Encounters at the Mothership brings generations of experimental music makers under one West Philly roof - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
Encounters at the Mothership | photo by Yoni Kroll for WXPN

If you’ve seen the flier for Encounters at the Mothership pinned to a corkboard in your local coffee shop, you’ve probably stared in awe at the wildly ambitious line up of four nights of noise, jazz and experimental music assembled by klezmer and jazz trombonist and curator Dan Blacksberg.  You’d also noticed something a little more alarming: the venue. Known as the Mothership, the venue resides in the same space that housed the former Eris Temple, and while being a staple of the Philadelphia underground music scene, it isn’t the most accessible. Known for raucous punk and experimental shows, Mothership has recently sought to expand the depths of its programming. Five minutes into Blackberg’s collaboration Out of Heaven on day one of Encounters, it became apparent that expansion would be the recurring theme of the four night affair.

Under the wintry backdrop of 52nd Street’s gated storefronts, Chinese takeout spots, and fading neon lights, musicians as eclectic as pedal steel artist Susan Alcorn and legendary Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen descended the steps (and then ascended them again — Mothership is basically a magically converted row home with just, like, the weirdest set of rickety stairs to enter) to sonically entrance us.

Out of Heaven, like nearly all of the collaborations at Encounters, were playing together for the first time, with a wandering piece aptly named “Bridge Walk,” written by Blacksberg. Opening with a noirish solemnity, conducted by Blacksberg with elegantly restrained patience, the piece seemed to travel up the same dimly lit West Philly streets as we all did — audience and band members alike — to get there. With the stage drenched in purple hues and worn, dulling tinsel, listening to Out of Heaven’s apocalyptic lounge music felt like a 1960’s camp sci-fi film starlet dressed in a velvet bathrobe was going to suddenly appear, all the while flanked by Alcorn’s pedal steel providing star-gazing slide guitar sounds and Ashley Tini’s vibraphone ricocheting in shimmering intervals. While the songs that followed were less assured, they were shrouded in otherworldliness, kept steady by the spirited backbeat provided by Mike Szekely. Blacksberg ended the set with mesmerizing, mathy crescendos, delicate harmonies announcing themselves amidst the chaos and cosmic feedback, invoking elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The oddest collaboration was with Boyer College Electroacoustic Ensemble Project, a group that explores jazzy, elemental experimental sounds in an orchestrated form of beatmaking. This set was noisy, dizzying, and wrought with passages that would fit comfortably with Mothership’s general programming. It was as if the very idea of sound was as important as performance or song structure, often meandering and exploratory.

Encounters at the Mothership | photo by Yoni Kroll for WXPN

While BEEP represented the future of experimental music, Marshall Allen was no less than an avatar for jazz music’s past, and, at 94 years old, its burgeoning present, to say nothing of jazz’s glorious sound to come. It’s become trendy to marry jazz with avant garde or experimental music, and while the debate will continue as to whether jazz is experimental, classical, or simply music of the people, what matters most is that musicians like Allen are continuously transforming the parameters, disassembling the rigid bricks of incumbered thought that many of us have about the genre. On the third night of Encounters, with every note on his trusty EVI, Allen proceeded to dismantle all traditional thought-processes about jazz and its place in the lexicon.

The group, again led by Blacksberg, launched into staccato rhythms that invoked Art Ensemble of Chicago powered by drum prodigy Nasir Ebo and anchored by bassist Luke Stewart. These opening flourishes extended beyond the pre-established sci-fi soundtrack that colored the previous nights showcases into territories we didn’t know we needed to explore: a strange, woodsian tribalism, all accentuated by shrill notes that gave way to desperate drones. It was often hard to discern which instruments played what sound as I strained to peak over shoulders in the packed, dingy room. It was this kind of exchange of sonic ideas that seemed to provide moments of epiphany: this is the true face of eclecticism, where music becomes amorphous and instruments become interchangeable without their own, specific purpose disappearing.

Encounters at the Mothership | photo by Yoni Kroll for WXPN

The group moved into more cinematic tones of Dilla-esque distorted grooves, a jagged re-imagining of a Madlib sample being hastily taped back together. As wonderfully out as the name Marshall Allen denotes, the band was most effective during its dirgy, post-Hip Hop n’ Blues moments, certainly more Sun Ra’s Lanquidity than Coltrane’s Sun Ship. As the rhythm dissolved, a sweet moment between Allen and Blacksberg occurred as the two seemed to converse — Marshall’s EVI and Dan’s trombone having a moving back and forth, a sobering moment of two musicians listening. The irony wasn’t lost, that these two, Dan an accomplished, but young thirty-something white Jewish guy and Marshall, an elder Black man with a long lineage of jazz mastery, weaving in and out of each other’s aurality, playing on the floor of what essentially was a West Philly living room, all this during Black History month. The moment was brief, but it seemed to want to spark a conversation deeper than any of the previous sounds had. The set closed with an amazing groove reminiscent of Head Hunters era Herbie Hancock or On The Corner era Miles, a perfect push towards futurism, towards an out of this world encounter the entire event seemed to provoke.

Exhausted and possibly emotionally drained, Blacksberg managed to end Encounters with a set from Severe Rotation, another cut-n-paste style ensemble, this one playing his most challenging work. Lacking the pulpy grooves of Out of Heaven, instead Severe Rotation leaned into its heady, far out passages with a sort of gleeful playfulness that had Blacksberg commanding the group with the intensity of a 2nd Grade math teacher during fractions. The band remained steady but couldn’t resist wild flourishes, combative moments that oscillated between pure noise and 1970’s cop show vibes.

Encounters at the Mothership | photo by Yoni Kroll for WXPN

Through it all, Dan, a beaming cherub, an elf of the trombone, not only kept his stamina after 4 days, but powered through some of his most convincing blows. He remained a gracious host throughout, after each set verbally sparring in friendly jest with hipsters in the audience. And while the music on stage was eclectic, it was in fact, the audience that provided its own diverse scenery: young, older; hippies, punks; people of varying ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, all sat in the fold out chairs crowding the makeshift stage (really, the band played on the floor), all crowded the stairwell, all stood on the landing overlooking the band.

Perhaps parts of Severe Rotation’s final performance meandered, with Heru Shabaka of Sirius Juju providing trumpet, layered over some eerie, nearly impossibly droney bass tones from Stewart. Perhaps Rob Curto’s accordion was somewhat out of place at times, and at other times wonderful and spritely. Perhaps the middle section of strange bleeps and bloops went on a little long. When Blacksberg’s powerful, rousing, crescendo-filled ending suite emerged from the loopy din, the audience was left with a perfect, emotionally fulfilling end to a truly strange, truly eclectic encounter, totally beamed up, and not wanting to come back down.

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