Aided by a fake ID, I was baptized into the church of hard-bop sometime in the mid-nineties in one of Cleveland’s many hidden jazz spots; a cramped subterranean chamber where sound and smoke, perfume and sweat mixed freely in the dimly lit haze. The music was immediate: thundering drums coupled with blowing horns that rang-out joyous one moment, mournful the next. Spiritual by way of the body—the experience possessed a physicality so intense it was transcendent.
In contrast to that overwhelming sensuality, MacArthur award winner Josiah McElheny’s “Dusty Groove,” a meticulously crafted four-piece sculptural ode to some of the twentieth century’s great musical minds (among them jazz legends Wes Montgomery and Sun Ra), comes off coolly intellectual, even a little remote. Imagine jazz goes to grad school featuring Donald Judd as your thesis advisor, and you’re part way there. These pieces stimulate the mind, but they don’t necessarily stir the soul.
“Black Cloud Chamber” the artist’s paean to renegade theorist, inventor and composer Harry Partch is emblematic of everything that is simultaneously delightful and disappointing about this exhibition. Composed of luxuriously polished hand-blown black glass, rope and ink-stained pine, the work mimics not only the form of Partch’s homemade instrument Cloud Chamber Bowls, but also evokes Partch’s unique tonal scale in the glass bowls’ irregular placement along a kind of vertical staff. Frustratingly, the piece never exceeds its genesis, and remains little more than a deftly executed homage.
“End of a Love Affair” hits closer to the mark. The sound sculpture’s unique combination of cobalt blue bottles and tiny speakers housed in something like a fifty gallon aquarium creates a rich mid-range tone that’s foggy and impressionistic, smearing the sound of Wes Montgomery’s guitar into the piano and his drummer’s cymbals, conjuring something that approximates great music’s indefinable character.
Like the other works in the show, the piece is flawlessly executed, but its high-end appearance is also its undoing. “End of a Love Affair” is the soul of an Indiana jazzman trapped in something that looks like a niche consumer item for audiophiles with too much money. Sometimes in art you can plant all the right trees (impeccable materials, provocative inspiration, irreproachable craft and superior pedigree) but never get a forest. (Alan Pocaro)
Through December 6 at Corbett vs. Dempsey, 1120 North Ashland.