Days are getting shorter as we edge toward September. For anyone who regularly takes a moment at dusk to give thanks for sunlight hours as they slip away, vespers comes earlier and earlier heading into fall.
Vespers, a sunset prayer in various Christian liturgies, is also what Tom Varner, a Seattle-based jazz musician and professor of jazz performance at Cornish College for the Arts, has called a series of late-August concerts he has led for several years, albeit in a secular vein.
On Aug. 30, “Tom Varner & Friends: End of Summer Sound Vespers” returns to its roots at acoustic jewel the Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center.
“End of Summer Sound Vespers,” part of Good Shepherd’s Wayward Music Series, might be a mouthful of a title. But it’s a pretty good handle for the aural environments Varner, 61, and diverse collaborators create this time of year for unorthodox improvisation. Brass and percussion instruments meet nonprocessed field recordings, the latter captured by four local members of the Seattle Phonographers Union, a collection of enthusiasts exploring the mysteries of human relationships to sound.
Along with those field recordings (i.e., wild sounds captured outside a studio or some other arranged recording context), played digitally at the Chapel, will be trumpets, trombones, drums and Varner’s lifelong instrument, French horn.
“It’s not your typical jazz situation,” Varner says. “It’s more of a meditative sound exploration.”
The “Sound Vespers” series was inspired by Varner’s positive response to improvisational concerts featuring various members of the Seattle Phonographers Union.
“They do concerts and make such beautiful sounds. They’re all really good improvisers, so they know when to play or not play, when to interact or work with silence. They’re weaving a tapestry. This is what gave me the idea in the first place. I thought, I want to jam with these guys. Not playing Charlie Parker tunes, but instead playing beautiful sounds that might fit in with what they are doing.”
Varner says “Sound Vespers” performers will surround the audience, with instrumentalists (including Samantha Boshnack, Ray Larsen and Thomas Marriot on trumpets; Haley Freedlund on trombone; Stuart Dempster and Greg Campbell on miscellaneous instruments) along the side walls and the field recordists stationing themselves at different points. One of the recordists, Steve Peters, says any performer who wants to move around the room and seek different sonic opportunities is free to do so. He also says the quartet of field recordists (including, besides Peters, Steve Barsotti, Amy Denio and Doug Haire) will, hopefully, “play through their individual sound systems so they’re not all squeezed from the same PA.”
Asked what all this will sound like, Varner says he might instruct the group to begin with a few minutes of soft brass, and then turn everyone loose to perform in the spaces created by others. The effect, he says, is a lessening of common stressors in these fraught times, though he does not rule out someone making a big, comical noise if things get too quiet.
“Sometimes you don’t know where the recordings originate. They might not be things like thunderstorms or dogs barking. But sometimes I want to be more noisy or crazy, and then dive back into something more meditative. Sometimes it might be the sound of muted brass, which then morphs into a washing machine on its last legs.”
The recordings in Peters’ arsenal suggest a life partly spent attuned to sounds in unexpected places. He says among Varner’s favorites is the crunch of beetles eating a wooden pew in a small church in central Portugal. Peters likes the “scrunch” of very thin ice breaking up around the edge of Green Lake, and the collision of coat hangers on a revolving rack at Seattle Art Museum.
Raised in Millburn, New Jersey, Varner started playing French horn in fourth grade, but became more serious about the instrument in high school. He thought he would play classical music, but then switched to jazz. He received music degrees at the New England Conservatory of Music and The City College of New York, and began working as a session player while forming his own ensembles in his early 20s.
Among the luminaries he has recorded with are Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and Beat writer William S. Burroughs. Varner has recorded 13 albums of his own, and after moving to Seattle in 2005 began working at Cornish four years later.
“Before me, there were only four or five French horn players who improvised in jazz,” he says. “Now there are about 100 spread out around the world. The idea of an improvising horn player in new music or a jazz group used to be considered weird. Now it’s no big deal. I consider that a success.”
“Tom Varner & Friends: End of Summer Sound Vespers,” 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30; Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center, 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., Seattle.; $5-$15 donation at the door; www.waywardmusic.org.