For half a century or so, jazz had been a collective artistic form. When ace saxophonist Coleman Hawkins recorded a completely solo paraphrase of “Stardust” under the title “Picasso” in 1948, it was considered a marvelous one-time oddity that only the master could lay down. Twenty years later, a young double bass player named Barre Phillips revived this tradition and recorded a whole album of unaccompanied improvisations, Journal Violone, that remains a masterpiece to this day. A year later Anthony Braxton recorded a double LP of alto saxophone solos that has acquired much more acclaim, and many other album-length solo instrumental recitals followed.
This month James Ilgenfritz provides his own extension of this tradition when he plays a solo bass recital on March 15 at the Kerrytown Concert House. Suitably, he will perform his own arrangements of works by Braxton and technically demanding compositions written specifically for him by contemporary improviser composers such as Miya Masaoka and Elliott Sharp. The bass is not a common instrument for a solo concert. Making it one requires audacity and a sense of pacing and drama, as well as prodigious technical skills, but Ilgenfritz has long prepared for such ambitious recitals. In this one, he will play selections from his forthcoming second solo CD.
A native of Monroe, Ilgenfritz developed his skills at Interlochen and then while working for his BA in jazz and contemporary improvisation at U-M. After a short period as a working musician on the East Coast, he went to San Diego to obtain his master’s degree, studying with the virtuoso bassist Mark Dresser, and then settled in Brooklyn. While in Ann Arbor and then at UC San Diego, he mastered all aspects of his instrument and developed improvisational and compositional skills to match his varied intellectual interests that drive his artistic motivations.
His goal is an integrated vision in which all the arts intersect and enrich one another. Much of his work references his fascination with film, painting, poetry, and fiction, perhaps best illustrated by his 2011 opera The Ticket That Exploded, based on the novel by William S. Burroughs, which has just been released on CD. Ilgenfritz’s musical setting for a twenty-piece ensemble typically mixes multiple styles, from jazz to post-punk to contemporary classical to noise, in many ways isomorphic to the cut-up techniques so characteristic of Burroughs’ writing. He continues to create new works, including chamber music that places him at the vanguard of contemporary classical composers.
Ilgenfritz is an extraordinary bass player whose energy and creative tenacity lift the bandstand, as I can well testify, having shared the stage with him on occasion. But in his case familiarity does not provide easy solace; he is always seeking new forms of expression, new sounds, and new structures to explore.