There is a lot of hay in the Asheville music scene. The traditional sound in these mountains is more than a little country. Considering that North Carolina is a major hub for bluegrass and old-time, if not the origin of those modes, the prevalence is not inappropriate. The Open Letter Music Series, curated by Asheville guitarist Shane Perlowin, is adding more reeds to the bale.
Although many of the participating musicians are most easily defined as “jazz,” Perlowin does not consider Open Letter to be a jazz series as such. “It’s a music series — a creative-music series.” One performer in particular, percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, set to perform May 18, is known for playing the cymbals with a bow and the snare drum with his lips. “If it is a jazz series, then it’s kick-ass jazz,” Perlowin said.
A reed instrument — the bass clarinet — started the series in 2006, with a performance by Keefe Jackson, joined by Josh Berman on cornet (as the cornet has no reed, consider the “hay” metaphor finished). Since that first performance at Static Age Records, which brought the two musicians South from Chicago, Open Letter has continued to grow.
It wasn’t even a series at first. Jackon’s sister lived in town and encouraged him to contact Perlowin for a show. “From there, I began receiving correspondences from various musicians in the avant-garde jazz/new music idioms who wanted me to present their performances in Asheville,” Perlowin told Xpress in an email.
After a few years of sporadic events, Perlowin started to organize. “In 2009, I decided to brand the series in order to establish some continuity,” he said. To book the series, Perlowin has called on his relationships with musicians, established through his own extensive touring with his primary band, Ahleuchatistas, as well as with other ensembles and, more recently, as a solo musician. But in the end, those relationships (and the relationships of those relationships) only helped bring musicians to town that Perlowin himself wants to witness and share with audiences. According to Perlowin, “My own enjoyment in listening plays a big part in motivating me to pursue this work. I hope people are just really excited about music, and will open their ears up to receive the unexpected.”
The series incorporates seasoned performers such as Tim Daisy (saxophone) and Ken Vandermark (percussion), performing as a duo, to younger musicians like Les Rhinoceros from Washington, D.C. “Some of the artists I book are internationally known and have been on the scene for a while, in some cases decades, and they will draw people out of the woodwork, even from hundreds of miles away. Some of the artists are not as established, but are doing new and creative things of high quality and should be heard.”
Sometimes, if not often, “should be heard” fails to entice even the more adventurous music listener. Perlowin’s enthusiasm alone, and his insistence on the simple thrill of listening, assuages any interpretation of this music as precious, as something listeners ought to hear but may not want to hear. “These are some of the best musicians in the world, making intense and beautiful music. When I was a teenager, growing up in south Florida, sneaking into jazz clubs that I was too young to enter, I would have my mind blown watching the old timers, like Dr. Lonnie Smith, play bebop music. I still get so excited to hear players that have spent their lives honing their sounds and exploring their instruments and their relationships with their fellow musicians. Especially so in a live setting. I hope to bring some of that magic here.”
The name for the series, which is also the name of Perlowin’s record label, Open Letter Records, comes from an article Charles Mingus wrote for the Village Voice. Published in 1973, “An Open Letter to the Avant Garde” inveighed against what Mingus described as the “rootlessness” of the so-called free-jazz being played at the time. Perlowin emphasized that the “open” aspect, not so much the “letter,” inspired his choice, and that the series in no way intends to serve elite or esoteric attitudes. Instead, Open Letter celebrates the “egalitarian,” as he puts it. “It’s not an attempt to commodify; it’s more about people following their muse in a way that they have naturally gravitated towards, in all their idiosyncrasies.
“I do not think you need to have some special knowledge to enjoy hearing this music performed live. When it is really happening, you can't help but get caught up in the energy. And I hope people will get that happy feeling of just having seen something really rare and special.”
Perlowin hopes to continue the series indefinitely, but he notes that each show constitutes a rare event. “In all seriousness, I don't have some pie-in-the-sky dreams about this,” he said. “It has a life of its own. If my means grow, it may be possible to book more expensive acts, I suppose. The fact is, the music will never be mainstream. I just want to hear it, so I will help to make that a reality as long as I am able. Hopefully, people will take advantage of the opportunity to check it out while it is happening.”
The 2011 season is already under way; the first performance, Chicago’s Nick Mazzarella Trio, was on May 5. If you approach the remaining shows with the same curious excitement and respect out of which the series itself was prepared, you’ll be rolling in the hay, so to speak.
— Jaye Bartell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org