" . . . he would have told you he was going to be a recording engineer." Hull and Bilinski now make elegantly detailed electronic music for, among other things, site-specific installations.
Leonard too has a multifarious background in visual arts and music. He made his own first research trips to Cuba as a musician in the late '80s and early '90s. There he performed with a number of jazz musicians but also met the Cuban electronic-music composer Juan Blanco. Static drone harmonies and slowly shifting timbres are a signature of European-based electronic music. But Blanco is something else again. Leonard brought up some of his music for me on his laptop. It began with a gradual layering of acoustic Afro-Cuban hand drums, which was then looped and processed in elegant formations of fast pattering rhythms and pitches — a kind of classical version of drum 'n' bass.
Cuba, though cut off from technology by the US embargo and, since the early '90s, by the withdrawal of Russian support after perestroika, is, says Leonard, hungry for technology and in fact is quite adept at technical innovation. (Cuba was the first country after the US to broadcast color television, and was similarly an early adapter of the telephone and railroads.) Likewise with its music, of which US listeners tend to have a warped perspective. "Buena Vista Social Club were wonderful," says Leonard. "But they were from the '50s. Listening to them in Cuba would be like listening to Bing Crosby here."
The four Berklee students will be collaborating with various Cuban artists — from theater, dance, the visual arts, and acoustic and electronic music — at Havana's Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) and the Laboratorio Nacional de Música Electroacústica (LNME). The group will arrive on the eve of the festival of Chango, a Yoruban god, and Leonard has prepped Easterlin by feeding her recordings of Cuban sacred music. Hull and Bilinski, meanwhile, have already prepared and sent a piece that will be choreographed by Cuban dancers. "Our students will be doing what they do," says Leonard. "The idea isn't for them to make different work, but to let the situation influence the work they're doing."
Two for the road
Jason Stein would seem to have two strikes against him with his new Three Kinds of Happiness (Not Two Records). It's not just that the horn-bass-drum set-up is spare and unforgiving — it's that Stein plays bass clarinet exclusively. Although the instrument has been used in jazz since practically the very beginning (Omar Simeon, Jelly Roll Morton's "Someday Sweetheart," 1926), it's always been a "second" for reed players. It does not project well against other horns and drums in an ensemble, and saxophonists like Eric Dolphy and David Murray have tended to drift into its upper register for overblown shrieking. Stein, like the great Italian reed player Achille Succi, hangs mostly in the bass clarinet's natural register. Although he has an avant-garde taste for noise and smeared pitches, he generally avoids the instrument's more freakish effects.