The New Mexico Jazz Festival and the New Mexico Jazz Workshop’s summer jazz and blues series bring stellar talent to town. This year we’ve got the likes of NEA Jazz Masters Dave Holland, Charles Lloyd, and Dr. Lonnie Smith just for starters at the festival, and Brian Lynch and Matt Savage are among the stars lighting up the NMJW series.
The festival and summer series also offer top-drawer musicians in New Mexico an opportunity to perform in listening rooms and on stages where their music does not have to compete with bar chatter and the clink of silverware on china. This three-part series features ear-worthy local (or formerly local) acts stepping into the spotlight in the coming weeks. This final installment features tuba player/composer Mark Weaver and his UFO Ensemble, with original band member George Lane on trumpet, Micah Hood on trombone, and Rick Compton on drums.
Tribute and Reunion
Mark Weaver can relate to salmon swimming upstream. As a composer, performer, and presenter of creative music, he’s had to struggle continually against the current of popular taste to get the music out there. Seven years ago, he founded The Roost, a summer series that presented creative musicians from near and far. Working on a shoestring budget, he built a small but enthusiastic audience, but economic reality dictated that the 2015 installment would be the last—at least for now.
The 2016 New Mexico Jazz Festival is paying tribute to The Roost and Weaver’s own UFO Ensemble—the name loosely references “unknown phenomena, something maybe that came out of left field,” says Weaver—with a concert this week at the Outpost. The ensemble has been dormant for several years, since original member George Lane moved out of New Mexico, and Weaver is excited about firing up the interstellar engines again. He’ll open the evening with a solo set featuring the “naked tuba” plus video by Jay Baker, followed by a set with the ensemble.
When the jazz festival’s executive director, Tom Guralnick, proposed the tribute to The Roost, he asked Weaver to present music that would be representative of the series. Weaver wasted no time in getting Lane on the phone and reassembling the ensemble.
Weaver points to Lane as the reason the UFO Ensemble came into existence in the first place. “I was kind of coasting, and then he moved to town, and all of a sudden, I knew I wanted to figure out some way to play with him,” he says.
Weaver pulled together Christian Pincock on valve trombone and Jason Aspeslet on drums to fill out the quartet, but there remained one thing missing: music. “I basically just started writing because I needed stuff for a group to play,” says Weaver.
With no formal training in composition—he is an architect by day—Weaver was not bound by conventional approaches. “So I would just set myself problems to solve,” he says. That was an approach he was familiar with. “Ninety percent of my job as an architect is problem solving.”
Weaver might take a phrase or a rhythm or a mood or an image and set himself the challenge of using that as a starting point. He does not have any interest in following the standard rules—say, 16 bars of changes for somebody to blow over. Instead, he explores different ways of combining composed and improvised elements and finds himself creating structures that he compares to collages.
“It doesn’t exactly conform to something you already know,” says Weaver. “It references things you know, I think.”
The result is music that is both as carefully structured as an architect’s plans for a building but as free as the musicians’ imaginations. Its expressive and episodic character seems to demand visuals, not too surprising since Weaver has composed music for film. But his music turns things around: it begs for a filmmaker to create compatible images for the music.
Weaver says it can be a challenge to get his music on paper. Some of it looks like normal music, he says, but some, not so much. At turns bluesy, boppish, swinging, funky, concrete, and organic, his compositions promote a focused but freewheeling conversation among the quartet’s musicians. Its full expression in performance depends to a large extent on the imagination of the players, whom Weaver grants tremendous freedom. That requires a deep trust on the part of the composer, and musicians who are willing to take direction, even weird open-ended direction, “which is all a composition is, some kind of direction,” Weaver says.
The ensemble will feature music written pre–UFO Ensemble, music written expressly for the ensemble, and two pieces from a new suite, titled Long Undoing, The Invisible Cities of Italo Calvino, which takes its inspiration from Calvino’s novel.
Weaver will have two new CDs available at the concert. Phenomenology is a collection of live UFO Ensemble tracks from 2010 and 2011, and Highlights from THE ROOST Creative Music Series (Volume One: 2009–2011) features selected live recordings from the series, including tracks from internationally recognized players such as Janet Feder and Vinny Golia and local luminaries such as the Samá Duo (Mustafa Stefan Dill and Jefferson Voorhees) and the UFO Ensemble.
I probably should resist saying that the evening promises to be out of this world, but I just can’t.
Mark Weaver/UFO Ensemble
2016 New Mexico Jazz Festival
Thursday, July 28, 8:00 p.m. (doors @ 7:30 p.m.)
Weil Hall at the Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE, Albuquerque
Tickets $15, general admission/$10, members and students
For more info and tickets, go here, or call 268-0044.
© 2016 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.