Review of Steve Tromans’ Album Launch: Duos & Remixes

I do not think it is right that promoters review their own concerts; a comment or two is fine, but a full review cannot be impartial.

I am therefore grateful to James Tartaglia who has sent me the review below of the Steve Tromans concert at mac last Thursday. I should mention that the interview with Steve referred to in the review was conducted by Mike Fletcher who is conducting research into the effectiveness of pre- and mid-concert talks and interviews that aim to present and demystify the music.

Steve Tromans and Friends: Duos and Remixes Review by James Tartaglia

Thursday 13 January, 2022, Hexagon TheatreMidlands Arts Centre (MAC)

Steve Tromans – Piano

Piera Onacko – Synthesizers

Sarah Farmer – Violin

Sonia Granger – Flute and Piccolo

Si Paton – Electric Bass

Tymoteusz Jozwiak – Drums and Percussion

This concert was held to mark the launch of Steve Tromans’ DUOS & REMIXES album, which was released online that very day (soundartphilosophy.bandcamp.com), as Tromans proudly related to the audience in the Birmingham MAC’s Hexagon Theatre. The album consists of thirty-six tracks produced in collaboration with thirty-six musicians; a number of these musicians were in the audience, myself included, in addition to all those on stage. The project was conceived in the darkest days of lockdown, when Tromans was struggling to get by both materially and psychologically, as was the fate of many professional musicians at that time. The idea for the album was that his musician friends would email him a short recording which he could add to and alter in order to produce a piece of music. Like so much of life during this period, then, Tromans’ new album happened on the internet. And yet this concert was to transpire in the flesh. Tromans’ first priority was to explain how this transition would be enacted.

Art Farmer’s 1989 album “Ph.D.” was named in reference to Farmer’s scholarly mannerisms, as the sleeve notes explain, but Doctor Stephen Tromans really does have a Ph.D. – and it shows. Looking a model of relaxation, with his chair turned to face the audience, his chats to the audience are becoming increasingly integral to his concerts. This is a natural development for a jazz musician who takes seriously the ideas that earned him his ‘Doctor’ title, ideas about the philosophy of time and its application to the world of the improvising musician. He wants to explain what he is doing, not only in order to share the ideas which fascinate him, and which drive his music forward, but also because he cares about his audience, and feels that the understanding he is imparting will aid their appreciation and enjoyment. His philosophical chats are conceptual improvisations designed to lay the ground for the musical improvisations to come.

So before playing a note, Tromans felt the need to explain how he had made the transition from the online concept of DUOS & REMIXES to a live performance. His solution was as follows: he used the five possible combinations of three duets that a sextet can be divided into, in order to form the basis of the five performances of the concert. So, for example, in one of the five performances, Tromans paired with Onacko, and in another he paired with Farmer, etc.; the other four members of the sextet were also paired differently on each performance. By ‘paired’ I mean that, for example, Tromans and Onacko would be primarily focused on interacting with each other in their improvisations, with their awareness of what the other four musicians were doing more peripheral for the duration of that particular performance, and thus generating less responses in their own improvisations. In this way, the close interaction between two musicians that generated each of the thirty-six tracks on DUOS & REMIXES was represented within the live performance, and yet the distancing effects of having to use internet technology, due to Covid lockdowns, was represented, in parallel, by the fact that this was a sextet improvising together, not just a duet, with four of the musicians thereby isolated to some extent. It was this thought – which I hope I have not completely butchered (Steve will veto this review if I have!) – which made the concert possible. This idea-led improvisational approach provides an excellent illustration of how Tromans’ music and philosophy are merging, with the more obvious manifestation of this same phenomenon being the increasing importance to his concerts of chats with the audience, as remarked upon before.

So what did the music sound like? If you are familiar with the abbreviation ‘improv’ being used in the context of avant-garde jazz, then you’ll know the territory, and to hone that down a little more, I was reminded of Tim Berne’s Bloodcount band, albeit without the pre-arranged passages which Berne’s band worked towards, or away from. To try to describe the music directly, I would say that all the performances were marked by an incremental rising of intensity until, at some point, it climaxed in something like the chaotic improvisational fireballs pioneered in the 1960s by the likes of John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler (the Father, Son and Holy Ghost respectively, as Ayler once said). The big difference, however, was that the performances of Tromans’ sextet never featured a dominant voice – no one person was the dominant voice even at the peak of intensity, and nobody was even vying to be, these were thoroughly democratic simmerings and infernos.

Acolytes of this kind of music will know the satisfactions to be had, and there were a steady succession of these on this memorable evening. The performance was visually interesting too, mainly due to Onacko twisting and turning to coax contortions from her synthesizer, Jozwiak’s faces of sheer joy, and Tromans looking at turns puzzled and deeply satisfied by the music – I think that his movements as a pianist are acquiring the visual unnaturalness, due to auditory originality, of Thelonious Monk. Two moments stood out. One was when Tromans set up a groove by slapping his hands on the top and sides of the piano – the band went along with it and for a time they were grooving. They were grooving because Tromans allowed the music to be conventional, but not for long, and the unconventional way he did this (by slapping the top and sides of the piano) was surely an intended irony. The other moment was the very end of the concert, when Tromans rounded off proceedings by improvising like the British Keith Jarrett that he is. It was only a minute or so, it was conventional jazz, it was brilliant, and after all that had come before, it was otherworldly.

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