Chris Pumphrey Sextet Concert Review

The Wind Up Space is one of Baltimore's sometimes hidden treasures. It's a unique performance/gallery space and bar that hosts musicians who mostly don't fit between the Meyerhoff and the Ottobar. It's nestled in neatly on the corner of North Avenue and Charles Street one block from where Omar shot Brother Mouzone. This last Friday night The Wind Up Space was invaded by the likes of Level ZeroMobley, and the unparalleled Chris Pumphrey Sextet. I loved this. The crowd was a mix of reverent silence and overheated boozers who where looking to blow off steam with some out jazz. Both crowds were satiated.

Level Zero began the night's concert to a growing audience with sincerity and tone. I love the sound of the tenor saxophone, and I like the sound of two even more. Level Zero performs with a thick and calloused tone, and all of their compositions are out. This jazz is not for the faint of heart, and it is not jazz for a ii V room. Level Zero is destination music. The melodies and compositional forms sound like they are finding their way to their goal as they leak and explode into the ether.

Level Zero is Derrick Michaels (tenor saxophone) Patrick Breiner (tenor saxophone/clarinet) Matt Frazao (electric guitar) Brian Brunsman (bass) and Mike Kuhl (drums). Every time I hear a tenor saxophone in Baltimore I think of Gary Thomas, although this probably just speaks to the quality of Derrick Michaels and Patrick Breiner's playing. The first time that Patrick played clarinet with the group was during his composition Unfinished Business which was dedicated to both Paul Motion and his dog. The clarinet in this context was a throwback in the style of Glen Miller or Joe Muranyi, but this was Dixieland gone bad. 

Another interesting piece of Level Zero's performance was their extended technique. In a piece called Dumbulance Patrick Breiner threw change or maybe a shaker (I missed the action but loved the outcome) into the bell of the saxophone and continued to explore the full capacity of the instrument's timbral range shaking and rattling as he performed. Finally the set concluded with a piece by Derrick Michaels which featured Matt Frazao working his loop pedals while Patrick amplified sounds of dropped change and bottles on the stage floor. On top of that obviously unusual background texture, Derrick performed a mournful melody on the tenor sax. This concluding piece was my favorite from the set because it toed the line between musical and experimental in a highly successful way. 

Mobley was the second band of the night. Mobley is Jon Birkholz and Katie Gillis (voice), Brian Brunsman (bass), Matt Frazao and Dan Ryan (electric guitars), and Sam Balcom (drums).

Mobley performed original compositions for two voices, two guitars, bass, and drums. They had me wondering where the genre lines went as soon as they opened up. Mobley sounds like riff rock, big band, Jackson Browne, and Radiohead, all dressed up in jorts. Their compositional swagger comes from the fact that their front man, Jon Birkholz, is a jazz pianist by training, and I like that in taking on this new role he still retained the idea that song writing is just that – writing. Whatever genre you want to call this project, music making always benefits from forethought and shape and Mobley's songs had both of these. While Mobley is new, they know how work, are well connected, and I look forward to seeing them again and hearing them grow into the fabric of Baltimore's music scene.

Check out Mobley's set from the show streaming on Soundcloud here!

At two guitars, two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, two drums, and a bassist, the sex in the Chris Pumphrey Sextet is more visceral than numerical. Their sound would make Mingus proud with fat driving bass lines wrapped up in interesting rhythmic figures and textures which ungulate around manic solos. These guys are believers, and in Baltimore, we BELIEVE; or Boh-lieve, or Beehive, or whatever version of the slogan you want to go with. My point is that the authority at which they make music with stems not only from the fact that the members of the group are all individually talented, but that collectively they believe in what they are doing, they have felt the power that live music contains, and they are working to capture the energy exchange between audience and performers.

The Chris Pumphrey Sextet is an experience. They are a musical happening, and it all happens at a maximum dynamic. Each piece is conducted by Chris Pumphrey who wields a National Bohemian for a conductor's baton in one hand, while the other brandishes an alto saxophone. Meanwhile, Matt Frazao (who put down some serious work that night performing in every ensemble) played guitar in a way that only he can. With pedals for days and the hands to back it up, Frazao stoically broke the ensemble apart during his solos and then brought it back to a frenzied fever pitch as his improvisations went from inconceivable to simply badass. I love this ensemble for their unabashed creativity and individualism. ??Although in different permutations, the Sextet has been a mainstay around Baltimore city for awhile now, and it's a guarantee that I'll be there for the next show. I hope you will be to. You dig?