REVIEW: Hear in Now with Alexander Hawkins at the Vortex

(L-R) Alexander Hawkins (L) and Hear in Now - Tomeka Reid, Silvia Bolognesi, Mazz Swift
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All rights reserved.


Hear in Now with Alexander Hawkins
(Vortex, 22 October 2017; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

Hot on the heels of their participation in the Art Ensemble of Chicago's momentous performances at Cafe Oto, the acoustic string trio, Hear in Now, gave a uniquely flavoured and sensitive recital at the Vortex. In their first set they drew on compositions from their new CD, Not Living in Fear (International Anthem), and in the second they were joined by Alexander Hawkins (piano) for a lively, extended improvisation.

Hear in Now bridge the classical and jazz idioms in a way that evades categorisation. The all female trio of Mazz Swift (violin/vocals), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Silvia Bolognesi (double bass) - two Americans and an Italian - have found in each other sympathetic spirits who have technical strengths and a view on composition that derives from classical training and immersion in jazz, conduction and improvisation.

Working as a trio since 2009, they achieve a delicate expressive balance which is, in essence, an exquisite exercise in democracy. Sharing is at the root of the way the string trio interacts and the intuitive distribution of the melodic leads and the underlying structural forms defines their sound. The pairings that lay down the rhythmic and figural foundations shift seamlessly within the trio. It can be bass and cello, cello and violin, or violin and bass at any time holding down a riff or solid beat, giving the third musician the melodic initiative or a solo window, mixing pizzicato and bowed technique with authoritative ease, as each piece demands.

A high energy, intricately synchronised improvisation set down a marker for the trio's virtuosic technique. The bluesy phrase which bubbled through the stramash signalled the cross-fertilisation of genres to which they would return throughout the evening. Creaky abstractions, taps on the instruments and near silence sat comfortably with Swift's soaring, jazz-rock-rooted violin solo. Carefully crafted, syncopated bass and cello lines in Bolognesi’s Transiti created gentle space blended with tough discords and delicate, high pitched phrasings. Swift's brief, peripheral vocalese interventions added an extra half dimension to the sound. Reid's thoughtful Prayer for Wadud was a platform for intense meanderings around a strong riff which dissolved in to a light haze, while Swift’s Leaving Livorno (one of their favourite places) blended contemporary classical ethos with a mildly Celtic undercurrent.

With Hawkins they opened their account with the intensity of a Bartok quartet. A surprise break as Swift sang an impromptu and offbeat Happy Birthday to an audience member before resuming with a spiky, scrawly spell of raw improvisation. More physical than the trio's first set, the tension had something of Ligeti about it, with threads of African tribal song and rhythms at its roots, and Swift's sustained vocals recalling Abby Lincoln. Hawkins was highly mobile adding broad, crunchy chords, sprinkled runs, stabs on single note repetitions, dipping in to the piano to add plucked wires to expand the complement of strings.

Throughout, Bolognesi's alternate smiles and strained expressions bore testament to the challenges she set herself to draw out the maximum from her bass, while Reid took the cello into infrequently charted territories to shine light on its powerful potential. And all the way through nothing was amplified - but everything was recorded (by International Anthem) - in the Vortex's acoustically sympathetic space.

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