Elements of Style

The Sonoran Consort mingles many genres in music all its own.

Even the members of the Sonoran Consort can't quite categorize the music they play. Classical with an edgy beat? Jazz with tighter structure than usual? World music by 30-something white guys?

"I don't have any idea how we classify ourselves," admits saxophonist Michael Hester.

"Once we have the people in the room with us, what you call the music is not a problem," says percussionist Todd Hammes. "I don't know anybody who listens to music in just one category, unless they're 13 years old. If people like rhythmic classical music, or intelligent New Age, or light world music--if they like any one of those things, they'll like this."

"This" is the improvisationally based music of the Sonoran Consort. Four years ago Hammes, Hester and keyboardist-composer William Campbell started jamming together, just making things up as they went. "Improvisation is all we did for the first couple of years," says Campbell. "That taught us how to breathe together as musicians; our ensemble playing is really tight now because of that."

Rather than trying to reproduce every improvisation from memory, the trio began notating its work and has only recently started playing on stage with music stands in front of them, although Hammes refuses to look at his. A piece is still unlikely to come out exactly the same way every time, but once the musicians have worked out the basic elements together, Campbell imposes on them an overall structure and the music gains a general consistency.

Even so, improvisation still lies at the heart of what the Sonoran Consort does.

"One night we were doing a La Placita gig," says Campbell, "and Michael started playing this one lick, and eventually all of 'Open Rail' came out of that lick."

"Open Rail" is the multi-movement, train-inspired composition that opens and lends its title to the Sonoran Consort's second CD. The material on that disc, plus a few other pieces, will constitute the group's concert September 7 at the University of Arizona's Crowder Hall.

Mainly a venue for classical music, Crowder Hall is nevertheless an appropriate setting for the Sonoran Consort. All three of its members are classically trained. Hester holds degrees from the UA, ASU and Indiana University. He has studied and collaborated with such leading classical saxophonists as Jean-Marie Londeix and Eugene Rousseau, and his national reputation as a performer and clinician is greater than most Tucsonans probably realize.

When Hester is out of earshot, Hammes and Campbell sing his praises extravagantly. "He's the best at what he does," says Hammes. "And just in terms of the pure sound of a saxophone," says Campbell, "I've never heard anything sweeter. Branford Marsalis called Michael the other week and said, 'I love your CD.'"

Like Hester, Hammes studied at the UA; he plays triangle and tambourine in the Tucson Symphony. ("Don't laugh," he says. "That paid for my van.") Campbell, who teaches at Pima Community College, holds a doctorate in composition from the University of Oregon.

Yet their musical interests are impressively diverse. Hester maintains that he is in no way a jazz saxophonist, but in the classical field he has performed and recorded everything from mellow Bizet to provocative avant-garde music. Campbell spent three years in a Balinese gamelan in Oregon. Hammes, who thrums anything within reach, including café tables, has studied the Indian tabla for years with Pandit Sharda Sahai and plays on a large collection of instruments from Asia and Africa.

The musicians are careful not to come off like imperialistic Americans pillaging exotic cultures. They withdrew one early piece that involved Campbell playing a Native American flute because something seemed inauthentic to them. Yet they have no qualms about incorporating elements of world music they have thoroughly explored themselves.

"How can we not reflect the experiences we've had?" asks Campbell. "I played in that Balinese gamelan for three years, so how could I not use some of those rhythms in what I do now?"

Adds Hester, "The world has gotten so small, with CDs and videos and touring musicians, that it's impossible for the music not to mingle."

"The influence goes both ways," says Hammes. "Without Western influence on Africa, there wouldn't be highlife music; without disco, there wouldn't be reggae. It isn't 'our' idea versus 'their' idea. There's only one idea, and everything is a variation on that."

The idea that improvisation removes the Sonoran Consort's music entirely from the classical realm is one the players find frustrating. "It amazes me that the music department is the only department in a university's whole fine-arts area that doesn't require every single person to create something original," Hester laments.

"Rarely will you find a violinist or a cellist who's comfortable enough to improvise," says Campbell. "It's not the fault of the teachers--unless they're organists, they're not trained in improvisation, so their students don't get trained in it, either. As musicians, we don't trust what we can add to the music."

This doesn't keep the Sonoran Consort from performing with strictly classical musicians. This coming spring, the group will appear with both the Catalina Chamber Orchestra and the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra. Details are posted at the group's Web site, www.SonoranConsort.com.

The players point out that if people hear the Sonoran Consort play the same piece in one of those concerts as well as in this weekend's concert and listen to that piece on the CD, each experience will be significantly different.

"It's not that we have different arrangements of the same piece," says Campbell. "We keep having different conversations about the piece, and what's on the CD is just one conversation."

HAMMES WILL BE ESPECIALLY busy this month. Besides the Sonoran Consort's show, he'll be conducting a percussion workshop September 12 and giving a solo percussion concert September 14 as part of Pima Community College's Live Arts series.

Actually, it's not a solo show; Hammes will be collaborating with the entire audience.

"I'm inspired by Bobby McFerrin to make as much music as I can with just myself and the audience--singing, clapping, stomping, running around," he says.

Of course, Hammes will also deploy his vanload of percussion instruments from around the world, playing solos he says will be sometimes esoteric but always accessible.

"It's not a melting pot where you can't taste what anything is," he says. "It's a masala, or a stew, where you get nice big chunks of flavor."

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