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Resonance Jazz Ensemble explores the potential of unconventional instrumentation

The member of the Resonance Jazz Ensemble (leader Stephen McQuarry on right)
The member of the Resonance Jazz Ensemble (leader Stephen McQuarry on right)
courtesy of Old First Concerts

Yesterday afternoon the Resonance Jazz Ensemble returned for the third time to the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church. The title of the program was Summer Heat, but the program itself was an engaging selection of the hot and the cool, reviewing some of the more impressive jazz achievements of the twentieth century. What is most interesting about Resonance, however, is the selection of instruments gathered together by leader and pianist Stephen McQuarry.

As might be expected, McQuarry holds down the rhythm section along with performers on bass (Ted Burik) and drums (Greg German). He also has a saxophonist (Georgianna Krieger), who alternated among soprano, tenor, and baritone. His vocalist, Laura Austin Wiley, is also a flutist, extending her range to both alto flute and piccolo. That, in itself, would be an interesting combo; but to this mix McQuarry then added a string trio of Michèle Walther on violin, Michelle Mastin on viola, and Nancy Bien on cello, making for a significantly unconventional alternative to a brass section.

A fair amount of amplification was brought into play to balance the wide diversity of dynamic ranges. However, given the Old First acoustics, I wonder whether that technology was really necessary. All three string players commanded respective palettes of rich sonorities; and, if there was any weak element, it was the softness of Wiley’s voice. Unlikely as it may seem, this was a group that probably could have fared just as well in the absence of microphones and loudspeakers.

For anyone (like myself) with an appreciation of how jazz began to find new paths during the Forties and kept forging ahead for the rest of the century, the eleven selections made for a thoroughly engaging survey. The “origins” piece on the program was Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” from which things progressed to Charlie Parker (“Yardbird Suite”), Miles Davis (“So What”), Jimmy Heath (“Jemeniah”), John Coltrane (“Acknowledgement,” the first movement from his suite A Love Supreme), and Stanley Clarke (“Song of John,” dedicated to Trane’s memory). Further advances were explored by Joe Zawinul (“Young and Fine”) and John McLaughlin (“Opus One”), along with an original by McQuarry (“The Journey of Each Other”). Wiley’s vocal selections were Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and Alec Wilder’s “Moon and Sand.”

What was most impressive was how a string trio could throw such a new and thoroughly beneficent light on all of these pieces, many of which now have the status of standards. It is one thing for a jazz violinist to take the spotlight. This, however, amounted to the mindset of chamber music wandering into a jazz combo and demonstrating that it could join the mix as an ensemble, rather than just three musicians with “different” instruments. If there was any disappointment, it was that Mastin’s viola never quite rose to the exploratory heights scaled by both Walther and Bien on their respective violin and cello.

On the more traditional side, Krieger seemed to be having trouble matching pitch with the rest of the group. This may have been more evident in the setting of the impeccable sense of pitch and intervals coming from the three strings. Another factor may be that, within the saxophone family, the soprano tends to be the least cooperative beast, meaning that even some of the past masters have had trouble with it. Nevertheless, there was so much positive energy going into each selection on the program that Resonance still emerged as an engaging ensemble, notable for both choice and interpretation of repertoire.