There's something liberating about listening to music that flaunts all the accepted formulae—that invites you, as John Lennon put it long ago, to “turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.” That’s probably the best way to appreciate Vox Arcana, the Chicago-based jazz trio coming to Chattanooga to play a single show on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at Barking Legs on Dodds Avenue.
Another way to listen to the trio of world-class musicians—Tim Daisy on drums (and marimba), clarinetist James Falzone and cellist Fred Lomberg-Holm—is to engage not just emotionally with their work, but intellectually.
All three musicians have spent countless hours learning to punch way above their weight. Take Falzone. Attempting to capture all he does musically in just a few sentences, Chicago music critic Matthew Lurie seemed at a loss for words: “The only way to sum up the style of Chicago clarinetist and composer James Falzone is to say that it can’t be done,” he wrote in the Chicago edition of Time Out.
Falzone is equally at home playing world music, classical and straight jazz (he recently recorded an album-length tribute to Benny Goodman with his own band, KLANG, a quartet with Daisy on drums). He also writes regularly for a church choir and plays in a band specializing in dance music from Brittany, on the northern coast of France.
It was the celebrated clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre who originally inspired Falzone to pick up the clarinet. At age 10, Falzone was listening to recordings of Giuffre experimenting with free-jazz improvisation in the early 1960s. Giuffre and his trio eschewed the volume and aggression of other free jazz players in favor of a chamber group approach—combining the discipline of The Modern Jazz Quartet with the free blowing of Ayler and Shepp.
Vox Arcana’s performances are a similarly subtle blend of the gentle swing of chamber jazz and the squawking, rambunctious swagger of formless, free improvisation. Each player explores the tonality and timbre of his instrument in much the same way that abstract expressionist painters like Robert Rauschenberg focus on the elements that make up their medium: line, color and form.
Talking with guitarist Dave Miller about Vox Arcana’s music, Daisy defined it as much by what it isn’t as by what it is. “As I’m assembling these pieces in different ways, some of them have a through line narrative and some of them don’t. Some of them are assembled somewhat randomly,” he said.
Similarly, in a YouTube interview, cellist Lomberg-Holm said of his coloring-outside-the-lines approach, “I don’t really spend any time on my own thinking about how what I’m doing now relates to what I do otherwise. That’s a general principle with me, and as a result I‘ve done a lot of totally disparate things that probably have nothing to do with each other.”
All three musicians are as much interested in the possibilities of their collaboration as they are in results. “Piece #1,” for instance, recorded at a performance in The Columbia Museum of Art in 2009, begins with Daisy playing long, rippling lines on the marimba while Falzone interjects short, stabbing squawks with his clarinet. Within less than a minute, Lomberg-Holm joins them, playing a straight-ahead walking bass line, and the piece shifts into a languid swing with Falzone playing Benny Goodman-like lines over Daisy’s gently ticking rhythm. Then, within the next minute, the train leaves the tracks, and everyone blows free. But just as suddenly, the other two players stop dead, and Daisy takes over, playing intricate circular patterns on his stripped-down drum kit—just a snare, two floor toms and a couple of cymbals.
In lesser hands such a cavalier approach would likely result in something akin to cacophony. But when these three conservatory-trained improvisationists come together, it’s often transcendent. Writing about one of their performances in DownBeat, Michael Jackson noted: “The chamber-like osmosis is astonishingly good, only possible given the subtle vibrations and empathetic, versatile talent.”
It’s a relatively quiet week for music in Chattanooga, but even on the busiest week of the year it would be a mistake to overlook these guys. You’ve likely never seen or heard anything quite like Vox Arcana.
$10 advance; $12 door
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 26
Barking Legs Theater 1307 Dodds Ave.
(423) 624-5347 barkinglegs.org