It’s difficult to explain how spontaneously produced music can be beautiful. On its Winter 2005 Tour, the University’s School of Music’s Creative Arts Orchestra tapped into some sort of transcendent improvisatory force — and there’s no other way to explain the quality of the music that transpired.

Fine Arts Reviews
Bassist Brad Townsend, saxophonist Joey Dosik and violinist Leena Gilbert improvise during a
performance at Carnegie Mellon University. (Courtesy of Lloyd Cargo)

The music world isn’t all that different from the academic world — there are all kinds of rules restricting creativity. In such a rigid system, a performance group like this defies musical dogma. CAO is not only one of the few improvisatory ensembles in academics — they’re also one of the few such groups in the world.

“We play free because we want to live free,” trumpeter Ross Huff explained. For 15 musicians to play together without a predetermined musical structure and still create cohesive compositions time after time is nearly unbelievable.

Though CAO is made up of musicians with vastly different personalities, backgrounds and influences, they are able to reach their musical nirvana because the group makes this creative journey as one. Feeling the energy the band taps into as they communicate non-verbally during performances is in itself galvanizing. That players with such varying life experiences — from a Viennese master’s student to a freshman from Los Angeles — can share the same musical vision so effortlessly is frighteningly beautiful.

Equally impressive was the momentum the group built up over the course of their five-day, five-show jaunt. It all began at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where CAO’s version of a demented film score caused one audience member to remark, “This is the coolest thing that’s happened to me all year.”

The next afternoon’s show at Carnegie Mellon University was also well received, even if it did shock some of the more conservative audience members at Carnegie Mellon’s music school. One of the show’s many highlights was the small group performance by bassist Brad Townsend, violinist Leena Gilbert and saxophonist Joey Dosik. Gilbert and Townsend wove together intricate melodies over which Dosik blew lines reminiscent of Albert Ayler. Juxtaposing the previous trio’s balladry were the Zappa-esque grooves of drummer Nick Zielinski, the fierce attack of soprano saxophone player Andrea Steves and the hurricane blowing of tenor saxophonist Dan Puccio.

The good vibes continued at the next afternoon’s show at Yale University’s school of music in New Haven, Conn. As a sort of homecoming for tuba doctoral student Mike Nickens, CAO held an impromptu lesson on improvised music that turned into an all-inclusive jam session. In attendance was jazz visionary Willie Ruff, who has played on records by Miles Davis, the late Jimmy Smith and Oscar Peterson, among others. Impressed by CAO’s performance, Ruff admonished the group to “go wherever people will hear you — jails, insane asylums, churches, nursery schools . . .”

Nowhere was there a more receptive audience in attendance than at Columbia University. As listeners in uptown Manhattan discovered, CAO sounds the most powerful when you close your eyes and give in to the music. People at the Columbia show shook, danced and screamed without regard for how odd or ridiculous they appeared. There was no better soundtrack to that moment than the New Orleans funk-stomp the ensemble conjured up.

But the best performance was yet to come, as the performance at The Bowery Poetry Club in New York City with alto saxophone legend Oliver Lake still loomed.

The Bowery show proved to be the apex of the tour, blowing past the proverbial “middle zone” and reaching a radical place where improvisation meets innovation, a state of being frequently preached about by group leader Prof. Ed Sarath. Having already played a show with CAO in Ann Arbor, Lake — while fully aware of the ensemble’s capabilities — was still amazed by the quality of the group.

Before Lake joined the ensemble on stage, they proved that they were capable of wowing listeners on their own. The spoken-word piece spit by Nickens was especially memorable. Perhaps inspired by his surroundings, Nickens’s words felt fittingly potent to be performed in the esteemed venue.

The climax of this concert was Lake’s composition “Round 2000.” The group’s leaders, trumpeter Mark Kirschenmann and Ed Sarath on flugelhorn, blew respective solos that shimmied and wailed as the rest of the ensemble provided a complementary sonic backdrop. The piece was shot into orbit by Lake’s solo and brought home when the entire group started on their lowest note and ascended, lifting Lake up to infinity.

CAO accomplished everything they set out for and more on their Winter Tour. The group managed to demonstrate the endless possibilities of collaborative music, playing melodies that have never been heard before and will never be heard again. This instrumental militia distilled their talents down to musical “truth,” exploding expectations wherever they went. CAO proved that in the right hands, improvisation and innovation can create heavenly results.

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