Pavone Brings Her Strings Back Home
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Many people meander toward a career path sometime in their 20s. Jessica Pavone had it sorted out as a toddler.
“When I was 2 years old, I saw a violin on TV and started asking my parents for one,” the musician said recently. By the time she was 5, Ms. Pavone had gotten her wish. After a few years, she switched to viola, drawn by the instrument’s darker, richer tone, and the fact that it was easier to carry — not an insignificant matter for a seventh grader. That turned out to be smart forward-thinking, as well, because Ms. Pavone, now 31, is hauling her viola around the world.
The Queens native, who currently calls Brooklyn home, is one of the busiest young performers on the city’s creative music scene, lending her strings and a direct, personal style of playing them, to all kinds of settings. These include large-scale improvisational ensembles led by the visionary bandleaders Anthony Braxton and William Parker, her neo-soul brass band the Pavones, experimental rock and jazz combos, and an intimate duo with her best friend, the avant-garde guitarist Mary Halvorson. This week, Ms. Pavone will be in her home borough to present her music in two somewhat different forms.
The guitarist Elliott Sharp once described the songs of Ms. Pavone and Ms. Halvorson as “thorny compositions that sound as if female teen punkers the Shaggs received doctorates in the music of 12-tone composer Alban Berg, and then rewrote their ‘Philosophy of the World.'” The leap between something as fancifully imaged as that and the rigors of touring Eastern Europe in Mr. Braxton’s current 13-piece group may seem vast. But the two have more in common than one might think, namely a lot of spontaneity, thoughtfulness, and the spirit of play.
Despite the flurry of activity, Ms. Pavone has taken her time reaching this point. “I’m a late bloomer,” she insisted. “I feel like I’m still a late bloomer.” The performer was sitting at a small table in the front of Barbes, a compact bar in Park Slope, where she had just played a short set with Ms. Halvorson at a benefit for a fellow musician, Andrew D’Angelo, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer. Amid the gravity of the situation, the bar was filled with the collegial good vibes of an artistic community Ms. Pavone joined when she circled back to New York eight years ago after years on the road with Mr. Braxton’s group.
This week, audiences can catch reflections of her experiences in two different frames. On Thursday, Ms. Pavone will lead a string quartet (one that substitutes a second violin for a double bass) at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn for a performance of an original work called “No Way To Say Goodbye,” a multipart piece inspired by the elemental grace of folk songs. Sharing the bill will be the renegade new-music outfit Anti-Social Music, which has released music on Ms. Pavone’s Peacock Recordings label. On Friday, the same venue will present the young chamber group Till by Turning as it plays music from Ms. Pavone’s “Quotidian Suite.” “They’re more like songs, little three-to-five-minute songs,” Ms. Pavone said of “No Way To Say Goodbye.” When she began writing the piece nine months ago, her ideas were sparked by listening to a collection of Leonard Cohen songs. But as the months rolled by, her enthusiasms shifted.
“I’ve been starting to feel this Beethoven coming out of me a little bit,” she said. “I’ve also been watching ‘Twin Peaks’ like crazy, so there’s some Angelo Badalamenti.”
Lately, Ms. Pavone has been taken by the vintage gospel of the Soul Stirrers, whose leader, R.H. Harris, was a formal innovator given to more complex arrangements and dual vocal leads. “I was listening to the form of the gospel song and I transcribed my own version of the form and translated it to string quartet,” she said. “It’s more about me borrowing forms from popular and soul music rather than the traditional influences for string quartet.”
Ms. Pavone only began composing after she rejected a more conventional path as an orchestral musician. This is where the late blooming comes in.
“I remember becoming interested in contemporary music when I was in college,” she said, “and I would bring pieces in to my viola lesson, and my teacher would say to me, ‘What do you want to play this crap for?’ So I was just in the wrong place.”
During her last year of college, Ms. Pavone fell in with a group of students from Wesleyan University and began working with them on visits to Middletown, Conn. “That was a really constructive place for me to begin my explorations with composition,” she said. “I didn’t know how to write music but I started to do it. I always kept plugging away. You’ve got to do what you’re going to do no matter what.”
Ms. Pavone will perform Thursday and her music will be performed Friday at the Issue Project Room (232 3rd St. at Third Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-330-0313).