Last weekend at the corner of Ninth Street and Third Avenue, a quiet revolution took place.
An exploratory jam session turned St. Mark’s Episcopal Church into a cool jazz club. Loaded with improvisation, the oak-pewed concert felt more like midnight in the big city than an afternoon on the boulevard.
Such was the magic spun by the revamped Durango Chamber Music Festival.
Impresario C. Scott Hagler asked classical flutist Shelly Mann and percussionist Jonathan Latta to reinvent the chamber festival. They framed the Saturday afternoon jazz concert with two more-or-less conventional classical programs.
Mann and Latta further enlivened the mix by inviting out-of-state musicians to play. We love our coterie of local professionals, including faculty members from the stellar Fort Lewis College Music Department. But, our various recital series tend to recycle local soloists. Variety keeps us from being provincial and self-congratulatory.
Among the highlights:
New musicians: Violinist Susan Doering and cellist Dieter Wulfhorst came in from California. The husband-and-wife team energized Friday evening’s concert and filled Saturday night with convivial contemporary duets.
Arkansas Symphony oboist Beth Wheeler opened Saturday night’s concert with flutist Mann and pianist Hagler. Wheeler’s strong yet nuanced playing also enlivened the closing work, Philip Parker’s “Vignettes.” Commissioned in remembrance of the late regional harpist Rosalind Simpson, the whole evening was dedicated to her memory. Violist Danny DeSantis gave a mysterious rendering of a ballad by David Amram.
New music: At the reception, guests remarked that no one had heard any of the works on Saturday night’s mesmerizing program. Smart organizers like Hagler, Mann and Latta embed contemporary music into traditional programs all the time.
Improvisation: Latta sprinkled new works among standards. He opened with guitarist Chad MacCluskey in a tuneful Celtic collage. Trumpeter Marc Reed joined Latta for four avant-garde tributes by James Stephenson. Violinist Nathan Lambert joined MacCluskey and Latta to spin out variations on a jazzy lament by Steve Kuhn. The afternoon closed with more strands of improvisation as trumpeter Robert Newnam teamed with MacCluskey and Latta in four jazz standards.
In the final work, “Sister Sadie,” by Horace Silver, Latta gave a virtuosic performance on a lowly instrument, a cajón, or wooden box. Built for Latta by Dan Farmer – a retired attorney, flute maker and overall music fan – the cajón has a fascinating history.
“A cajón is a six-sided wooden box with a hole in one side,” Farmer said. “I made it for Jonathan out of ordinary wood, nothing special. But the box is tuned in a way that the player can affect different pitches.”
The cajón evolved from slave traditions in Peru where musical instruments were forbidden. African slaves turned ordinary objects into instruments, hence the cajón lives on.
Sitting on his new box drum, Latta improvised, striking patterns with full hand slaps and finger pulses, occasionally leaning back then plunging forward for more variations. In a long solo, he riffed on patterns he had set up earlier, not unlike a classical cadenza at a conventional chamber music concert. The audience got it.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.