Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Free Jazz as Cultural Revolution: Karl Berger & The Stone Workshop Orchestra in Review from Inside

                                                                 (Photo by Don Mount)

Free Jazz as Cultural Revolution: 
Karl Berger & The Stone Workshop Orchestra in Review from Inside

By John Pietaro

The Stone stands quietly and without fanfare at the corner of Avenue C and East 2nd Street. The club is set in an old store front that still bears the markings of pre-gentrified Alphabet City. So unassuming is it that there’s no sign over its door proclaiming that a new experimental music space—one which features the free exchange of art and ideas--has taken back part of New York otherwise lost to the developers and yuppies. The Lower East Side , New York’s historic center of alternative arts and struggle, survived years of neglect and decay during which it was shunned by a larger society attempting to cut off its immigrant and poor population just until the ‘hood became fashionable. And as its boarded-up shops transformed into bistros, it ‘became’ the East Village and was sold to the highest bidder. And somehow post-modern saxophonist John Zorn made a grab to claim some of this prized territory for the movement. This community --where Beat poetry found its home, where the most radical of Left activists congregated, where jazz’s loft scene was birthed, where the punk movement began and where the post-punk avant garde coalesced into No Wave—has taken back one of its lost corners. There’s cause to celebrate but the Stone remains the Village’s best-kept secret. And the noise about it only seems to occur within.
 Having enjoyed memorable performances in LES clubs and galleries back when there was a healthy scene harboring this kind of music, I well remember the once-affordable community and its phalanx of artists, anarchists, addicts, dealers, homeless, Hell’s Angels and poverty-stricken residents. No, they weren’t really good old times because there was too much hurt and yet the area held a strange beauty that’s long gone. Walking through the door of the Stone brings me back almost immediately. The space is tight, intimate. The lights are dim. The energy is whirling, barely contained in the walls about me. I felt it on my first visit: Musicians flow in, greeting each other with warm, jovial exchanges, laughs, and discussions about a recent tour with this or that one, the last gig with so-and-so, or baseball scores and small talk. Dressed down, unpacking their axes these men and women are as unassuming as the club itself. I walk over the uneven floorboards and find a spot near the back, next to the drummer and two upright bassists preparing for the evening’s excursion. I stand amidst a mini xylophone or glockenspiel, large and small frame drums, several small hand-held percussives, sometimes a dumbek, and a pair of crowded racks sporting woodblocks, temple blocks, cowbells and a triangle. Somehow I set it up in a manner that’s workable but not imposing to the tightly-packed band, which ranges from a minimum of 12 members to a more standard number of about 23. The immediacy of those around me seems to extend well beyond the physical.
Karl Berger and Ingrid Sertso enter the room, gently reaching out to the musicians sitting in a two-rowed semi-circle. The band responds in kind, offering greetings, brief bits of humorous tales and other chitchat. But this is not a mere social call. Soon Karl seats himself caddy-corner at the piano and offers some basic ideas as to what the music will be like tonight. In some cases choosing pieces he’s worked on with the Orchestra before, in others, introducing brand new ones without warning, of course. 
The compositions are often his own but just as likely penned by the Ornette Coleman or Don Cherry, or other past collaborators. Many are drawn from the repertoire of world folk songs (Karl is especially fond of Turkish music). But it can never be said that there is anything assumed or pre-planned about this band’s music. There is NEVER a written score and when the band needs to learn a jazz head or other melody, it is simply played at the piano, at times slowly and repetitively, until the musicians are comfortable with what’s to come. Karl offers some info on the particular mode or the tradition in which the piece was developed as his hands lightly run over piano keys. The musicians are all veterans and adept at this kind of performance, but Karl’s advice and philosophical guidance are never taken begrudgingly. “Please let’s remember to pay close attention to dynamics in this passage,” Karl is wont to explain as he demonstrates the importance of the phrasing in a piece. Standing now, he raises a hand and gently fans it downward: “You can almost leave that last note out completely. In fact, I would like some of you to fade the phrase just before it ends to really exaggerate the emotion. Deeee-da. Deeee-da”. And the music, already inspired and executed beautifully, comes fully alive. By design, this band is geared toward the highest level of creativity, and the tools of such creativity--free improvisation, on-the-spot composition, modernist harmonies, world rhythms, technical expertise, and latter-day angst—are in constant demand here.
The Stone Workshop Orchestra’s sound is born of the moment, founded by the players’ instincts, skill and need to emote----and it’s then organized by Karl’s artful hand and facial expressions. Sculptor-like, he molds and shapes the aural force emanating from this collection of brass, reeds, strings and percussion set before him. Refusing to consider his part in this as conduction (“really, this is not so specific, I just cue and offer guidance, you do the rest…”), Berger none the less has developed an incredible language of his own; never losing sight of the musicians’ individuality, he plays the orchestra. Karl’s unique hand signals--and welcoming eye contact---bring in sections, soloists or the tutti ensemble, and in doing so, establishes range, tempo, volume, timbre and vibe. 
Through his cues the band knows the direction and shape as well as the duration of the notes to be played---but the specific notes remain our own. He guides orchestral accents behind the force of a soloist’s excursion, adding to the soundscape and fierce intensity. Karl then layers one solo over another and calls on this or that accompaniment—which ultimately is seen as just an important a voice in the mix and may very well take over the spotlight. Feel is paramount and interpretation is demanded. Its clearly there in the leader’s eyes each time he becomes engulfed in the tapestry. Leaning back into the sound in a moment of particularly rich improvised harmony, Karl adds: “It took Gil Evans two years to write a chord like that!”
 So what of this orchestra? Since I began this weekly gig in early September 2011, it has proven itself as a wonderfully expansive vision of what a ‘big band’ could be. The line-up has often shifted in membership with a solid core of regulars and a series of guests who are passing through New York while on tour. Each Monday I have seen new faces, heard new accents and reveled in new and exciting musical concepts. The musicians qualify as a united nations of Free Jazz, among them Karl Berger - Piano and Conducting, Ingrid Sertso - Voice, Thomas Heberer - Trumpet, Brian Groder – Trumpet, Bob Selcoe - Trumpet, Herb Robertson – Trumpet, Steve Swell - Trombone, Rick Parker –Trombone, Avram Fefer - Soprano Sax, Stephen Gauci - Tenor Sax, Yoni Kretzmer - Tenor Sax, Darryl Foster – Tenor and Soprano Saxes, Esa Pietila - Tenor Sax, Dave Schnug - Alto Sax, Mercedes Figuera - Alto Sax, Blaise Siwula – Alto Sax, Mikko Innanen – Alto Sax, Jason Candler - Alto Sax/Alto Clarinet, Bill Ylitalo – Alto Sax, Welf Doerr – Alto Sax, Ricardo Tejero – Clarinet, Michael Lytle - Bass Clarinet, Ken Ya Kawaguchi – Shakuhachi, Sylvain Leroux - Flutes, Peter Buettner – Flutes, Frederika Krier - Violin,  David Bakriges - Violin, Cecile Borche – Violin, Mossa Bildner - Voice, Kenny Wessel - Guitar, Harvey Valdes - Guitar, John Ehlis – Mandolin and Guitar, Adam Lane – Bass, Hilliard Greene – Bass, Dominic Lash - Bass, Dave Perrott - Bass, Ken Filiano – Bass, Lou Grassi – Drums, Harvey Sorgen - Drums, John Pietaro - Percussion, Philip Foster – ‘Odds and Ends’. And the many others whose names have escaped me and I hope to meet again.

