Mark Weaver—tuba player, composer and founder of the UFO Ensemble—interlaces written and freely improvised elements to construct sturdy, expressive tunes capable of bearing the full weight of his collaborators’ imaginations. At turns bluesy, boppish, swinging, funky, concrete and organic, his compositions promote a focused but freewheeling conversation among the quartet’s musicians. The dialogue engages listeners even as it challenges the suppositions of some.
It’s no mistake that Weaver is, in his other life, an architect. He understands that a properly engineered structure can support a wide range of options, and he chooses to work with musicians—trumpeter Bill Clark, trombonist Christian Pincock and drummer Jason Aspeslet—who are both free and disciplined enough to take advantage of that.
What you get is hard to classify.
“Neo brass band,” says Aspeslet.
“New Orleans–style brass band on crack or something,” says Pincock.
“It doesn’t conform to any particular genre that I know of,” says Weaver.
This weekend, audiences in both Santa Fe and Albuquerque will have an opportunity to figure it out on their own.
The ensemble, which Weaver started up about two years ago as a laboratory for his compositions, has evolved through different lineups before settling on the current configuration.
“They’re very easy to be with in a group situation,” says Weaver.
The ensemble’s performance last fall at The Roost, a festival for new music, bears him out. Right from the opening moments of that concert, the quartet played with a heightened collaborative awareness.
“Bill comments about this,” Weaver notes. “He says, ‘Christian and I, we’ve done so much of this, it’s like—.’ They’re almost telepathic in how they approach the material, without talking about it. They’re really sympathetic in their approaches. Everyone’s really open-minded, which is the whole point behind who’s in the group.”
With material ranging from the deconstruction of a manic bop head (“Minus”) to a jaunty homage to Jelly Roll Morton (“The Incomparable Ferd”) to a Slavic-flavored dirge (“In Place Of”), open, flexible minds are essential.
Weaver emphasizes that the freely improvised sections are developed from a common understanding of what the composition requires at a given moment from the improvisation.
“I’m trying to make the improvised sections structural,” says Weaver. “Say, one or two members of the group will actually be playing written material, and the others will be improvising. So there’s some structural way that it’s built in.”
Weaver relies heavily on his bandmates’ instincts and judgment, and he resists providing detailed instructions. “A lot of it has to do with what Mark doesn’t say,” Pincock says. “We have instructions, and they’re very very sparse. There may be a pattern, or there may be a few words. ... We’re free to do pretty much whatever we want in that structure.”
With no piano, guitar or other chordal instrument, like the jazz brass bands that inspired it, UFO Ensemble relies on a strong rhythmic foundation to keep things moving forward together. Aspeslet delivers the necessary funk and swing and percussive accents with a disarming economy that helps tie the three horn lines together.
Whether they’re playing a written section or free, Weaver notes that “a spontaneous approach” is key to the ensemble’s sound. “We try all different kinds of approaches. We try different ways of stimulating different kinds of musical conversations.”