Chattanooga Now Phillips: Barking Legs improv gatherings transcend genre

Chattanooga Now Phillips: Barking Legs improv gatherings transcend genre

September 30th, 2011 by Casey Phillips in Chattnow Music

It's hard to believe the 3 Sisters Festival is old enough to start kindergarten this year.

Fletcher Bright's annual two-day musical gift to Chattanooga will celebrate its fifth iteration today and Saturday at Ross's Landing. The festival is a free event that has traditionally featured bluegrass, but this year, the lineup includes a curveball in the form of traditional Irish superstars Solas.

I'm a huge fan of the genre, so Solas' show tonight from 7:05 to 8:05 was bound to pique my interest, but I'm not as alone in that sentiment as I might have thought.

"3 Sisters is an amazing event, [and] I personally love that it has veered away from being purely bluegrass," said Barking Legs owner Bruce Kaplan. "They do have great bluegrass, too, but they're willing to stretch things way beyond bluegrass, which I favor."

Thanks to Kaplan's wide-ranging interests, Barking Legs patrons are no strangers to unexpected musical twists.

Over the year, the Dodds Avenue venue has featured a wildly eclectic mix, from the improvisational looped musical constructs of Barbara Lamb to bluegrass greats such as David Grier and Mike Compton.

Earlier this year, the venue began featuring jazz musicians, one of few Chattanooga venues to do so with any regularity. On Oct. 20, celebrated Chicago jazz clarinetist James Falzone and his Allos Musica Trio will add even more spice to the mix with a concert that will include traditional and contemporary Arabic music.

So yeah, Kaplan isn't a fan of being confined, musically speaking.

That characteristic is most clearly evident during Barking Legs' Open Improvisational Jam, which takes place every first Sunday (i.e. this Sunday) from 3 to 5 p.m.

Kaplan and his wife and Barking Legs co-owner, Ann Law, began hosting the improvisational gathering about 10 months ago.

Although it contains the word "jam," the event shares little in common with an open mike, poetry slam or any style of traditional music session most are familiar with. Musicians and dancers of all disciplines and skill levels are invited to take part in a "nonidiomatic improvised dance/music/spoken word."

That's a mouthful, to be sure, but essentially, there are no rules to guide the performance besides those that are announced during the event. The performance changes not just from month to month but every 5-10 minutes when new verbal "structures" (temporary sets of parameters) are announced to guide the artists' interactions.

The event is based on a similar weekly gathering Kaplan and Law attended in New York in the '80s. To the unexpecting ear, the lack of adhesion to traditional melodies or rhythms may sound jarring, but the event is pure, undiluted improvisation, Kaplan said.

"In my mind, the payoff is the sheer pleasure of interacting with other musicians and dancers and seeing these structures develop," he said. "It's a way for open-minded people to transcend different backgrounds or levels of training of skill."