jazz improvisation
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Instigation Festival #14: Timid Flirtation and Fiery Collision

Instigation Festival encourages musicians to indulge freely in improvisational collaborations and experience the joy between timid flirtation and fiery collision.

Instigation Festival
5-7 February 2024

It’s a dreary February night in New Orleans. People are congregated around high-top tables, hot toddies in hand, recounting the day in hushed tones. We’re gathered in an uninsulated warehouse right as the Mardi Gras season is reaching a screaming crescendo, but somehow, this gathering has managed to fly under the carnival spirit’s otherwise omnipotent spell: the bar in the back is quaint, and the sparse musical setup portends a show more meditative than exuberant. 

Then, with no fanfare other than the house music’s slow fade, Sasha Masakowski – dressed in understated black – quietly steps on stage and croons wandering melodies into a microphone, which she then proceeds to distort, repeat, and replace through a looping station. The audience of 30 or so – many recognizable musicians from around town – is lulled into attention as the shapeless performance begins. Marvin Tate, gazing intently, walks on stage and takes the mic perched on top of the stool opposite her.

Tate’s head slowly bobs as he faces the audience and then brings the mic to his mouth. Landing somewhere in the nameless space between spoken word and incantation, he seamlessly sidles into Sasha’s lush vocal landscape. “There’s a robin in my garden,” he chants, with a tinge of longing, “A man that wants me dead.” And with this, the 14th installment of the Instigation Festival – a bi-annual gathering that brings together musicians from New Orleans and Chicago to freely and fearlessly collaborate – has begun.

Instigation Festival: A Different Collaborative Paradigm

Founded in 2016 by guitarist Steve Marquette and movement artist Marie Casimir, Instigation Festival celebrates creative spontaneity and joyful discovery that can only come when artists prioritize playfulness over preciousness. They were largely inspired by the work of trombonist Jeff Albert, whose weekly Open Ears Music Series brought together musicians of varied stripes and origins, including well-known Chicago artists like Ken Vandermark, for an evening of improvised explorations at Frenchmen Street’s Blue Nile club. As the international artistic exchange became a local staple, a specific synchronicity between Chicago and New Orleans artists became increasingly apparent. “This was the germ of everything,” Marquette says as we sit for coffee. 

Rather than concerning itself with artistic ideas of “process” and “product”, Instigation Festival is meant to shed light on a third, perhaps underappreciated force in music: the relationships that collaborations give way to and the collaborations that, in turn, emerge from deep relationships. But before anything else can happen, there’s that initial coming-together, which can broadly range from a timid flirtation to a fiery collision. No matter the nature of the first meeting, a creative conversation is forged, an instigation takes place, and a creative partnership will start to coalesce in the best-case scenarios.

With this, Instigation Festival has created a container whose form is something of a paradox, because it encourages comfort with formlessness. As soon as they step on stage, artists become conduits through which a musical conversation can flow, unfettered by the constraints of convention or audience expectation. The audience, in turn, is privileged to witness a collaborative moment that is neither process nor product. Instead, it’s a meeting of unfamiliar minds, a social experiment that can produce sonic poetry just as often as it spews abstract dissonance.

Throughout these three February nights, nine collaborations – three per night, almost all of them completely improvised – are boldly instigated amongst a panoply of decorated musicians. Since New Orleans does not have the same kind of vibrant exchange between movement artists and musicians as that fostered in Chicago, all of the performers for this Instigation Festival are professional musicians. But over the course of this half-week, we learn that the meaning of the word “musician” is malleable.

Instigation Festival’s New Collaborations

During the festival’s first two nights, new relationships form on stage and take on a variety of permutations. Some groups – such as Jonathan Freilich, Jesse Morrow, Dan Oestreicher, and Mike Reed – appear to cohabitate on the stage as equals, eyes closed as they fitfully move into and out of each other’s gravitational pulls. During this set, mad flurries of sound give way to fictional jazz standards that seem to hobble, stumbling drunk, through empty city streets. On guitar, Freilich’s restraint gives his collaborators space to sketch scenes that he can soar through. Oestreicher constantly updates the palette, switching nimbly between an ensemble of saxophones and flutes. Reed’s drumming and Morrow’s bass use abrupt rhythmic and tonal shifts to weave unsettling tapestries. Each of the four seems to be conversing with the amorphous collective rather than with a single person.

Others, like Masakowski and Tate, have a more clearly bifurcated relationship: while she uses a drum machine, a looping station, her voice, and later his, to build a musical backdrop, he imbues her world with a narrative by speaking as characters (perhaps, as himself?) who navigate this musical world with equal parts trepidation, curiosity, and conviction. In our conversation, Marquette attests to how this kind of creative relationship is an essential part of Instigation Festival’s fabric:

“We can default to a space of jazz-based instrumental hierarchies because it’s a language we all know, but I’m more interested in an approach reminiscent of painting, where there’s a foreground and background.” During these first two nights, this arrangement becomes a unifying thread. In the festival’s most abrasive set, the modular synths of Cooper Crain and Rotten Milk created a crunchy, industrial hellscape that Rob Cambre’s guitar penetrates unflinchingly to stay relevant. 

