March 14, 2013
Pianist Joshua White was once a wonder kid, then a local marvel, and now, in his early twenties, is simply a great jazz musician in full stride toward national/international prominence. This Thursday, he will be joined by multi-instrumentalist (and Palomar music faculty member) Ellen Weller for a free-wheeling improvisational moon shot that will surely lift us all. Line up early! Performance Lab D-10.
By Ellen Weller
Free improvisation can be also called “real-time composition.” The basic formal tools of the composer – repetition, variation and contrast – as well as melody, rhythm and harmony, are equally available to the improviser. However, instead of hearing the music in my head, then attempting to recreate that experience through the media of notation, I am able to directly produce the sound through my instrument (sometimes voice). I make the same kinds of choices of what would sound right next, without being able to go back and change the past.
Working with another musician both complicates and simplifies the process. It is more complicated because I must deal with the sounds my partner is hearing, which might conflict with what I’m hearing, so we are having what is more like a conversation, or negotiation. It is also easier, because choices are being made by someone else! In the ideal situation, however, the ego is completely submerged, and the players are simply listening to the piece as it is being created, and the intellect is hopefully taking a break. – ew
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
“Joshua has immense talent … I was impressed by his daring and courageous approach to improvisation on the cutting edge of innovation. He is his own man…”
– HERBIE HANCOCK
Pianist Joshua White (born August 17, 1985) had parallel musical training in both classical and gospel music traditions before encountering jazz music at the University of California, San Diego summer camp in 2003. He began formal piano training at the age of seven and became the organist/pianist for the Encanto Southern Baptist Church by age 10. After competing in several classical piano music competitions, Joshua (at the age of 18) chose to focus his musical studies on jazz and improvised music, drawing inspiration from its many innovators. He dove into the music head first with the help of world-renowned musicians like composer Anthony Davis, saxophonist David Borgo, flutist Holly Hofmann and piano master Mike Wofford. “Joshua was the most devoted student I’ve ever worked with by far,” says Wofford. “Absolutely focused and with a great intuitive grasp of the music, even at that early stage.”
In the nine years following, White has made incredible strides through the Southern California jazz community, playing with virtuoso trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, alto saxophone legend Charles McPherson, tenor saxophonist Daniel Jackson, and former Anthony Braxton sideman, Mark Dresser. Dresser hand-picked the young musician for his West Coast Quintet, which featured saxophonist Tripp Sprague, virtuoso trombonist Michael Dessen and drummer Duncan Moore. “Josh is a super-bad young pianist,” Dresser said. “I see him as a singular talent. He brings so much to the table.” White’s virtuosity is never about empty displays of technique. He has the uncanny ability to blend the overtly lyrical with passages of tumultuous tension without losing the listener in the process. He is, in short, a cultural improviser, taking his inheritance and venturing into possibility.
In 2011, White entered the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition in Washington D.C., ultimately placing second out of 160 competitors from around the world. Herbie Hancock was one the judges. “Joshua has immense talent,” Hancock told music critic George Varga of the San Diego Union Tribune. “I was impressed by his daring and courageous approach to improvisation on the cutting edge of innovation. He is his own man. I believe that Thelonious Monk would have been proud of the performance of this great young artist…”
New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff was at the competition. “He pressed hard against the rhythm section and improvised with form, telling the bassist Rodney Whitaker and the drummer Carl Allen what to do and when, accelerating and decelerating, suddenly going free. (Nobody else did that.) … Mr. White used a lot of dissonance and clutter, but it was provocative, chord-related clutter, not the brilliant-soloist kind made mostly with the right hand. It was a sound worth returning to…”
For the last several years, White has been in demand as one of Southern California’s most creative and technically accomplished jazz pianists. He has performed regularly at Dizzy’s San Diego, Blue Whale, the Jazz Bakery, the Athenaeum Music and Arts Library, and numerous other venues. In 2010, White recorded a solo album featuring spontaneous interpretations of jazz standards, and this effort was praised by such luminaries as pianist Geri Allen. He can also be heard on drummer Russell Bissett’s trio disc, Dream Street, with bassist Rob Thorsen, and on bassist Danny Weller’s album Third Story, with Jeff Miles on guitar and Jens Kuross on drums.
Formed in May 2012, the Joshua White Quintet is a Southern California-based group focused on interpreting original compositions, as well as exploring the boundaries of collective improvisation. The JWQ features trombonist Michael Dessen, Gavin Templeton on alto saxophone, Dave Robaire on bass, and Dan Schnelle on drums. With Joshua’s enthusiasm and phenomenal dedication to music, he is sure to become one of jazz’s major talents.
True multi-instrumentalist Ellen Weller doesn’t perform often in San Diego. She may actually be best-known as a member of the incredibly talented Weller Family Band. Her husband Bob is a triple-threat composer, pianist and drummer and her eldest son Danny is a prodigiously talented double bassist who has made his way to NYC for the expanded career opportunities. Rounding out the family, her youngest son Charlie is making a name for himself in the SD jazz scene as a drummer following his graduation from the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
Weller keeps a busy schedule as a professor at Palomar College, where she teaches jazz, ethnomusicology and conducts the Symphony Orchestra.