The final performance of the Stone Workshop Orchestra—at least in this incarnation—occurred on December 5, during which time the Stone’s inner walls shook under the weight of the music. Two full concert sets (no workshop for this gig) left the room dank with perspiration and brimming with intensity. Guest soloists, to really drive the point home, were legendary avant alto player John Zorn and the brilliant trumpet and slide-trumpet player Steven Bernstein, and the band exploded under and about these two voices of unbridled improvisation. Zorn seeking no attention, remained reserved before putting horn to mouth, but wailed and shook over his instrument like a feverish, davoning rabbi when he played. The ensemble shouted accents as Zorn sonically fought back the depth hovering just above, drawing from and warding off the wall of music he encountered. From my spot near the back, with a line of winds and strings immediately in front, dual basses to my right and drums just behind, the room seemed to ascend with Karl’s conducting wizardy guiding the journey. And just then Steven Bernstein hollered across the thicket with a slide trumpet improvisation that should have lifted off the roof, polyrhythmic pulsations falling over the brass call to arms. New visions of a developed repertoire spoke volumes about the potential for this band. No one could accept that it would simply end; the rush to find a new site is on with plans being carefully laid for a new residency and a series of other performances to continue the mission.
  As winter’s chill arrives on the Lower East Side, the echo of musical liberation descends over the luxury condos and gourmet delis, declaring the legacy of fearless creativity. And in its resonance, the music tears away the cloud of conformity and clears the path for further generations of New Music. 

-John Pietaro is a musician and writer from Brooklyn, NY. His websites are and

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