Failed reinvention

The Barnes Foundation presents Erica Corbo’s American Odyssey’

3 minute read
Erica Corbo’s voice bites in just the right way. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)
Erica Corbo’s voice bites in just the right way. (Photo courtesy of the artist.)

Erica Corbo and the Space Whale Orchestra made a daring attempt at mixing American pop music, European classical music, free-jazz freakouts, soulful American classics, and the trappings of power in a marathon two-hour set at the Barnes. The artists played with appropriate style, creativity, and pizazz, but could not break through an overwhelmingly sterile space.

Trombonist Connor Przybyszewski is a star in the making. On bass, Dan Moser provides rhythmic invention and a zany sense of noisemaking. Steve Davit pounds out rich melodies on saxophones (yes, more than one) while Mick Ricereto plays clarinets with aplomb. They play well together, switching between notated and improvised music with ease. Though they could use a little less starch when playing a tune like Amazing Grace, they often slipped into moments of great expression when playing in their home field of free improvisation. All in all, this could have been a great concert.

Conceptual cracks

Unfortunately, the Barnes Foundation’s airplane-hangar aesthetics and acoustics took any emotional intimacy and swallowed it whole. As passion itself slithers down the gullet of a ghostly Albert Barnes, conceptual cracks in Corbo’s work became frightfully apparent. This installment of First Friday at the Barnes was a failure when it could’ve been a novel reinvention of our shared musical heritage.

In the great tradition of laying claim to a truth greater than one could ever provide, Corbo’s American Odyssey captured a small slice of our musical history and put a big ol’ flag on it. At times, she challenged our musical obligations in kitschy and sincere ways, such as giving a stuttering pledge of allegiance or weaving raw dissonance through classic songs. However, the overall conception of the piece felt muddled: as if it was designed to stand on the edge, but offend no one in particular. This was no epic but cleverly designed pastiche.

Auditory abstractions

It’s not as if this is absolute music, refusing to speak for itself except through tones. Corbo has a powerful voice. It bites in just the right way; it’s reedy but full, ready to switch genres at a second’s notice. She blends compositions in impressive ways—highlights included a jazz take on Dvořák’s Symphony for a New World forming a suite with an Arcade Fire song about the suburbs. But the journey exists only in auditory abstractions in a country whose traditions of liberty are founded on the murder of other civilizations. I don’t need a sociological analysis, just something to keep the work from being the 1 percent’s exercise in a quasi-sophisticated nationalism.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this fullness would be otherwise perceptible in an environment where I’m not shivering on a preposterously low-backed and stiff couch. Thankfully, there’s another way to experience Corbo’s vision. She hosts a Third Thursday concert series, Warp Factor 9, in West Philly at Suzuki Music Academy on 45th and Baltimore. It is in this warmer venue that her talent can be appreciated. Corbo’s playing is unusually restrained, speaking in exotic hybrids couched in a classical style, yet echoing Sun Ra. To melt away into her playing is to appreciate it, a luxury the Barnes could never provide.

What, When, Where

Erica Corbo’s American Odyssey. Presented by the Philadelphia Jazz Project as part of First Friday at the Barnes on July 5, 2019, at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. (215) 278-7000 or

The Barnes is accessible to standard-size wheelchairs. Additional accommodations like ASL interpretation, assistive listening devices, and closed captioning can be made available. Visit online for more info.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation