August 2008

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Steven Bernstein at Living Theatre

Standing before a specially assembled band for his July 10th show at The Living Theatre, Steven Bernstein spoke freely about his early days in New York. "When I first saw Lester, that was just my guy," he said. "I wanted to be just like him." The allegiance to the famed trumpeter Lester Bowie was a telling remark: Bernstein shares not just the instrument but also the showmanship. He likes to rouse a crowd. The group he pulled together bridged his Spanish Fly, Sex Mob and Millennial Territory bands: Jim Black (drums), Briggan Krauss (saxophones) and Marcus Rojas (tuba). And as with all those bands, the Millennial Mob played covers and mid-tempo tunes hard as nails. Bernstein introduced music by the rock band Cream, film score composer- Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, the little-remembered trumpeter Emmett Berry (who played in Fletcher Henderson's seminal big band) and a piece he wrote for the Donald Byrd dance company, the latter one of the few concessions to quick, driving rhythms, with Black providing a strong push rarely heard in Bernstein's bands. Rojas steadily supplied walking lines and fell in with the breakdowns and Krauss matched the leader's attack in some simmering double horn solos. They played a solid, exciting set, but at the same time Bernstein, by virtue of his character, gave the audience permission to laugh. His groups are too good to call them "wedding bands," but at the same time—and not unlike Bowie's Brass Fantasy—Bernstein brings the party.

Sarah Schoenbeck/Harris Eisenstadt at The Stone

The big bassoon has a strange, little voice. It doesn't get lost in the mix so much as manage, somehow, to remain in the back. It's an unusual instrument in jazz and new music traditions—Ken McIntyre and Karen Borca come to mind, and recent West Coast transplant Sara Schoenbeck has been performing with Anthony Braxton's groups, among other projects. On July 11th she appeared at The Stone with drummer Harris Eisenstadt, playing a set of compositions by both members of the duo.

Schoenbeck is an impressive player—her attack and articulation, employing circular breathing and pushing into the upper register, were a pleasure to hear. Eisenstadt is a lyrical drummer, quick and precise, which made for a nice pairing. At times they were sprightly and metered, playing fast little jaunts that brought out the bassoon's voice. The strongest moments, however, came when Schoenbeck played slow, low figures as Eisenstadt made quick rounds with soft mallets. They also made use of some simple mutes— tinfoil over the bassoon's mouth and fabric over the drumheads—but they didn't quite put the horn in the forefront. The challenge of listening to the duo—especially given the room's acoustics—was to give up the notion of the horn being the main instrument. Schoenbeck did get buried at times, but more to the point they stood the sax/drum duo on its head, putting the horn in the role of counterpoint and giving percussion the foreground.

—Kurt Gottschalk

John Handy at Jazz Standard

Bay Area alto saxophonist John Handy, a veteran of Charles Mingus' band, held a four-night residency at Jazz Standard last month, teaming up with Craig Handy (tenor, flute), Helen Sung (piano), Dwayne Burno (bass) and Victor Lewis (drums). On opening night, July 10th, Handy & Co. were already in fine form by the second set, kicking it off with a hairy-knuckled blues amply displaying the storytelling talents of each tenor. Commanding the entire range of his horn with confidence, the elder Handy developed small ideas into long sagas, building tension with false fingerings, trilled notes and expressive slides. The younger Handy (spiritual, not biological, kin) was equally fluent in bluesology, squeezing out sweet and sour notes over Avery Parrish's "After Hours" with solemn passion. Sung mixed traditional vocabulary with modernist accents and figurations; her solo over "I Will Leave You" was well constructed, intelligent and original. Underpinning all was the fine rhythm section; Burno, plucking with a thunderous middle finger, was granite solid, while Lewis was a study in contrasts, busy and bombastic when appropriate, then modestly understated when the mood shifted, never failing to keep the music moving forward. His solo over "Leave You" was especially effective, orchestrated across the kit with dynamic volume shifts. Keeping the mood light, John Handy closed the set by singing another blues and preached his final sermon in soaring alto-ese.

Charles Tolliver at Blue Note

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