Frank Zappa once observed that the flute seemed consigned to “cloud and angel music.” (A remarkable statement from an avowed fan of Eric Dolphy.) Whether Jamie Baum took that observation to heart, the jazz flutist seems intent on defying it. Her playing on the concert and bass flutes is undoubtedly beautiful and at times ethereal, but also fiery and complex, challenging traditional harmonies. And as her Saturday night performance at Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Sprenger Theatre showed, her writing follows similar paths.
Indeed, Baum’s two sets with her “Septet +” — a coy name for an octet — were primarily engineered to illuminate her composing and arranging chops. The three pieces that were not originals were arrangements of songs by Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose influence Baum discussed in a pre-show listening session. The arrangements incorporated the same favorite devices as her compositions: repetitive, often minimalist vamps (usually played by pianist Luis Perdomo); dense harmonies that move in and out of convention; endings in unexpected places. “The Game” included all of the above, the vamp meshing with bassist Zack Lober and drummer Jeff Hirshfield’s almost mechanical pulse — albeit a tricky one, at times sounding like 4/4 and at times like 15/8 — reminiscent of the German experimental rock band Neu!, and a handsomely structured guitar solo by Brad Shepik that ended solo and tune mid-phrase.
Baum’s tunes did the same and demonstrated what strong resources those devices can be. “While We Are Here,” a dedication to her late cousin, featured a wistful melody by the horns (trumpeter Kenny Warren, bass clarinetist Aaron Kruziki, French hornist Chris Komer, in addition to Baum) against an insistent Perdomo line and prodding bass and drums. The effect was to create an underlying sense of urgency, which Baum picked up with repetitions in her solos and treated as well with a dissonance that she passed on to Warren and Shepik.
(However, Perdomo’s insistent lines here and elsewhere emphasized a serious flaw in the performance: A cluster of notes in the piano’s upper register were out of tune, sounding clunky even among the dissonances. Perdomo seemed to avoid these notes in most cases, but at times the structures he played mandated them.)
The evening’s centerpiece was a new long-form piece, “Shiva,” which Baum and Septet + premiered just last week in New York. The tune rested on drones rather than vamps — hand-held friction gongs, played by Shepik and Lober; on top of these, however, repetitions arrived anyway, Hirshfield keeping a 6/4 pulse with Perdomo and the horns sketching out a five-note motif and variations thereon. They were scintillating, but the real pleasures of the piece were the complex and challenging melodies played by Perdomo, Komer, Kruziki (now on alto sax) and Baum. The flutist augmented her melodies with a dramatic sweep in her dynamics and a powerful rhythmic lilt. And not a cloud or angel to be found.
West is a freelance writer.