Musical acrobats

By JON GARELICK  |  February 9, 2009

Migration features a couple of the bandleaders Sanchez has worked with — Metheny and Chick Corea — on a track each. But mostly it's a sax-and-rhythm album, with Chris Potter and David Sánchez often working as dual tenors. "In this arrangement, with no chordal instrument, we can all play more information, and we're not stepping on anyone's toes." He especially likes arrangements that set Potter and Sánchez off in free-counterpoint simultaneous improvisations. Expect to hear a lot of the music from Migration at Scullers, where Sanchez will be joined by the bassist from that album, Scott Colley, and two other formidable saxophonists: David Binney and Seamus Blake.

If Antonio Sanchez comes from the world of jazz abstraction — "pure" music — Cirkestra is grounded in people and events, narrative, theater, the circus. Peter Bufano, the outfit's leader, really did run away to join the circus. Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut (the home town of PT Barnum), he trained as a clown and performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in more than 1000 shows. But in more recent years, with a film-score-composition degree from Berklee, he's worked as a musician, playing in smaller outfits like Circus Smirkus and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, writing original scores for the shows. Cirkestra perform as part of the Gardner Museum's "Gardner After Hours" concert series next Thursday.

"What makes it circus music," Bufano says to the question that is always asked of him, "is that I wrote it for the circus." In Cirkestra's case, that tends to be music in older styles: Western European and Eastern European folk dances, klezmer, Gypsy music, waltzes, tangos — whatever the theme of a particular show calls for. Cirkestra's 2008 release, Swing, was more jazzy, but various forms of ancient jazz are laced through all four of their albums: shuffles, stomps, bounces. You can detect a bit of Nino Rota–ish Italian folk in Avventure di Pinocchio, which was written for Circus Smirkus's telling of the Carlo Collodi story, with a lovely clarinet theme for Geppetto.

The older styles fit the older-style circuses Cirkestra plays with. The American idea of circus music, Bufano tells me when I get together with him and Cirkestra's five-string violinist, Käthe Hostetter, at Audubon Circle, is arena-sized: "the marches, the novelties, the screamers — big, loud, fast, lots of brass." Based more on the European-style circus, Cirkestra has five musicians instead of 20, with a more intimate sound: Bufano's accordion, Hostetter's strings, Sammy Lett's saxophones, flute, and clarinet, Mike Dobson's drums, and newest member Mike Milnarik on tuba.

You can spot the circus acts in some of Bufano's titles: "Slings" was for an aerialist, "Water Spitting" a clown act. The musical content is another matter. Hostetter (who also happens to play viola with the Boston Philharmonic) discovered the source for "Water Spitting" in a Romanian folk song when she was touring Europe. And the scales, rhythms, and percussive sound of "Slings" is East Indian — but only because the acrobat was an Indian woman. "It's not the literal connection I'm used to making," says Bufano, "but it kind of worked. I like the song to be who that person is in the act." "Ramona," on the other hand, is about an old circus wagon that wasn't even used in the show, and the beautiful jazz-standard-like ballad "Jana" was named for a costume designer.

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