Those are their reasons. But what about you? Why should you spend next Friday night with a bunch of musicians you probably don’t know and music you for sure haven’t heard?
1. Because of who they are.
The GBME is the premier performing group of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). That’s a very big deal.
Founded in Chicago in 1965 during the Black Power movement and the civil rights movement, the AACM is an artists collective that nurtures and promotes experimentation, individualism, innovation and originality. It is a musical revolution that began more than 50 years ago, when free jazz meant cultural freedom, and continues today. Its contributions to modern music are immense and include thousands of hours of recordings.
A mind-blowing number of important and influential musicians have come out of the AACM.
Henry Threadgill won the Pulitzer Prize. George Lewis and Anthony Braxton are MacArthur Fellows. Jack DeJohnette, Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell are NEA Jazz Masters. Mitchell is also a United States Artist Fellow. Wadada Leo Smith is a Pulitzer finalist. Nicole Mitchell, Threadgill, Smith, Abrams and Lewis are all Doris Duke Artists; Lewis is also a Guggenheim Fellow. His history of the AACM, “A Power Greater Than Itself,” won the American Book Award. Several AACM members are or were professors at major colleges and universities.
The mighty Art Ensemble of Chicago (whose motto “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future” says it all) was formed by AACM members.
The AACM has spread to New York City. Its members, now numbering more than 130, are making new music all over the world. Its 50th anniversary in 2015 was widely celebrated in concert halls, at festivals, in museums and art centers, including the Walker.
2. Because of the music.
The GBME’s July performance at Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival was “an amalgamation of sounds that ranged from the fluidity of jazz improvisation to moments of pure funk, urging festival attendees to dance as much as they could” (Third Coast Review). Their music is filled with improvisation and invention, but it also draws from other black music traditions: funk, reggae, swing, African and Caribbean styles.
Here are two short segments from a performance by a larger version of the ensemble. The first is from a composition by Saleek Ziyad called “Ancient Creation.” It imagines ancient civilizations before colonization, and it’s played with such joy. The second is from “Move: An Afrofuturistic Ijó” by Tomeka Reid.
3. Because of who’s playing.
The GBME is intergenerational and flexible in size, ranging from three to 30 musicians. The group at the Cedar will be 13: Ernest Dawkins, soprano, alto, and tenor sax, and clarinet; Taalib-Din Ziyad, flute, alto flute, voice; Adam Zanolini, flute and bass flute; Ben LaMar Gay, cornet and electronics; Stephen E. Barry, trombones; Darius Savage, acoustic bass; Alexis Lombre, piano; Edward House, tenor saxophone; Dee Alexander, voice ; Sam Trump, trumpet and flugelhorn; Reggie Nicholson, drum set; Donovan Mixon, electric guitar; Art T. Burton, congas and bongos. The repertoire will be drawn from the great pool of AACM composers.
This will be the first time the GBME has performed in the Twin Cities, but AACM artists have played here often over the years – some at the Dakota and the late Vieux Carré, many at the Walker, where performing arts curator Philip Bither has long been a fan and supporter. Key AACM members Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill and Douglas Ewart have all performed at the Walker, some several times. Threadgill celebrated his 75th birthday there earlier this year.
The relationship between the American Composers Forum and the Great Black Music Ensemble will continue beyond this weekend. On Wednesday, the ACF announced that three composers have been commissioned to write new music for the GBME: Elizabeth A. Baker, Adegoke Steve Colson and Rudresh Mahanthappa. Each will receive a $7,500 commission. The premieres will take place in Chicago in fall 2020 as part of the AACM’s 55th anniversary season. Sounds like a good excuse for a trip to Chicago.

Friday, August 23, 2019

How heartbreak led to a breakthrough

The father of a child with health issues, Twin Cities musician Chris Thomson learned to trust his skills and rediscover the joy of creativity.

Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, August 23, 2019

Chris Thomson/Cedar Thoms
Courtesy of the artist
Call it a comeback, a rebranding, or both. After four years of infrequent sightings, Chris Thomson, a highly regarded tenor saxophonist, returns to the Twin Cities music scene — as Cedar Thoms, electroacoustic artist.
The photo for his new album, “Celestial Being,” shows a young boy facing distant mountains. He’s small and slight, and the back of his neck looks tender and fragile. The letters CEDAR THOMS wrap around him almost protectively.
The music is optimistic and uplifting. Saxophones and clarinets float over and twine with electronically generated sounds, plush and layered, rhythmic and percussive.
The title refers to his daughter, Eden, who was born in May 2015. She was sweet and beautiful but small. She struggled with eating and vomited after she ate.
Doctors were consulted and tests were done.
Just after the holidays, a blood test revealed that Eden has a rare genetic abnormality described as “a chromosomal deletion on the q arm of the 12th chromosome.” There are four or five known cases in the world.
“We were told that Eden likely won’t walk and might not talk,” Thomson said. “It was a horror story.”
Over the next several months he and his wife, Emma Nadler, a therapist, helped Eden endure major surgery on a tiny, twisted intestine, a feeding tube, bouts with pneumonia, a hydrocephalus scare, countless doctor visits and multiple hospital stays.
“We’ve seen her in some precarious places,” he said. “It was kind of — your time is not a given. You assume you’re going to be here, but you just don’t know.
“It was a visceral experience.
“I didn’t want to go through the door of despair and hopelessness. [The album] was a way of creating something and staying hopeful and representing something for the kids, my wife and myself.”
A personal breakthrough
Thomson’s first full-length album since 2007’s “The Three Elements,” “Celestial Being” will be available online Tuesday. Two nights later, he will play an album release show at Icehouse in south Minneapolis with Martin Dosh.
Chris Thomson and Dosh. Courtesy of Icehouse.
Except for Greg Schutte’s drumming on two tracks, everything is written, programmed and performed by Thomson (known as C.T. to his friends and colleagues).
In the years before Eden — and her 7-year-old brother, Avi — the saxophonist performed widely and often. Besides gigging with his own quartet, he worked with Delfeayo Marsalis, the New Standards, Mason Jennings, Anthony Cox, Aby Wolf, Chris Morrissey and Dave King, among many others. With support from the Jerome Foundation and the State Arts Board, he created and performed the music for an evening-length work by TU Dance.
Today, if Thomson wants to play a show, “I have to secure a PCA [personal care assistant]. I have to pay someone, often more than I’m going to make, so my wife is not overburdened with the two kids, who both take their own energy. Emma’s super-supportive — I couldn’t ask for a more supportive partner — but I have to really, really care or it’s not worth it.”
Touring with Bon Iver in 2016-17 was worth it, but tough. Thomson was part of the saxophone section for “22, A Million,” Justin Vernon’s third studio album. He played with Bon Iver on the West Coast, in New York and Europe.
“We were playing in some of the most incredible places,” Thomson said. “I was at the peak of my external experience as a musician, and Eden was in the hospital and not doing well. Here’s this high, amazing time, grounded in a daughter in the hospital and my wife trying to hold it all together while I’m across the country. It was really rugged, and really rugged on my partnership with Emma.”
Shortly before they learned the news about Eden, Thomson released an EP called “Empathy” with his jazz quartet (Patrick Harison on accordion, James Buckley on bass and Cory Healey on drums).
The music explored how fatherhood had made him face his own demons, become more patient and develop empathy for his son. Avi is a high-energy child — “his own little force,” Thomson said.
In early 2017, the family sold its two-story house in southwest Minneapolis and moved to a one-story home in Deephaven to be closer to Nadler’s parents. “They are crazy generous and supportive,” Thomson said. “They have been monumental in helping us stay sane and afloat.”
A year or so ago, Thomson and Nadler shared what he sees as a major breakthrough.
“We were on a walk together, and it had been a hell of a run — pretty awful — and we both realized how much joy and happiness we get from creating. Sometimes I wish I had other skills besides music skills, but this is what I’ve got. This is what I’m working with. You’ve just got to own what you’ve got.”
With the new album and the new name, Cedar Thoms, Thomson is also sending a message. “I want to collaborate. I want to find people who think what I’m doing is interesting and work together. I’m sending up a flare. This is what I do. Does anyone else feel this way?
“Cedar Thoms and this music is my reopening to the love I feel for music, the community of musicians we have in this region, and the creative process. It’s saying I don’t want to have despair. I want to have hope. … The end goal of all of this is I just want to make good music.”
‘The hope is there’
As Thomson sees it, “ ‘Celestial Being’ is Eden.”
“She was a small, ethereal creature. She is so sweet and innocent, and she’s gone through such an insane journey in her first four years. She’s also so joyful, considering what she deals with. Not to be too graphic, but she throws up multiple times per day. She goes through it, and it’s done, and she pops right back into her little sweet, joyful spirit.
“It’s crazy. I don’t know how she does it.”
Eden is on her way to being 5. She’s growing, she’s walking (with braces), she’s talking and reading. Starting in the fall, she’ll attend preschool three hours a day, four days a week.
She still has a feeding tube, but her parents are hoping that won’t be forever. “The problem is, for the first chunk of her life, she equated eating with pain. … There’s a doc we went to in Boston, a highly regarded gastroenterologist, who did a study on Eden a couple summers ago. He’s seen kiddos in her situation outgrow it. So the hope is there.
“We’re in consultation with occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, gastroenterologists, a developmental pediatrician and pediatric neurology. It’s a treadmill of medical appointments. … With Eden, I have no expectations of what will or won’t happen. I’m mostly at peace with that.
“You know how you have a lot of expectations for your kids and what you want them to be? All bets are off with her. It’s heartbreaking. And in a way — in a really interesting alternate universe — it’s liberating.
“I feel these songs come from an unconscious place. From being open. I let go of the theory, trusted in my music skills and let my unconscious speak. That’s totally Eden’s effect on me.”