Expecting The Unexpected With Baltimore’s Out Of Your Head Collective
By Karlyn DeSteno
Every Tuesday night, musicians and audience members gather at the Windup Space on North to experience a little-known gem of the improvised music world. For seasoned audiences and newcomers alike, the Tuesday concerts have become a haven for the unexpected.
These Tuesday concerts are curated by the Out of Your Head Collective, which was founded in 2009 to pair the city’s many talented local improvisers together for one-time, one-of-a-kind, free weekly concerts. The resulting combinations of musicians—usually three to five players who have never rehearsed together, and who may never perform together again—play several fully improvised sets throughout the evening. Founding improvisers Matt Frazao (guitar) and Adam Hopkins (bass) see the group as a way to connect local players to one other, and to foster collaboration.
No one knows what the music will sound like until the show begins. “People feel around for the first five or 10 minutes,” Hopkins said in a recent interview, “but by the end of the first set, it’s usually kind of roaring.” That each group’s first experience together is live in front of an audience produces a unique suspense, creating a pressurized musical experience that can be “interesting, scary, amazing, hilarious and psychotic–even all at the same time,” Frazao said.
OOYH, which began with 20-some players in 2009, now counts over 50 local players in its ranks. The collective boasts nationally known experimenters Susan Alcorn, a virtuoso of the pedal steel guitar who draws influence from the likes of Pauline Oliveros, Anthony Braxton, and from her solid musical upbringing in Texas country bands. It’s also a home base for newer, local folks, many of whom have been educated at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins, and who have honed their talents in Baltimore’s blooming Out improv scene.
A recent performance featured Alcorn alongside drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell and keyboardist Chris Pumphrey on Rhodes. Bell, who is equally fluent in hip hop and jazz (and everything in between), with timing that Mobtown Records aptly calls “almost illegal”, proved a melodic innovator in his own right. Pumphrey’s special sensitivity to texture and silence, aided by pedals and electronics, was an irresistibly tense match for Alcorn’s sometimes smooth and sometimes shockingly angular guitar playing.
The evening’s three sets of music ranged in influence and form, but was electrifying throughout. Best of all, it was thoroughly, refreshingly devoid of the kind of smoke-and-mirrors experimentation that leaves experienced audiences feeling cheated: here are true innovators, whose musical and personal respect for one another on the stage was constantly evident, and who obviously strove to mean what they played and to play what they meant.
After a particularly smooth and sweet ending to a set, the rounds of applause from the small audience ceased, and Alcorn smiled to her compatriots, “That last one sounded pretty good, I thought!”
Special performances by the collective include occasional tributes to Baltimore based musicians like saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, unique line-ups like March’s “Drum Wars” (a quartet of drummers battling a quartet of melodic instruments), and occasional large ensemble performances by up to 30 members of the collective at once.
In the future, the Out of Your Head Collective hopes to expand to other cities to incorporate musicians from outside Baltimore into the mix. Frazao and Hopkins also hope to attain grant funding to release a CD of highlights from the Tuesday night sessions (a welcome addition to any improv lover’s collection, no doubt). The Tuesday night concerts, they say, will remain free to the public.
You can find more about Out of Your Head, including upcoming concert schedules, podcasts, and ways to support the collective, at http://outofyourhead.org/.
Out of Your Head
The Windup Space
12 West North Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21201Hours: Tuesdays, 9 p.m.-1 a.m.
Karlyn DeSteno is a writer and artist living in Baltimore, Maryland.