James Noyes’ music is a joyful balance of tradition and progress. I attended his recital at Our Saviour’s Atonement, a gorgeous-yet-intimate local church seemingly hidden at the upper edge of Manhattan, equidistant from Broadway and a sudden, staggering cliff face. The room, with a colossal pipe organ as its centerpiece, was an appropriately sacred space for the music. Almost all of the pieces performed were specifically written for Noyes, and the chemistry between himself and the composers was palpable. When one hears a piece written by a great musician specifically for another great musician, the effect is almost numinous: one hears the composer creating a sound-world for the performer to exist in, and then the performer plays in reverence of the world they find created for them. Hopefully, the listener can usually hear why these musicians were drawn to each other. Which is certainly the case with Noyes and the composers whose music he plays.
There were two themes I found intriguing in Noyes’ program. One was the general idea of impressionism. Not necessarily the artistic movement itself, although there is a connection (that I’ll get to in a moment), but more the idea of impressionism. The idea of creating something that communicates more in a cloud than in a direct ray of light. A piece of music that is not programmatic or representative of something specific, but still carries some kind of image, some blurry idea, some vague sense of narrative that isn’t exactly a story. A dream or a foggy memory. The other theme was more specific. Noyes’ playing, as well as the pieces themselves, seem to be dealing with the various ways musicians have attempted to fuse jazz and classical music in the last hundred years, and how one could continue to do so while still breaking new ground. This is where the influence of the musical impressionists like Debussy and Ravel come into play, considering how strong their influence on jazz and jazz-classical hybrids were (think Gershwin, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner).
These ideas were even present in the structure of the program itself: the first half of the concert had more of a flavor of Debussy and Gershwin and Coltrane, and felt more rooted in tradition, while the second half was decidedly more experimental and abstract, while also being more programmatic, with titles suggesting imagery: Eric Nathan’s Imaginings (2004), Marc-Antonio Consoli’s Sonatina for Tenor Saxophone and Piano (1965), Steve Cohen’s Sonata for Soprano Saxophone and Piano (2002), a brief intermission, Rich Shemaria’s Redial (2000), Michael Patterson’s Line Drawings (2003, rev. 2010), Rich Miller’s Shimmer/now deep (2003), and then a brief, ethereal encore of Noyes’ own Equinox Liturgy. All except Consoli’s Sonatina were written for, and dedicated to, Noyes. He was accompanied by pianist Beth Robin and guitarist Liam Wood. The same personnel accompany him on his new CD, Imaginings, which features all the aforementioned works save the Liturgy, and does an exquisite job of capturing his playing.
What really differentiates Noyes from other saxophonists is his unusual partnership with his instrument. The saxophone allows for a great range of individuality, but rarely is it as much of a sonic chameleon as it is in Noyes’ hands. He turns his instrument into a shapeshifting mass of pure expression. One moment it is a flute, the next a clarinet, the next an oboe…then it’s something you haven’t heard before, something thick with harmonics like a Tuvan throat-singer one moment and then thin, sharp and laser-like the next. But a moment later it’s a saxophone again, either clear and controlled in a classical style, or gritty, wailing and bluesy. This isn’t to say that Noyes is derivative, or inconsistent…his voice is always present, his unique singing tone a continuous line through the changing soundscapes.
The first three pieces comprised the first half of the show. Imaginings lay the groundwork for the evening, passing from fluttery and open to percussive and dramatic to sweetly fading, invoking many of the influences discussed earlier. Consoli’s Sonatina, written thirty-five years before the next oldest piece on the program, was a little more genre-specific, having clearer definitions between it’s jazzier parts and it’s more modern-classical-ish sections. A jarring, rhythmically crisp and semi-atonal first movement gave way to a swinging, gentle serenade, complete with walking basslines and shimmery Herbie Hancock-ish chord extensions, which was almost shoved out of the way by a manic third movement of quick, sharp contrasts. Cohen’s gorgeous Sonata followed logically, taking a similar approach to its stylistic blending. I was especially captivated by the Rhapsody in Blue-like melodies in the second movement.
After the intermission, the tone changed drastically. Shemaria’s Redial, inspired by the incessant howling of a dial-up modem, was my personal favorite of the evening, covering a huge amount of ground in a short span. Propulsive, insistent and pointillist, its driving rhythm and erratic character made for a note-perfect rendition of technological frustration. For Patterson’s three-movement Line Drawings, written for solo saxophone, Noyes left the floor where he had been set up throughout the show, and climbed to the stage, playing in front of the towering pipe organ. Titled Sequence and Moving Focus, The Equilibrium of Tensions, and Scale and Proportion, each movement carried emotional as well as cerebral depth…they felt geometric, or architectural, but lonely as well, not without melodic character and solemn in their declaration. Miller’s Shimmer/now deep, for sax and guitar, served as a perfect closer for the program, seemingly incorporating most of the elements and styles touched upon in previous pieces, managing to be fast-paced and episodic in nature but still organic in its logic and flow. After thunderous and heartfelt applause, the brief, joyous excerpt from the Equinox Liturgy reverberating throughout the church was less an encore and more of a parting prayer. Listening to Noyes play these compositions offers an insightful and emotionally satisfying journey through a gorgeous continuum of styles and moods.
Evan Burke is a bassist and composer living in Brooklyn.