Naturally, a festival that defies categories like “free jazz” or “noise” and instead calls itself “improvised and interesting” could feature dissonance and atonality at any turn. But many musicians, like Emily Mikesell on trumpet and Helen Gillet on cello, drift into more formal experimentation by percussing on their instruments as melodies swirled around them.

This kind of experimentation might seem whimsical and unskilled to the untrained ear. However, each musician’s tender handling of their instrument is a testament to an intimate familiarity that could only be achieved through patient training: Mikesell bangs the body of her trumpet with its valves to create a metallic resonance and presses her palm against the mouthpiece to make it sound like the flapping gills of a beached fish; later, Gillet strikes the body of her cello with her bow as if to evoke a sense of danger.

While some artists would hold a quick check-in with each other before stepping on stage, others, like Ben LaMar Gay and Rex Gregory hardly exchange a word. Usually, this serves the session because the performance is not just about the music but also the unspoken negotiation between two strangers. A sense of ease between Gay and Gregory slowly sets in, and Instigation’s spirit of ephemerality naturally takes root – quick allusions to what could become infectious hooks seem to evaporate as quickly as they coalesce. Both played an array of acoustic and electronic instruments during the 30-minute set, from Gay’s flugelhorn and conch shell to Gregory’s saxophone and harmonizer pedal. After ebbing and flowing as the contours of the music require, Gregory and Gay leave the stage no longer strangers.

Instigation Festival’s Musical Harvest

If the Monday and Tuesday performances highlight the relationships created from creative collaboration, the final, culminating night mostly flips the script. The evening’s second set features Aurora Nealand, Anton Hatwich, Paul Thibodeaux, and Instigation founder Steve Marquette, whose collective roots run deep: the even split of New Orleans and Chicago musicians has played and recorded numerous times under the Kobra Quartet moniker.

Playing together for the first time in years, the four exude an ease that most of us aspire to reach in our closest relationships. Hatwich, on bass, has no problem pedaling on one note for minutes on end, while Thibodeaux alternates between riding the toms and sprinkling snare hits. Together, the two create the festival’s first proper rhythm section as they land on repeatable ideas that the audience (and their collaborators) can properly sink their teeth into.

Nealand’s accordion and saxophone intermittently dip in with exuberant brushstrokes, and Marquette’s looped guitar offers chordal dimensionality. Though still completely improvised, this set shows how lasting relationships between collaborators, cultivated and sustained over years of creative experimentation, can foster a sense of collective egolessness. With nothing left to prove to each other, the artists can singularly focus on the music they’re making.

The last performance of the Instigation Festival – its only non-improvised set – features Mike Reed’s Separatist Party, a Chicago-based ensemble of artists who had each played in impromptu sets over the previous three nights. They perform several songs from 2023’s eponymous Separatist Party album, which fuses the studied spirituality of icons such as Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk with the grittier textures of contemporary artists like Anadol and Rosa Brunello.

As intricate rhythms and a hypnotic bass synth give way to ornate horn lines, Marvin Tate’s lucid storytelling injects a narrative impetus into the music. The music and his monologues wind through unexpected locales, ranging from exultation to muted introspection, from the universal to the deeply personal. Tate passionately shares a spiritual call to arms during the evening’s final song: “Your soul…is a moshpit!” 

Separatist Party’s performance, at once freewheeling and delightfully disciplined, shows how the formlessness of “free” music can naturally give way to inspired, accessible songs of discernible arcs. With each song, we are reminded that every one of the festival’s sets could, with proper care, turn into a resplendent collaboration. Most of the festival’s creative seedlings will nourish the soil of this vibrant creative community as they dissolve into memory, but a few can puncture the surface and turn into the next electrifying project.

What’s the Point of Improvisational Collaboration?

In an era when our eyes and ears are oversaturated with regurgitative art like movie remakes and cover bands, the need for creative originality has come into question. The biggest theatrical blockbusters are typically updates of iconic classics, and the most attention-grabbing concerts tend to be headlined by chart-topping idols from bygone eras. But is it not worth considering the value of original art in a larger social context?

I believe that our passion for revivals and re-makes is the other side of a deep-seated aversion – that, as artists, we could fail in the eyes of an unforgiving public, and as audiences, the present will never hold a candle to the past. This unspoken fear often coaxes us into replacing curiosity with comfort as our central creative impetus. Is it much of a reach to consider that a diminishing curiosity of artists and audiences might inform other parts of our lives by conditioning us to embrace things only as they are?

Instigation Festival marks a rare opportunity for artists and spectators to jolt themselves into honoring and indulging curiosity. As the musicians on stage led me into dark, dusty corners of my imagination, I was pleasantly reminded that my musical taste, voice, and understanding of the world could evolve if only I challenged myself to find comfort in discomfort and go places I ordinarily would not.

Tate’s declaration – that our souls are messy, vibrant mosh pits – feels right. Our ideas should push up against one another, contradictions should occur, and personal boundaries should be tested to fend off creative and intellectual calcification. But for such creative work to begin, there must be a catalyst, an instigator, that exerts the first forceful but compassionate shove and encourages us to give in to something more risky. For those fortunate enough to experience these performances, Instigation Festival is that potent reminder of our most sublime and inquisitive selves, a courageous foray into a seemingly limitless world of possibility.

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