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Love Suite

The evolution of Bryan McNamara and Souls’ Calling

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Bryan McNamara - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Bryan McNamara

Bryan McNamara is perhaps best known as the saxophonist and bandleader for local hip-pop outfit Strength in Numbers. While that band has found modest success among the region’s funk-obsessed masses, McNamara’s true passion is a lesser-known improvisational jazz combo, aptly named Souls’ Calling. This Saturday, that group will unveil a new suite of music at the FlynnSpace, a project commissioned by the Flynn Jazz Endowment that McNamara has titled “Love Evolve.”

McNamara, 30, was born in New York City and spent much of his childhood on Long Island before his family settled in Essex Junction when he was 12. After studying sax under Charlie Dukes at Essex High School, he began his undergrad at UMass Amherst, though he did his senior year at CUNY’s Hunter College. After graduation, McNamara worked a series of menial jobs and taught for a couple years before returning to school at McGill University in Montréal where he completed a two-year master’s program in jazz. Upon returning home, McNamara founded Souls’ Calling with friend and guitarist Nick Cassarino and a revolving crew of local players. The group’s current lineup features bassist Robinson Morse, keyboardist Parker Shper and a rotating cast of drummers.

McNamara, who started playing sax at 10 years old, claims many of the usual suspects as influences; jazz giants such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. More personal mentors have included noted NYC saxophonist Adam Kolker, UMass jazz professor Jeff Holmes and local sax guru Dave Grippo.

Grippo first saw McNamara play as part of a special ensemble put together by local jazz pianist James Harvey. Harvey, then playing regularly with a trio, enlisted the help of some local young-gun horn players — including ace trombonist Andrew Moroz — for another Flynn-commissioned project, “The Monkey Suite.”

“James Harvey has definitely been a hero, a mentor. Even though I never studied with him, formally,” says McNamara.

“Harvey brought Bryan along quite a bit,” says Grippo, adding that McNamara’s aggressive style of improvisation is unique to Burlington.

“He comes from a different angle than I do, that’s for sure,” he says.

Grippo describes McNamara’s early efforts as “angular and hard,” but notes that in the years since, McNamara has evolved into a complete musician.

“He’s filled out. When you can play a ballad and do everything there is to do between the measures — playing vertically like Coltrane would do — it shows a maturity,” he says.

“He’s a very soulful, direct musician,” adds Shper. “Every note he plays is believable, because he’s such a force of nature.”

McNamara’s new material comes on the heels of the band’s 2007 debut Love for All, and last year’s All for Love. The commission’s pseudo-palindrome title continues the love theme, while not-so-subtly suggesting the group is in the midst of a transformation.

“I write songs with an album in mind,” says McNamara. “I want it to represent music that I would want to listen to, that I like to play.” McNamara says he hopes to be able to release his new material as a live album, ideally recorded at the band’s upcoming FlynnSpace gig.

Balance is a foundation of McNamara’s compositional ethos, even if there are rarely specific thematic strands that bind his material together.

“I want the music to live up to what I aspire to when we play music. To make people feel, wake people up, connect with people, tell a story,” he explains. “I think that’s why music exists in the first place.

“For me as a performer, time is just kind of suspended, if we’re doing it right,” he continues. “And it would be great if someone in the audience or listening on a recording experiences that.”

Improvisational jazz is inherently abstract. Compositional constructs often exist more as a malleable foundation for free-flowing flights of fancy than as rigid guidelines. Jazz improv resonates differently for different ears, and often differently depending upon each individual performance. Still, McNamara does approach each piece he writes with a specific idea in mind.

“The common thread between my songs is that they all have a story, at least in my head,” he says. “Oftentimes I won’t be able to go forward with a tune unless I have come up with a title.”

But McNamara concedes that his music, despite specific intentions at the outset of writing, typically, well … evolves. And that is precisely the beauty, and challenge, of improvisational music.

“More often than not the tune will take on a life of its own,” he says. “Before we bring life to the music, it’s just a static piece of hypothetical whatever. But once you play it, it becomes an organic, growing, changing thing.”

That idea is at the heart of McNamara’s latest suite, and perhaps Souls’ Calling itself.

“For me, the idea is, through composition, to explore all of the different music I enjoy listening to that inspires me,” he explains. “It’s not just, like, the swing thing, which a lot of people think of as ‘jazz.’ That’s not what this music is. Though there are elements of that that can be used as great devices within songs.

“You use an intro that leads to an opening melodic idea and then releases into a solo section. But we may never go back to that first idea because we’ve already moved past that. It would make less sense to bring it back than to just keep going.”

“There are certain elements to [McNamara’s] writing that are very identifiable,” says Shper. “But I think we [Souls’ Calling] have learned how to execute and make his music really pop. And he’s done a great job of recognizing what the sound of the band is, beyond just compositions.”

McNamara describes the result of that exploratory ethic as a mélange of rock, hip-hop and, of course, free improvisation, as opposed to a strict exposition of “jazz” — if such a thing even exists within the increasingly expanding parameters of the genre. Not surprisingly, McNamara prefers to think of it in more open-ended terms.

“Really, it’s just music, man,” he says. “It’s just music.”

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