The name is a little strange. Looking through gig listings and seeing "Improvisational Arts Council" conjures up images of grant-writing workshops or maybe a new watercolors exhibit. But Improvisational Arts Council (I.A.C.) is a progressive, risk-taking band of the highest order, with "Improvisational" being the operative word. In the three years since the band's formation, I.A.C. has welcomed guests such as poet Dennis Formento, devoted entire performances to the music of Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus, and recreated Miles Davis' Bitches Brew album.
Those programs are challenging enough, but I.A.C.'s trademark is its devotion to playing live with a blank musical canvas. Many of the band's performances are billed as Acid Tests, a reference to the Grateful Dead's legendary '60s free-for-alls for LSD advocate Ken Kesey.
"My idea with I.A.C. was getting music directly from the unconscious," says I.A.C. guitarist and bandleader Mark Fowler. "When you have a song and a particular framework, you deal with the peculiarities of that harmonic structure, and the other way is to start from scratch. All of (the bandmembers) have a common musical vocabulary -- all of us has listened to and absorbed so much music, it all comes out at some point or another. Creating a whole new musical language was the idea, and some of it's more obscure rather than obvious."
That's a philosophy that local free-jazz icon Kidd Jordan has passionately pursued for decades, and it's heartening to see -- and hear -- I.A.C. carrying that torch. Fowler's musical background is intriguing; he's a Berklee College of Music-educated fretman with a fondness for Frank Zappa, composer/guitarist John McLaughlin's work with Mahavishnu Orchestra, the atmospheric soundscapes of early ECM-label stalwarts like Pat Metheny, and the visceral bite of Chicago and Delta blues. He's found like-minded musical compatriots in his I.A.C. collaborators: flutist Janna Saslaw, saxophonist and keyboardist Eric Shuman, bassist Jimbo Walsh and drummer Endre Landsnes. Saslaw's flute work gives the combo intriguing textures, and at times a Middle Eastern or Far Eastern feel. Shuman's adept at roiling fusion work, while Walsh and Landsnes are an ever-flexible rhythm section adept at swinging, shuffling or being downright cacophonous.
All those qualities are in full bloom on Improvisational Art Council's new debut CD, Gardens. The album consists of four pieces -- one of which clocks in near the 20-minute mark -- that accurately reflect I.A.C.'s mindset. Credit for that difficult feat goes to recording in the studio as if it were any other gig.
"We went in and set up the instruments and Mike West set up the microphones and we checked the sound, and we just played," says Fowler. "It was all spontaneous, and the album is everything we played that day, in the order that we did it. We didn't cut pieces out and trim it together, and we initially thought we'd do that and construct something. But when we finished, we said, let's let it be. This is what we do. It's really honest."
It's engaging, too. One of the occasional disappointments of spontaneous collaboration, especially in free or avant-garde jazz, are rapid descents into looooong periods of complete dissonance, the equivalent of tearing a house down in order to build it back up from its foundation. But I.A.C., while it has its moments of musical chaos, has a much more patient approach to changing tempos, melodies and harmonies. "Lantana," like its namesake Caribbean shrub, has tough, thorny segments where Fowler plays some rapid-fire scalding runs with a heavy metal feel, and it also boasts tender moments where Shuman's vibraphone-like keys work is the equivalent of brilliantly colored lantana blooms. But the two extremes unfold organically and feel interconnected without being jarring.
The CD's other performances have diverse sonic palettes as well; "Indigo" has a blue tone-undercurrent brought to the fore by Saslaw's haunting flute calls and Landsnes' subtle cymbal and tom-tom work, while the rough-and-tumble assault of "Brer Albert's Briar Patch" is a tip of the hat to wailing saxophonist and composer Albert Ayler. The final cut, "Rosa Crucia," starts out like a beautiful benediction with shimmering acoustic guitar work and touches of flamenco, and its middle section incorporates an eminently funky call-and-response dialogue with Shuman's sax and Fowler's guitar.
That's just one moment of many that makes Gardens a place that encourages repeat visits. It's oxymoronic, but on its debut CD, I.A.C.'s devotion to spontaneity and playing in the moment has created art that lasts.
International Arts Council plays a CD-release show for Gardens at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, at the Louisiana Music Factory, then does an electronica-oriented performance later that night at Cafe Brasil.
- The Improvisational Arts Council's Gardens sounds like a band in full bloom.