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Sqwonk reviews its recorded legacy at Old First Church

Sqwonk is the bass clarinet duo of Jonathan Russell and Jeff Anderle, named after the rambunctious sounds their instruments can produce that contrast so sharply against those of the higher-register members of the clarinet family. Last night they performed in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church, presenting a program that both promoted the release of their latest CD, Sqwonk +, while reviewing selected tracks from their two earlier recordings, Sqwonk and Black. The title of the new album refers to the fact that each of the six compositions involves a collaboration with a Bay Area ensemble or artist; so last night’s concert featured guest appearances by two of those participating ensembles, the Real Vocal String Quartet and Nonsemble 6. The program was structured to present three tracks from Sqwonk and the Real Vocal collaboration in the first half. The intermission was then followed by three tracks from Black and the collaboration with Nonsemble 6.

Sqwonk bass clarinetists Jeff Anderle and Jonathan Russell
from the Sqwonk Web site

Those selections featured a generous diversity of composers working in an impressive variety of styles. Russell framed the entire evening by beginning and concluding with his own compositions, which, themselves, contrasted sharply. The evening opened with “KlezDuo,” part of a recent movement of “new wave” thinking about the Jewish klezmer tradition that reaches back (at least) to shtetl life in late nineteenth century Eastern Europe. Russell’s refraction of this style captures the kinship of this music with the Hasidic traditions of Jewish mysticism and its connotations of both synagogue chant and ecstasy-inducing persistent rhythms. Last night’s performance launched the evening with an equally ecstatic burst of energy, setting an upbeat context for all that would follow.

At the other end Russell concluded the program with his double concerto for two bass clarinets, rearranged for the “instruments” of Nonsemble 6 (piano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and voice) serving as a chamber orchestra. If “KlezDuo” recalled the late nineteenth century, then this setting recalled the “Brandenburg” concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach from the early eighteenth century. Needless to say, there was nothing particularly Bach-like about either the music or its performance; but the idea of a concerto in which the accompaniment is also realized through solo voices reflects back to Baroque practices. Equally present was the spirit of Bach’s own take on “inventive jamming” that characterized so much of his instrumental music. Indeed, one of the “instrumental” lines was Amy Foote’s scat-singing, which fit smoothly into the jazzy instrumental textures of the concerto’s logic.

The other collaborative effort was “Slacker Ridge” by Alisa Rose, one of the violinists of the Real Vocal String Quartet, for which that ensemble (without viola) joined Sqwonk. This was yet another latter-day take on a traditional genre, in this case country music. Real Vocal provided just the right rhetorical spirit for this music, alternating between their soulful string-playing and singing words that did not matter very much in close harmony. The result could be taken as either an homage to or a parody of the Grand Ole Opry and was probably conceived as a deft combination of both.

The remaining selections from Sqwonk, Ian Dicke’s “Profiteering” and Damon Waitkus’ “Valediction,” both seemed to resonate with social implications, whether the strenuously driven but ultimately mindless conduct induced by a market-based economy or the speech that is all rhetoric and no content from a graduation ceremony. The selections from Black, on the other hand, were more inclined to abstraction, particularly the title track by Marc Mellits. At one point Anderle remarked that most of the composers for Sqwonk tended to believe that there was no such thing as too many notes to play; and Ryan Brown’s “KNEE GAS (ON),” which emerged from a physical outburst on the low register of a piano keyboard, made an invigorating case in point. Cornelius Boots’ “Sojourn of the Face,” on the other hand, offered a broader range of moods through its episodic structure.

Production of Sqwonk + was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, which completed successfully on September 19; so word of the availability of the new CD should be coming shortly.

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