What does an avant-garde audience look like?
Well, a surprisingly large and diverse group paid $15 (members $13) to hear something billed as "Noise at the Library" featuring the avant-garde jazz of a talented new band called Cosmologic at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall St., on Sunday, May 14.
Among them was a very soberly dressed man who, despite his conservative haircut, had somehow cultivated the lateral growth from each of his ears to extend a full inch and a quarter over both shoulders - possibly a dadaist fashion statement.
He sat like an installation at the center of the front row beside a very bored-looking little boy whom he needed to physically dissuade from climbing backwards out of his seat whenever dissonant trombones started blaring two yards away.
Then there was the elderly woman rolling her eyes and tsking as if none of the concert met her expectation of music. But even she entered into the avant-garde spirit when her cell phone started to ring during one composition and she allowed its chirrup to mingle with the more conventional instruments for a while before turning it off.
Thankfully, none of these elements returned from the intermission, where the wine was free and Cosmologic's CDs were for sale at the discounted price of $5.
The actual band had been formed only eight months previously and, with the possible exception of drummer Nathan Hubbard, is entirely a product of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). Trombonist Michael Dessen and bassist Scott Walton are both UCSD doctoral students. Jason Robins, tenor sax, teaches jazz theory and saxophone at UCSD. On this occasion they were joined by a special guest: the trombonist George Lewis, UCSD's very distinguished professor of music.
"It's so generous of George that he's actually willing to play with us," an overly modest Dessen said.
The concert was sponsored by San Diego New Music and the Athenaeum to launch Cosmologic's debut CD, of entirely original compositions, entitled "Staring at the Sun," an ironically unoriginal title already used by pop groups such as Uniform Choice and U2.
The set opened with Eric Dolphy's Monkish 1964 composition, the harsh, dissonant, slightly aggressive sounding "Hat and Beard." Next came an interpretation of Ornette Coleman's "Peace," in which Walton bowed his bass with superb lyricism and Dessen's trombone and Robinson's sax harmonized soulfully together.
Lewis joined the band to play the fast and furious "Mountains and Water" and was introduced by its composer, Dessen. "This is to warm George up." Lewis' trombone nimbly negotiated the work while Dessen, for the most part, played cowbell. It was Robinson who warmed up most, however blowing the high notes out of his sax until this face shone scarlet and all the veins showed on his neck.
After that the Dave Holland composition "Four Winds" didn't seem so avant garde at all. Robinson improvised a cool line over Hubbard's drums and Walton's bass. It might almost have been a straight-ahead jazz set complete with a conventional if wonderfully triumphant chorus when, briefly, the three horns played in unison.
Walton produced a fine range of tones on the bass, at times using his bow to make a sound reminscent of whale song. Then Lewis' trombone came in, scrubbing up and down furiously and taking it back "out there" before the great reassuring three-horn chorus wrapped it up.
More tracks from the CD followed the interval: Robinson's "Hell in Hat Yai" named after a city in South East Asia] was evocative enough to be a film score. Another Robinson composition, "CT" (dedicated to controversial pianist/composer Cecil Taylor), opened with bass and percussion until Robinson and Lewis bubbled up with sax and trombone to be joined by Dessen in between. This dissolved into some interesting groaning trombone effects, as if emulating a dozen or so flatulent Tibetan monks, before taking off into clearer tones and a heroic drum solo from Hubbard.
Hubbard's free-jazz poem, "Shrouded over with Fog," (subtitled, "As if the World Were About to End") starts with a spooky industrial sound. Here a muted Lewis contributed his technique of wobbling his chops from side to side at the mouthpiece and alternating a vibrato trombone while slapping the bell with his hand through the slide.
Gently wailing trombones followed with a rendition of Ishmael Wadada Lew Smith's "Sincerity (Parts I & II) for Harumi." The evening concluded with Lewis himself taking the solo lead for his own very rhythmic composition, "Ring Shout Ramble" without a rhythm section. Hubbard and Walton soon contributed drums and bass respectively. A great dramatic chorus of three horns handed the them to Walton for a solo. The ensemble then dropped back to a more ostentatiously free-jazz tempo and Hubbard's cowbell accompanied Walton's first-rate solo on the upper register on the bass.
Those attending without unmuted cell phones and uncomfortable kids seemed to enjoy the evening immensely. Watch the Web page http://www.trummerflora.com/calendar/ for further outings of Cosmologic.
The Athenaeum's summer jazz series presents the Ralph Moore Quartet on July 1; the Claudia Villela Quartet on July 6; Mundell Lowe, Herb Ellis and Bob Magnusson on July 13 (already sold out) and the Dave Friesen Trio on July 20. For tickets and information call (858) 454-5872.