Quartet Takes an Extra (Jazz) Bass to Bartók

United StatesUnited States Bartók: Calder Quartet (Andrew Bulbrook, Benjamin Jacobson, violins; Jonathan Moerschel, viola; Eric Byers, cello), Christian McBride (string bass), SFJAZZ Center, San Francisco. 24.9.2013 (HS)

That the Calder Quartet can play Bartók with precision and deep understanding is a given. Whoever had the idea of combining that with the phenomenal jazz bassist Christian McBride deserves a big thumbs-up. McBride joined the Calder for a jaw-dropping evening of music making Tuesday at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco.

Only about half the seats in the 600-seat auditorium were filled for the first of three concerts presented by SFJAZZ, in which the Calder cycles through all six of Bartók’s string quartets, sharing the stage with jazz artists. This first concert covered quartets 1 and 4, and I hope word gets around for upcoming evenings. On October 5, avant-garde jazz violinist Iva Bittová sits in as the Calder plays Nos. 2 and 3. The quartet alone concludes with Nos. 5 and 6, plus a piece by Péter Eötvös, on the final program on November 11.

Bartók has had a tremendous impact on jazz composers and performers, especially those in the avant-garde school of the 1950s and 1960s, including Gil Evans and Miles Davis. Hence, it makes perfect sense for SFJAZZ to present this music to its jazz audience and link it with present-day jazz artists.

The Calder is no stranger to working with musicians outside the strictly classical field. They have performed in the past with such popular music acts as The National and The Airborne Toxic Event, but I doubt they could have found a more able collaborator than McBride. Acknowledged as the preeminent bassist in jazz, he has a keen improvisational mind and astonishing skills at drawing out unique sounds from the instrument. He bows with the grace of fine cellist, plays pizzicato with unerring accuracy and speed, occasionally strumming both normally (i.e., below where he’s fingering) and between multiple stops and the top of the fingerboard, all without losing intonation, pulse or rhythm.

The program was organized and performed with keen intelligence. First the Calder played the lushly romantic Quartet No. 1, lavishing breathtaking dynamic control, accurate intonation and a subtle range of sonorities as the music arced from hushed falling fifths to an intensely explosive finale.

After they took their bows, McBride walked on stage, picked up his bass and a bow and started playing alone. The music, unannounced (there was no written program) seemed to riff on some of the themes, or at least the gestures, of the quartet it followed, enlarging into some improvisation. Without pause, McBride started on the first of several pieces from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, the members of the quartet walking on and joining in pairs. There was a clear sense of communication among the five.

In the second half, between the five movements of the Fourth Quartet, the Calder interpolated brief sidebars, both from McBride solo and with the quartet. Some might complain that this destroyed Bartók’s carefully planned architecture, but the payoff was in the expansion of the ideas into something remarkable to hear. The capper, however, was a romp through a piece identified only as “Romanian Dance,” its final section in a rapid 7-beat rhythm, racing to a riotous conclusion.

Harvey Steiman

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