New Haven Improvisers Collective

Elastic Band

Nearly 10 years in, members of the New Haven Improvisers Collective still like to figure it out as they go. During NHIC’s open-call workshops, held every last Monday of the month at Never Ending Books (810 State St, New Haven), a rotating cast of musicians circles up in pursuit of controlled cacophony, where note progressions are considered in emotional terms as often as musical ones, and where, as a result, the music can shift as quickly as the mood.

“What keeps me going,” says NHIC founder Bob Gorry, is that “it can be new every time you play.” Back in January 2005, he wanted to create a kinetic atmosphere for musicians where, instead of planning everything out and “worrying about what songs to play,” they could just play. The solution was the collective and its once-a-month gatherings, where attendance, and therefore instrumentation, fluctuates. Anywhere from “three to fifteen people” have shown up, Gorry says, with all encouraged “to play when they feel comfortable.”

But order has its place, even in an improvisational group like NHIC. For one thing, each monthly session begins the same way, with everyone playing a sustained, singular note on their instruments in unison, just as very non-improvisational orchestras around the world do. This helps players tune their instruments, of course, but it also helps them become attuned to the other musicians in the room.

This and other exercises like it let “very, very little” individual ego into the group dynamic, Gorry says. They also foster more cohesive pieces of music that sometimes turn into actual songs, which sometimes get bundled together into records. The NHIC boasts nine live recordings made mostly at the Firehouse 12 studio in downtown. Fittingly enough, each CD is “a different collection of musicians,” each with its own “eclectic” instrumentation.

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You might wonder how something could be a song and yet also be improvised. It turns out “there are some loosely written parts,” Gorry acknowledges, sometimes in the form of sheet music, but sometimes in simpler, less bridled forms: mood cues, or stylistic ones. Most easily classified as free jazz, NHIC is free enough to skate this way or that—towards light experimental rock, perhaps, or even straight-ahead jazz—and while the musicians have their tricks for keeping it all together, even the synchronized moments could seem improvised if you didn’t know any better.

It’s still “mostly improvisation,” Gorry insists, perhaps wary of those who think this kind of music needs to exist absent any architecture at all. Anyway, having “a little bit of structure” helps keep the music more exciting, he thinks, preventing the group from settling into a single scheme and repeating it ad nauseam, for example, or from falling into overly busy dissonance. For NHIC’s recordings, at least, improvisation is deployed as a method, but not a dogma.

The result is a mindful sort of chaos, evident on NHIC’s new album, Electronhic. Sometimes it drives; sometimes it pulsates; sometimes it meanders. The CD’s name is a play on the group’s introduction of electronics-as-instruments to their repertoire, including a modulated, frenzied theremin, which kicks in about two minutes into track two, “The Sentinel.” Track five, “Evanescent Stiction,” is “a groovy Stick piece with trumpet and electronics evoking Miles and Cage,” as NHIC accurately describes it on its Bandcamp page. “Stick” here refers to a Chapman Stick, which looks and sounds like a headless electric bass guitar, but with an elongated neck wide enough to fit 12 strings. “You can play it like a piano,” offers Gorry, not that that makes it seem any simpler.

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At least one track on the album is inspired by another work of art: “Wells,” about “a battle to save the planet” a la H.G Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Though it’s difficult to hear that thematic idea for much of the song, the fury of war becomes easy to imagine around the third minute, after composer Brett Bottomley lays down an intense groove with that Chapman Stick.

The NHIC doesn’t just record most of its stuff at Firehouse 12, it also plays an annual show there, with this year’s doubling as a release party for Electronhic. That’s happening this Saturday, November 22, at 8:30 p.m., featuring five members of the collective.

At the show, judging from a recent practice session, you can expect one of those members, Paul McGuire, to make runs and trills with various saxophones. You can expect another member, Jeff Cedrone, to deliver strikes and sweeps through his effects-laden guitar. You can expect their bandmate Bottomley to coax ethereal chords from his Chapman Stick, and another bandmate Pete Riccio to anchor erratic hit sections using his colorful, translucent drums. You can expect the remaining member, Mr. Gorry, to reach wildly around his guitar’s fretboard, pulling out discord.

In other words, you can expect the unexpected.

New Haven Improvisers Collective
Meeting every last Monday at Never Ending Books
810 State St, New Haven (map)
Website | Bandcamp (listen)

Written by Jared Emerling. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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