There is another side of the musician, though, that rarely gets mentioned: Mrs. Weller is one of the most accomplished free-jazz instrumentalists on the West Coast. She is fluent on an astonishing number of instruments — primarily woodwinds. Flutes, the saxophone and clarinet families and a slew of ethnic instruments make up most of the weapons in her arsenal, although she’s also a classically trained pianist and recently learned the violin to inform her conducting instructions in the Symphony.
In 2004, she released Spirits, Little Dreams and Improvisations, on the Circumvention record label, a document so bold and inventive that I couldn’t take it out of my CD player for several months — even after more than 100 listens.
Weller got the music bug early, when she began playing the family piano around the age of three. After years of classical piano lessons, she took up the flute at 11 and, inspired by hearing the jazz band from Patrick Henry HS, dove into big-band playing.
“Arne Christiansen let me play flute in the big band, but I had to transpose the lead alto-sax part by sight. I played baritone sax in the marching band, then switched to lead alto,” Weller said. She was checking out music programs at universities when, “I heard the ‘A’ band at CSU Northridge on a visit and had to go there. I also heard this killer drummer in that band: didn’t know at that time I was going to marry him.”
Her band director in college is directly responsible for her virtuosity on so many different instruments.
“Ladd McIntosh expected me to learn clarinet, bass clarinet, contra-alto bass clarinet and to bring them and set them up for every rehearsal and gig. I bought my first station wagon for this purpose.”
In the middle of her extensive musical education, before her migration to NYC — Weller completed her B.A. in music and her Master’s in Composition at Queens College and her Doctorate in Ethnomusicology from UCSD — she was recruited for a critically acclaimed all-female jazz ensemble, Maiden Voyage.
“I was quite young, about 19, in Los Angeles, 1979, when I was asked to play saxophone with this group led by the great alto player Ann Patterson and drummer Bonnie Janofsky,” said Weller. “Unfortunately, I was unable to juggle my academic work with the touring the band was starting to do, so I reluctantly let it go. Or they let me go, I can’t remember which. I did do the Tonight Show gig, which was a gas, and received tiny residual checks for many years afterward.”
After eight roller-coaster years in NYC, the Wellers returned to San Diego with young Danny and Charlie in tow. Doctoral studies at UCSD introduced her to the world of free improvisation, and a new passion was born.
“I’ve always improvised, but did not know there was a scene, which was really sad because I was in NYC at the birth of it all. I didn’t know it was a recognized genre,” Weller said. “When I got to UCSD, I hooked up with George Lewis right off the bat, and from there the cats in Trummerflora drew me in and the rest is history.”
Her debut CD featured some of the giants of free jazz, including trombonist Lewis and multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia.
“Ellen’s session was one of the coolest things I have ever been involved with,” Golia said. She had us bring all of our instruments and she selected from our woodwinds and then devised these groupings to get the most orchestral colorations she could. Very smoothly and efficiently run. The music really flowed effortlessly.”
Legendary contrabassist Bertram Turetzky was also on that session.
“Ellen is a person of incredible intelligence — and exceptional artistic intelligence. Plus, she’s a dangerous improviser on the flute,” said Turetzky.
Local free-jazz trumpeter and record label owner Jeff Kaiser sees much to admire.
“Ellen — like so many of my favorite saxophone players — is able to get around on the instrument with a wide and varied vocabulary from displays of technical and energetic virtuosity to subtle extended techniques,” Kaiser said. “Never empty displays, always in service of her music.”
In addition to Golia, Lewis and Turetzky, Spirits, Little Dreams & Improvisations features drummers Marcos Fernandes, Nathan Hubbard and a 17-year-old Charlie Weller; bassists Lisle Ellis and Scott Walton; husband Bob Weller on piano and drums and clarinetist Robert Zelickman.
The acclaimed saxophonist Jason Robinson thought enough of the music and Weller to put out the disc on his own label, Circumvention.
“Ellen’s music making is multi-dimensional — it’s impossible to summarize her work in neatly bounded ways. She’s a creative and virtuosic improviser, an imaginative composer and, most recently, a dedicated, fastidious orchestra conductor. She has a special ability to see connections between music and people, so it’s no surprise that she’s a first-rate educator,” said Robinson.
Weller is equally passionate for all of these diverse elements. She does have a special connection to free jazz, though.
“Free improvisation always felt like more of a welcoming place for me than [mainstream] jazz, which was and still is very male-dominated, with a huge emphasis on virtuosity of a very restricted kind,” said Weller. “To this day, I do not get many calls from local jazz players, probably because I play so outside if I get the chance. Free improvisation allows me to instantly communicate with anybody, anywhere, and I can bring in my world-music passion as well. I can play with the super-violinist Mary Oliver — we both have classical music backgrounds — jazz musicians, klezmer, Persian and Japanese musicians without any lengthy discussions.”
Look for the chance to experience Weller live — or dig up a copy of Spirits, Little Dreams & Improvisations. You will find a supreme musician: one that can travel the divide between streams of pure, spontaneous melody and squalls of hair-raising tension.
Article by Robert Bush, a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.