Tuesday night at Roulette, pianist Richard Sussman told the crowd that his nonet the Evolution Ensemble had played its signature composition, his Evolution Suite, maybe five or six times previously, and that this performance was the best of them all. It was his birthday, too. The lush, epic sweep and subtle humor of the performance more than validated the Chamber Music America grant responsible for it.
“I didn’t know I had something programmatic until I’d written it,” Sussman winkingly explained beforehand. Its five movements explore a creation myth, written mostly for piano, bass, drums and strings, with characteristically vivid, intuitive, lyrical solos and textural lustre from trumpeter/flugelhornist Tim Hagans and tenor saxophonist Rich Perry. The duo’s exuberantly intertwining counterpoint literally took the piece out on a high note: the ride there was just as much fun.
Austere fogbanks from the string quartet of violinists Mark Feldman and Mario Forte, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Peter Sachon kicked off the first of Sussman’s uneasily glistening, spaciously Messiaenic passages that he expanded methodically. The first of Perry’s similarly considered, elegantly crescendoing solos handed off to Hagans, who put on a clinic in finding new and surprisingly subtle ways to color a long series of stairstepping upward and downward chromatic runs.
Since all the gods were tuckered out from creating an entire universe, it made sense that the suite’s second movement would have a balmy swing, in a Gil Evans/Miles Davis vein. Dreamily surrealistic piano ushered in a deep-space tableau spiced with microtonal strings, a drifting Perry solo, a balletesque interlude from bassist Mike Richmond and artful variations on a steady clave from drummer Clarence Penn, who would revisit that trope much more viscerally and impactfully later on.
A rather horror-stricken tritone riff set off the suite’s centerpiece, Nexus, and the chase was on, with a darkly Mingue-esque bustle. A dancing violin solo from Forte heated the mix, Richmond’s black crude bubbles in stark contrast to Sussman’s starlit lines and the shivery string passage that finally fueled an enthusiastic clapalong from the crowd.
The fourth movement opened on an understatedly, portentous note, Penn’s dynamically nuanced and then explosive solo taking centerstage before the piece wound out on an unexpectedly jubilant tangent. Throughout the work, there were all sorts of wry accents: a wisp of a cymbal glissando from Penn; Sussman evincing resonance from the piano lid; and light electronic touches, some of which worked, some of which were superfluous. Wouldn’t it be even more fun if Sussman gets another commission to keep the saga going – maybe that could go in the other direction, an apocalyptic scenario or a cautionary tale at least.
Roulette may be home to some of this city’s most impressive indie classical and avant garde programming these days, but their roots are in jazz, dating back to the Tribeca loft scene of the early 80s. The next jazz show there is on March 20 at 8 PM with the Tomeka Reid Quartet featuring Jason Roebke, Tomas Fujiwara, and Mary Halvorson playing edgy cello jazz; advance tix are $20/$15 stud/srs.