The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts September 29, 2006

Jazz Group Improvs Collective Ear-gasm

Saturday night, our very own Cat in the Cream heard Go!, a jazz improvisational duo based in North Carolina, with Mahlon Hoard on saxophones and Pat Lawrence on acoustic bass and electronics. They have been described as integrating elements of pop, experimental noise and free jazz to create sounds based upon instinct and shared musical feeling. 

Hoard called it “improvisational music, compositionally oriented,” in order to leave the genre somewhat ambiguous and allow for variance in feel according to what each piece might call for.

The first set was played by only Hoard and Lawrence. The music required a still and silent atmosphere, which is usually necessary for hearing an acoustic bass play

solo, though in this case for the purpose of hearing the subtle, innovatively produced noises of both instruments.

The two musicians had methods of sound production that were quite out of the ordinary. Hoard used a variety of techniques to bend, stretch and stunt the sound of the saxophone, often to make it sound like it wasn’t a sax at all. Lawrence used a “loop station,” a machine that can record, loop, distort sounds and echo whatever was just played by the bass and the sax. The effect was room expanding; it was as if they were actually playing in a cave where sound could bounce off the walls.

Sometimes Hoard created short, echoed notes reminiscent of the calls of seagulls, which were then complimented by Lawrence’s low, rumbling waves created with the loop station. Other times, Lawrence stuck a metal rod in between the strings of the bass right above the bridge and then used his bow to create a thunderous roar that vibrated the ground and the core of the listener’s body. Each song in the set ended as it began, with an intensity that dwindled just above silence and captivated our attention.

Hoard and Lawrence were joined in the second set by Oberlin students senior Alex Ritz (drums), first-year Ben Stepner (piano) and sophomore Rafiq Bhatia (electric guitar). Each of these players contributed to the group’s sound with excellent sensitivity and a holistic perception of the mood. 

At first, the guitar provided a harmonic basis over which melodies could be explored, the bass did more walking and the drums also provided a solid rhythmic framework to unite the improvisatory phrases into a more coherent piece. As the tunes progressed, all players invented and traded short melodic patterns, but continually listened for each other in order to emulate and complement each sound idea.

This second set drew the audience to the edges of their seats because of the way each song grew towards a climax at the end. Somehow, each player knew exactly when this part would begin, and when it was time for it to finish.

Sound escalated as if something had provoked a nuclear chain reaction; the sound grew in volume and in melodic complexity until a cacophony of noise filled the room with deeply felt harmonic pulsations and screeching melodic trills. It was as if all of the musicians were having a very synchronized and audible group orgasm.

As quickly as it began, the sound died to a hush of low, interwoven harmonies in which instruments came in and out of play as subtly as breaths being taken in by a choir. 

I had to ask about this incredible phenomenon of synchronic emotion, how the music could be so cohesively executed in an all-improvised piece.

“People are putting all their efforts into listening to what everyone else is playing.  Their voice comes through when they react immediately to what’s being played.  If everyone listens, the music can build,” Bhatia said.

And how does one begin a song that is purely improvised on the spot?  Which instrument takes the first initiative?

“There’s no wrong starting place.  It’s whatever your wildest imagination is,” Hoard said to student Drew Ingersol.

It seemed like the duo had truly become dynamic in their methods of communicating musical ideas, and the students who performed with them felt very grateful.

Altogether, it was an experience that was invigorating and contagious for both musicians and audience, in the way that music should be.

Go! has been together since 2004, and they are currently playing shows from Chicago to Atlanta and along the East Coast.  Their newly released EP is titled Spiral & Marianne. See and hear more of them at or


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