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Ars Nova Workshop breaks in a new home with a rising star

Gab Bonghi
courtesy of Ars Nova Workshop

It’s no exaggeration to say that it took a lifetime for Zoh Amba to reach the stage of Solar Myth, Ars Nova Workshop’s new home on South Broad Street. The 22-year old saxophonist was still a month away from being born when Ars Nova presented its first concert in March 2000, featuring Chris Speed’s Yeah NO at Plays & Players Theater.

Amba’s hourlong set on Tuesday night felt like a fitting kickoff for Solar Myth, a still-in-progress venue occupying the space formerly known as Boot & Saddle. The young improviser is a rising star on the avant-garde jazz scene, just starting to make waves through her collaborations with a wide swath of veteran artists and peers. Yet her sound harks back to the vintage “fire music” of 1960s free jazz pioneers like Frank Wright, Charles Gayle, Frank Lowe and especially Albert Ayler.

“I feel really blessed that I can immediately tap into that space,” Amba said outside the club following her performance. “Sometimes the divine wind grabs you more than other times, but when you love the music so much and you love and trust the people you’re doing it with, you all get lost in this sacred ocean together.”

Amba can be heard on a number of releases in 2022, including An Unlikely Place, with drummer Steve Hirsh and bassist Luke Stewart. At Solar Myth she was joined by Stewart and drummer Ryan Sawyer. The set began with Amba in a meditative space — playing soft, wavering tones accompanied by Sawyer’s low mallet rumble. Within moments she erupted into honks and squeals, sending Stewart off at a gallop. The music kept shapeshifting at a frenetic pace for the next half hour: Amba’s tenor soaring into altissimo range before plunging into rude, staccato grunts against tidal rhythms; stuttering licks echoed by ricocheting snare hits; piercing shrieks paralleled by tense, sawing bass lines; a groove established and almost instantly dispersed.

Midway through the first piece, Amba began to unfurl a series of singsong melodies, evoking the rough-hewn folk and gospel inflections of Ayler’s music. She eventually set the saxophone aside and sat on the floor of the stage with a guitar in her lap, striking percussive, discordant tones and shifting the music into a punk-noise clamor. The youth of the band (especially its leader), the diverse traditions represented, the relentless pace of invention and reinvention — all seemed to look ahead to the future of this new space.

Zoh Amba performing at Downtown Music Gallery in New York on Aug. 16, 2022.
Peter Gannushkin
Zoh Amba performing at Downtown Music Gallery in New York on Aug. 16, 2022.

“There’s nothing like presenting the first show of many with one of the youngest members of the scene,” said Ars Nova Workshop founder and director Mark Christman, between welcoming ticket holders at the door. “Zoh Amba really embodies the music and the movement that this organization was built upon and has spent every moment celebrating.”

Ars Nova Workshop has been nomadic throughout its two-decade existence, shifting between dozens of different venues as need and circumstances arose: nightclubs and university campuses, proscenium stages and makeshift rooms, museum galleries and community centers. On the occasion of the organization’s fifth anniversary in 2005, Christman said the aim was to “present composers and improvisers in a space that does not compete with their ideas. I’m interested in intimacy and a certain degree of formality. I like to offer the musicians a clean palette, a sense of ownership of the space, and the opportunity to interact with the audience without distraction.”

Boot & Saddle had provided those opportunities regularly in recent years, with Ars Nova presenting acts on its stage including Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark with Dutch punk experimentalists The Ex, or an all-star guitar summit including Joel Harrison, Nels Cline and Liberty Ellman. This was already the club’s second life, as the original country-and-western bar had sat vacant for nearly 20 years prior to its 2013 reopening as a rock-oriented room. The pandemic closed its doors yet again, making the time right for Ars Nova to finally settle down. Christman formed a partnership with Evan Clancy, owner of South Philly bar Fountain Porter, and Solar Myth was born.

From the outside, nothing has changed: the bar’s iconic neon boot still reflected in a rain-slicked Broad Street for Tuesday night’s soft opening. The words “Solar Myth,” stenciled in paint on the door (and drawn from one of myriad names for the Sun Ra Arkestra) provided the only outside indication that anything was different, creating the sensation of a secret circulating among a small group of listeners in the know.

Inside, the change was more drastic. Though Christman admits that the club is still in need of “plenty of fine tuning” before its official opening next month, the formerly dark and dingy front room now feels bright and welcoming, a combination of sleek wine bar and music-nerd haven. Racks of vinyl and shelves of books on the likes of John Coltrane and Peter Brötzmann sit just inside the door, sure to distract many a concertgoer before they make it to the bar. The narrow stage with its tin ceiling will be familiar to those who frequented the B&S during its last incarnation.

Ars Nova Workshop founder Mark Christman next to the bar at Solar Myth, as renovations were still underway.
Nate Chinen
Ars Nova Workshop founder Mark Christman next to the bar at Solar Myth, as renovations were still underway.

Opening Solar Myth “feels like a dream come true,” Christman says. “The pandemic put an end to Boot & Saddle, and that was a big blow for Philadelphia. Ars Nova has always kept one toe in that venue conversation. This has been a year-and-a-half work in progress, but it’s been exciting.”

Bassist and composer Anthony Tidd, a Philadelphia resident since relocating from his native London in 1996, was recently named ANW’s Chief Creative Catalyst. Before Tuesday’s concert, he stressed the importance of having such a space. “I’ve been going to meetings with philanthropists and funders for the last 15 years, and they always ask me the same thing: ‘What can we do to help Philadelphia jazz?’ And I always say, ‘We need a venue.’ In particular, we need a venue for creative music. Ars Nova has been one of the only organizations that has consistently supported creative music, so the fact that they now have a place where people can come on a regular basis, that’s scene building.”

Solar Myth’s history continues tonight with a performance by Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn and his trio-convulsant, featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Ches Smith, augmented by the string quartet Folie à Quatre. On Sunday and Monday, Charlie Hall — best known as the drummer in The War on Drugs — will celebrate the 50th anniversary of two albums from Miles Davis’ electric era, Jack Johnson and On the Corner, with his all-star big band Get Up With It.

Amba — a New York transplant originally from Kingsport, Tenn. — reiterated the need for venues like Solar Myth. “I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and there were no spaces for anything,” she said. “It feels very sad and very lonesome because you don’t have community. This music deserves a home. Entering this space, it immediately felt beautiful, and it’s just the first night. Even though it’s a new space, you still feel the history of what this music is.”

For more information about Solar Myth, visitArs Nova Workshop online.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.