Using, exploring, and championing the vastness

At yesterday’s recital at VCU, Use The Vastness performed a set of dynamic, creative, and thought-provoking music. It’s postmodern music from a postmodern generation, yet it urges our scatterbrained youth to slow down with long and thoughtful group improvisations and tantalizing orchestrations.

Use The Vastness (UTV) is doing something right. Still only a new project by bass trombonist Reggie Chapman, the band is quickly finding its sound and its musical niche. It’s postmodern music from a postmodern generation, yet it urges our scatterbrained youth to slow down with long and thoughtful group improvisations and tantalizing orchestrations.

At a special recital at VCU’s James Black Recital Hall yesterday, the group delivered one of their finest performances yet. The hall has a character all its own. (Musicians and audiences will debate whether it’s a good or bad character) The space that used to be a church has high ceilings, a large stage, and church pew seating, and you never forget where you are while watching a performance. Put a unique band like UTV on the stage and a memorable set ensues.

The band’s instrumentation is a curious one. Led by Chapman, the ensemble consists of Marcus Tenney on tenor saxophone, David Hood on alto saxophone, Mary Lawrence Hicks on flugelhorn, Chelsea Temple on vocals, Devonne Harris on wurlitzer, and Brett Ripley on drums. All ranges of the sonic spectrum are covered, but in unusual ways. Chapman’s trombone often fills the bass role, and sometimes Ripley’s bass drum alone provides the low end. All other instruments run the gamut; melodies and inner voices are played by all.

IMG_0755_lrgimgThe set began with a free improvisation, whitenoise from a radio as the catalyst. Harris’s wurlitzer played a note that bled in and out of the radio’s fading static. The hall lent reverb to each sound that entered: Hicks’s trumpet clinking against her vest’s metal buttons, a mallet striking a drum’s rim, a radio DJ’s voice quickly tuning into static.

Tactfully segueing into their rendition of Minus The Bear’s “Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse,” recent trumpeter-cum-saxophonist Tenney demonstrated his quickly achieved facility on the instrument, accompanied only by Chapman’s bass line. The other horns entered, and the piece began to bear semblance to beautifully orchestrated chamber pop.

The drum kit is the instrument that seems the most out of place, but Ripley makes it work with unconventional ways of playing. After all, everyone in the band is a remarkable time keeper, freeing Ripley to create textures to counter or add to that of the horns.

“The First Letter” welcomed Temple to the stage. Her clean and straight-toned voice sang a wordless melody, wandering and tone row-ish, while the rest of the band illustrated looking into a deep abyss, their dark harmonies mystifying. Harris’s keys had trouble peeking through the lush texture of the front line, but when they did, they only enhanced the moment.

“Calculation Theme” had an indie-rock sensibility to it in Temple’s simple melody. (One would only have to replace the array of horns with an acoustic guitar) But the band thrives on this kind of thing. The drama in the chorus’s lyrics — “I wish we were lovers…” — was heightened by the intensity in the horns, keys, and drums.

The first of two Indian-inspired pieces was Ravi Shankar’s “Asato Maa.” The piece took on so many lives in its various sections. Electronic tanpura began with its buzzing drone and the section built with the addition of saxophones, a chain link dragged on a floor-dwelling drum, a stately melody declared by Chapman and Hicks, Harris toying with a harmonica. The piece ended in a group vocal chant with Chapman securing the bass and Hicks — surprisingly — just above him in harmony.

IMG_0757Chapman’s notable No BS! Brass contribution, “Brass Scene Kids,” was converted into a UTV tune with the addition of vocals. The trombonist displayed his quick chops that people are accustomed to hearing in the brass band. A couple brooding breaks improvised among the band came off as slightly cliché, and one impromptu section before the final chorus wore thin. The ending forgives all, though, in a moment of intensity that stands up to even No BS!

“Penultimate Knob,” aptly placed in the set, began with an unforgettable theme between tenor sax and bass trombone. There was an unevenness to Tenney’s line, but drums kicked in with a straight beat just in time. The tune was filled with room for Chapman to play. His ability to alter his tone is respectable: he’s capable of imitating the smooth portamento of a fretless bass and the vibrating harshness of a chain saw where it sees fit.

The tanpura drone returned for the final piece, Ripley’s “Blue Raga.” In one of the most stunning moments of the evening, Chapman’s trombone — muted with a Harmon mute, stem in — and Hicks’s flugelhorn — played into a metal mixing bowl on a chair — imitated a sitar with striking accuracy. The music developed with the entrance of Ripley’s strong doumbek playing creating a multi-metered phrase. Smoothly and effectively, the four horn players split two and two into the wings, clapping the tala and chanting, while Harris mused on the wurlitzer.

In just over an hour, UTV played a set of great variety and execution. Their music was dynamic, creative, and thought-provoking, and there’s not much more to ask for than that.

Use The Vastness is: Reggie Chapman: bass trombone; Marcus Tenney: tenor saxophone; David Hood: alto saxophone; Mary Lawrence Hicks: flugelhorn; Chelsea Temple: vocals; Devonne Harris: wurlitzer; Brett Ripley: drums, percussion.

Set list: Free improvisation, Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse, The First Letter, Calculation Theme, Asato Maa, Brass Scene Kids, Penultimate Knob, Blue Raga.

View more photos from the recital

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Dean Christesen

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