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Improvisers invade Denver

Improvisers invade Denver

December 6, 2008

Hi, Lorenz Rychner here again. Do you like improvised music? I’m not talking about a rocker shredding a lead solo, or a jazzer taking choruses after the head, but about the entire genre of improvised music, as nurtured by the International Society for Improvised Music ( What a treat it was to hear some great players this weekend here in Denver! 


When you hear the best, musicians who long ago not just mastered their instruments but who have learned to make up meaningful notes and gestures on the spur of the moment, with all the ebb and flow, give and take, subtlety and exuberance that elevates music (small m) into Music (capital M), then you’re reminded of what the essence of music can be. No boundaries, the closest thing to freedom, but it comes with risks, only the best can consistently pull it off.

Joëlle Léandre (upright bass) and India Cooke (violin) captivated the audience on Friday at DU in the Davis Hall, especially when joined by LaDonna Smith (viola). 

Salil Sachdev fascinated the audience with his water drums while performing with vocalist Judith Coe. I hope to bring you more details on those water drums soon.

Jen Baker played long droning notes on trombone while vocalizing through the horn—producing multiphonics where sometimes the blown note changed pitch, sometimes the vocalized note, sometimes both. That took on a hypnotic quality, entirely in keeping with the audience’s contemplation of a slideshow of old barns from the Michigan countryside, Jen’s childhood rememberances. Fascinating stuff, and physically demanding at mile-high altitude after dropping in from Oakland barely three hours before the gig...

Many others, too many to list here, excelled, and will do so again tonight and tomorrow.

One of them is woodwind player Vinny Golia. Before this magazine moved its offices to Boulder, CO, in 1996, we were located in Los Angeles, and I fondly remember hearing Vinny Golia perform around town. Earlier today I caught Golia on camera during a solo performance/lecture. The wide shot with this blog entry shows Vinny’s arsenal (some ethnic flutes on the stand are concealed). The exotic instrument he holds up is the Sheng (from China),

the other is a Soprillo (


As a youngster, Golia wasn’t exactly in a hurry to take up music, let alone to make music his career. Can you imagine waiting until the age of 25 to even learn an instrument, and still becoming a virtuoso on a number of difficult instruments? He was a painter until then... Now there seem to exist no boundaries for him, his music and that of many fellow travellers can be found on He can play improvised music in a jazz context seemingly as easily as in a non-jazz context.

What’s the difference? Glad you asked. This weekend confirmed my impression that the non-jazz musicians tend not to improvise on the basis of melody or harmony—I don’t hear them “play the changes” or stick to a groove, often they even seem to shy away from what could become a “groove”; it’s more about the tones, the timbres, the musical gestures, reaching for the outer limits of what an instrument can give you, and about teamwork—about passing the creative “hot potato” around the group before anybody drops it...

Ear candy of the best sort. I’m heading out again to go get me some more down at DU. Later...

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