As the sun set through the windows of Lang concert hall last Tuesday, Hans Ludemann, Swarthmore’s Cornell Visiting Professor and resident jazz pianist, flew his trio across the world to perform for 11 Swatties and a smattering of elders from the Ville. Featuring Christian Thome on drums and the great Aly Keita on balafon, Trio Ivoire is one of the most inviting, unpretentious, and open-eared jazz groups of today’s scene – the perfect compromise between a concert series resistant to any music that isn’t taught in school and a student body too wrapped up in its studies to bother peeking outside of its artistic comfort zone.
Unfortunately, few students were willing to brave the sunny five-minute walk to the music building, and so the concert was effectively an underground affair. It shouldn’t have been; Trio Ivoire gave a captivating set that ranged from energizing to mesmerizing and served as a brief sanctuary within the unrelenting Swatgrind.
The name Trio Ivoire refers to the Ivory Coast where Ludemann first met Keita on a West African tour in 1999. The trio cycled through drummers until they scored the mastermind Christian Thome, in 2013. Since then, Trio Ivoire has released their fourth LP, Timbuktu, from which they drew songs heavily during the concert. The group is well into its second decade, and hearing them play together is like watching old friends have a conversation, particularly between the founding members of Ludemann and Keita. After almost every song, the two would subtly compete to see who could have the last word, tapping their instruments with increasing delicacy in a game of musical chicken.
Games like these gave the concert an inviting and informal vibe, humanizing the artists instead of bolstering their mystique (as the concert staples of fog machines and costumes are wont to do). Such approachability is a current trend within jazz performance – probably a reaction to the allegations of pretentiousness and elitism that distort jazz’s image all over popular media. Ironically, jazz musicians (or rather their marketing teams) have historically worked to construct a barrier between the artist and the audience. Miles Davis gave impersonal suit-and-tie concerts in order to remind the audience to treat his notes as if each came straight from the Holy Spirit. This post-Swing tradition was a reaction to the increasing seriousness and high art status of jazz, but also a direct rejection of the racialized idea of the performer as an entertainer. Louis Armstrong may have sought to entertain an audience, but Miles let them bask in his esteemed presence.
Now that jazz is academically institutionalized, and thus seen as rather fancy by default, musicians no longer feel the same pressure to establish their validity as artists. In fact, there is a new backlash, in which performers actively distance themselves from artistic pretense, sending the message that their music should be enjoyed, rather than revered or approached intellectually. Intentional informality serves as an antidote to jazz’s reputation for elitism (though apparently not a strong enough one to win over the average Swarthmore student).
But putting general trends aside, the playfulness and geniality of Trio Ivoire’s performance stems largely from the personalities of the three individuals. When warmhearted musicians get together and jam they make warmhearted music. The tunes tended to convey optimism through comfortable grooves. To be sure, the trio explored a broad emotional palette, at times waxing to cloudier, chaotic moments inflected with longing or even aggression. But for the most part, this was music that makes you feel good when you listen to it – joyful, with a tendency toward grandeur.
The moments of peak grandness came with the Swarthmore Jazz Ensemble, which added a horn section and bolstered the rhythm section to a formidable eight. Indeed, with three percussionists, two pianists, and a bass and a guitar supplementing the balafon, the horn arrangements were occasionally drowned out. The horns were flaccid in most parts of “Love Confessions”, but shone while embellishing the song with single counterpoint lines. The dynamics were much more balanced on the Keita composition “Maloya” which also featured a stony solo from Tai Warner ‘19 on tenor sax. James Wallace-Lee ‘17 also demonstrated his chops on a piano-duo introduction with Ludemann.
Swarthmore’s Jazz Ensemble helped fill the concert hall, but the trio also proved its ability to achieve an encompassing, rich sound without the gang of students backing them up. Despite the percussive tendencies of the three musicians (all of whom make sound by hitting things), their music was often smooth and atmospheric. To make up for the lack of a bass, Ludemann put extra weight on the piano’s lower register, and Thome’s experimental whines and hisses filled in the treble over the balafon’s blunted tone. Regardless of their disparate origins, the three instruments wove together in a unique but convincing fashion, allowing the trio to develop as a group, without drawing unwanted attention to any one instrument.
The opening number, “Wusten-Weg”, took form gradually, like a huge object slowly rising out of the water. Ripples graced the placid surface as Ludemann almost absentmindedly fiddled with his keyboard, but the disturbances grew heftier as the others joined in and the trio gained momentum. The three traded solos in a vibrant, busy mid-section before a decrescendo led to a peaceful ending.
Many of their songs adhered to this basic dynamic arc of building up, rocking out, and settling down. Such a trajectory may seem commonplace, but it is actually rather unusual. Jazz artists have a habit of stopping raucous songs on a dime, partially to demonstrate tightness, and partially to let whiplash indicate how hard and fast the song had been moving in the first place. Trio Ivoire, on the other hand, plays a more delicate game by letting each song dwindle organically and stop whenever all three agree that it should.
“Arabesque” employed this form most effectively. After a rhythmically compelling balafon solo, the band lurched dissonantly until a sweep down the keyboard snapped them out of their turbulence into a swaying coda. I was completely enraptured, and as the song gently brought me back down I felt paralyzed, like a chicken that just got its belly rubbed.
The trio’s use of cyclical motifs also contributes to their hypnotic effect. They often build intensity not by moving laterally through a chord progression, but by circling repeatedly on a short melody or rhythm. They dwell so long on each idea, adding layers, abstracting, and soloing, that when they switch to a new section it feels particularly eventful. This element of repetition reflects their African influence, highlighted in Keita’s use of patterns and looping riffs.
Trio Ivoire’s ability to repeat short ideas for long amounts of time reflects an almost childlike sense of musical wonder. They can take a simple fragment and savor it, continuing to find value, pleasure, and inspiration in ideas that would have grown stale in the hands of a less deft and creative ensemble. It is unusual for a jazz group to be so modest and content. Many jazz musicians feel the pressure to push forward at such a frantic rate that good ideas are still underutilized by the time new ones are thrust in front of them. In jazz culture, innovation is particularly important for an artist’s reputation, so everyone gets antsy if they go more than five minutes without being a pioneer. It is rare for a group to explore a simple seed to the depth that the trio does, patiently letting the music play out and evolve like they have all the time in the world.
In fact, Trio Ivoire did lose track of time during the show (due to a couple impromptu numbers) and had to cut the program short as a result. The final segment of the program featured a guest appearance from Swarthmore’s Jazz Ensemble director Andrew Neu, who coaxed such a smooth tone from his tenor that it sounded remastered. As a testament to the musicianship of all four performers, the group seamlessly welcomed the saxophone into their sound. Neu soloed so deep inside the groove that I thought he might get stuck there, and his presence brought the concert to a triumphant finale.
Trio Ivoire delivered a rambunctious, touching performance that, through its guest appearances, functioned as a celebration of Swarthmore’s indigenous musical landscape. 99% of Swatties didn’t know what they were missing.
Featured image courtesy of https://phillyfunguide.com.