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In a stunning display of absolute indifference to artistic excellence, San Diegans avoided Saturday night's Vinny Golia / Rick Helzer + Burr / Unruh Duo concert in droves--which was a shame, on multiple levels.

Despite the low attendance, those who came were treated to two sets of gorgeously improvised music by four master musicians, (five counting Jeanette Kangas' guest spot) performing at the highest level.

The Burr / Unruh Duo

Flautist Ellen Burr and bass-clarinetist Michael William Von Unruh logged hundreds of hours improvising together in the last few years, and their efforts were clearly evident in this performance. The sonic blend of her flutes and his lower pitched instruments created an aural double-helix that orbited, hovered and wound around each other until the distinction between the two became impossible to define.

Burr began with hissing overtones while Unruh created percussive pad-popping sounds before diving into the chocolaty regions of his horn. The contrast in registers and timbres were alternately stark and nebulous. Unruh picked up a clarinet that had a long plastic tube inserted where the bell should go, and, with circular breathing, swung it like an elephant trunk to create a bed of undulating tones which Burr laced with nervous fragments and long multiphonics.

Both musicians utilized humor as an equal ingredient in their mix. There were many times when the listener had to laugh at the audacity of it all--they seemed to relish in moving from independent, contrapuntal discourse into astonishing unison passages of squealing, squawking cacophony that reminded me of the sound of a fox entering a hen-house.

Burr and Unruh demonstrated a total mastery of their respective woodwinds--manipulating tones in myriad expressions--and their sense of interplay bordered on the telepathic. Dynamics were explored on a masterful level as well, with crescendos that ratcheted into squalls soon answered with remarkable diminuendos into near silence, which would often serve as their method for ending a piece.

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Vinny Golia & Rick Helzer

Golia has worked his way into becoming the multi-woodwind virtuoso on the improvised music scene today. Intense woodshedding on dozens of horns for more than thirty years have given him a unique signature on each instrument, from the tiny piccolo to the massive contrabass clarinet.

Beginning on the soprano saxophone, Golia released multi-note melodic phrases over the dark piano ruminations of Helzer, who kept the suspended drama of oblique harmonies tethered to the saxophonist's wide arc of tonalities. Golia then picked up a clarinet and began a series of screeching multiphonics while Helzer drummed on the edges of the piano. Suddenly, Helzer cranked up the tension with storm clouds of reverberant bass tones causing Golia to switch directions before both musicians found a suitable release point to draw down into silence.

San Diego drummer Kangas joined the two for the next piece, a pointillistic exploration of independent commentary that found her striking the edges of her drums and shaking bundles of nylon sticks into the air, layering under Golia's repeating fragments of melody and Helzer's eerie tinkling arpeggios. Golia focused on the tenor saxophone for this--exploiting a personal sound which wound up from the lower register into screaming blasts in the altissimo, followed by honks cut off by smacking the bell against his thigh.

Helzer took over with constant streams of ideas that sounded like Beethoven channeled through Sun Ra. Golia returned to take the tune out referencing Sonny Rollins and Albert Ayler in the same brief solo.

Burr and Unruh joined Golia, Helzer and Kangas for a furious closer. Kangas used soft mallets to conjure up timpani-like drama to support the overtone musings of Golia's contrabass clarinet and the pan-tonal rumbling of Helzer, while Burr and Unruh layered piccolo and bass clarinet trills beneath. Everyone got their moment in the spotlight.

It's truly a pity that more people weren't there to witness this electrifying example of completely modern music. Ex-Heavyweight Champion George Forman once postulated that the problem with jazz was, "the better it gets--the less people like it."

Talk about nailing it on the head.

Many props to the San Diego Center for the Arts--Nate Jarrell, Jeanette Kangas and Suzzan Gage for the courage to bring such adventurous music to town.

Photos by Bonnie Wright

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