December 2006

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Matthew Shipp at The Kitchen

Sun Ra famously held that "space is the place and Matthew Shipp ran with the idea at The Kitchen (Nov. 11th), where he premiered a work called "Sacred Geometry."

Inspired by the idea of an alien creating crop circles, the hour-long piece featured Shipp on piano with Mat Maneri on viola, Okkyung Lee on cello and Michael Bisio on double bass. It was remarkably well-conceived and performed, with the setting—a small black-box theater with superb acoustics located in the furthest reaches of Chelsea— perfectly suiting the mood and makeup of the ensemble. The piece moved through a sequence of fleeting and fragmentary yet tightly-orchestrated themes, strung together by episodes of dynamic and varied improvisation. The transitions were stark, challenging and seamlessly executed.

Shipp paired off the players in unpredictable ways, giving each an unaccompanied turn. In one exchange, Maneri left his seat and walked to the piano, playing slippery lines over a series of chord clusters that Shipp allowed to ring and decay. In another, Maneri and Lee looped a fast unison figure for two hypnotic minutes and then, with no visible cue, stopped together on a dime.

The harmonic language was ceaselessly dark and complex, the textures alternately coarse and mellifluous. Shipp moved from lingering blue tone colors to free flows of energy, his fingers slipping off the keys as though someone were pulling backwards at his elbows.

Julius Hemphill at Miller Theater

The Julius Hemphill Composer Portraits concert at Miller Theatre (Nov. 9) involved an array of vivid contrasts, aptly representing the late Hemphill's enduring vision and omnivorous tastes.

Steered along by the veteran reedist Marty Ehrlich (who was a member of Hemphill's '90s sextet and continues as its musical director), the evening included nine pieces for saxophone sextet, featuring Ehrlich mainly on soprano, Matana Roberts and Andy Laster on altos (Roberts doubled beautifully on clarinet), JD Parran and Andrew White on tenors and Alex Harding on rip-roaring baritone.

Hemphill's chamber music, ably executed by the ETHEL string quartet and virtuoso pianist Ursula Oppens, formed the second aesthetic leg of the program. The third leg, replicating the instrumentation from Hemphill's influential 1972 album Dogon A.D., found Ehrlich on winds, Baikida Carroll (from the original recording) on trumpet, Erik Friedlander on amplified cello and Pheeroan akLaff on drums.

This was a feast, a bold mix of European and African-American sound worlds. With Oppens, ETHEL worked the dense fabric of "One Atmosphere and returned to play a Hemphill-orchestrated Mingus mélange.

The quartet excelled with "The Painter," blending flute, muted trumpet and brushes, after which the sextet, wrapping up with "The Hard Blues," commenced to parade around the hall, entire cast in tow.

~ David R. Adler

George Lewis at The Stone

With each passing season in 2006, veteran improviser George Lewis proved once and again that, after years of solipsistic, academic exercises, he is now prepared to make engaging, fascinating music with his laptop, setting aside the hypothesizing of a decade or so of his Voyager experiments. In quartet with Ikue Mori, Miya Masaoka and Marina Rosenfeld at The Stone on Nov. 7th, he configured the pieces, then became witness to their deconstruction in an improvised performance that was fluid, evocative and at times downright musical.

Turntablist Rosenfeld and electronicist Mori were essentially percussion players, the former fascinated with the pops that reside between the grooves and the latter working with drum machine patches on her laptop, so Lewis' trombone and Masaoka's koto were the only accoustic—or chromatic, even—instruments. Still, it was a good 20 minutes before either of them used their instruments as more than sound triggers, though even from their laptops, Lewis and Masaoka were often able to elicit harmonic sounds.

A second piece was started by Mori and Rosenfeld, more musically this time, perhaps in sympathy with the instrumentalistic climax of the previous improvisation. Rosenfeld worked and reworked a tiny section of a record, more than a skip but not enough to speak its name.

Lewis is a remarkable trombonist, making it all the more surprising to see him use it so sparingly. But in the end, his approach was not a detriment, and he clearly enjoyed himself. In fact, after the lights were up and the audience chattering, it was he who called for the encore.

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