Steeply down the steps, to the intimate confines of Smalls, one of New York City's most laid-back jazz clubs. Normally, this Greenwich Village joint's clientele is younger, perhaps attracted by the single cover charge that allows all-night entry. This facilitates easy coming and going, so that folks can catch maybe three combos over several hours. On this particular evening, though, the haunt was hopping with a majority contingent of silvered oldsters, in keeping with the nostalgically classic repertoire of the John Bunch Trio.
The august pianist chose to play without a drummer, immediately shifting the emphasis toward an exposed chamber conversation. The mighty Bucky Pizzarelli
was sharing the soloing responsibility, although bassman John Webber was receiving ample showcase space. Pizzarelli's guitar settled comfortably into the cossetting acoustics of the carpeted and low-ceilinged space. He was amplified slightly louder than usual, lending his sound a punchier attack. Mellow fluidity, with a surface sting. Most of the exchanges involved a bouncing, playful competition between Bunch and Pizzarelli, but there also were frequent partnership changes, as Webber became the chief speaker. All three would inevitably provide release as each number's conclusion arrived, trotting in unison whilst scattering stardust in their combined wake.
This was music as a pristine delicacy, the threesome interacting with tender sensitivity as they rummaged in a warmly familiar bag of old chestnuts. There was a similar feel to the songbook thumbed by Pizzarelli a few weeks earlier at Dizzy's Club with Ken Peplowski
, et al. We might have heard these selections a thousand times, but this trio invested them with unpredictable delight, repeatedly winkling out fresh relationships between the deftly entwined melodies.
Walking uptown for a few blocks, the audience found at The Village Vanguard also seemed to be tipped upside down. Here, where the stench of middle age usually pervades, the tables were mostly populated by brightly frothing folks in their 20s, thus confirming the outer-jazz appeal of The Bad Plus. This looked like the kind of stripling, head-nodding assemblage that would usually be found down at one of Sullivan Hall's jam band shows.
The Bad Plus threesome earned much of their early media attention by pulling out the innards of rock, pop and electronic song, employing rigorous jazz technique to re-form these pieces in either unrecognizable, syncopated disguise or as highly-obvious, anthemic bombasters. A few more albums along in their personal evolution, Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King have been increasingly placing emphasis on their original compositions, each of them contributing equally striking works to the collective gene pool. This particular set only included two non-Plus ditties, running Ornette Coleman
and Gyorgy Ligeti together. The Bad Plus have been managing to open jazz up with superficially direct beat-patterns and charging themes, then immediately subverting the process by dismantling and tinkering in the midst of a high-speed chase.
Speaking of high-speed chases, an early highlight of this late-night set was pianist Iverson's tune dedicated to one of the stunt drivers responsible for two of filmdom's greatest car chases, those that dominated Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection (1971). However, the as-yet unrecorded "Bud Ekins At Home" reveals the stuntster on a rest-day away from the movie set, and the tune perversely provided the most placid stretch of the set. At all other times, the threesome were a tightly-packed entity of highly precise navigators, bombing along on a constantly beckoning final stretch.
It's odd to say this, but King has developed a more brutal directness, foregoing much of his old tiny detailing. He's now projecting with a hyped-up aggressiveness, frighteningly active as he peppers around his skins, detonating, rattling against their rims, slashing savagely and providing the most wayward diversions from the band's forward momentum. Such comparisons are all relative, of course, as King remains one of the most captivatingly asymmetrical drumstool presences within any musical genre. He slashes across Iverson and Anderson's linear flow, interrupting their progress as he provides the trio's most frequent soloing voice, even as he maintains the pulse, always connecting with the other pair at particularly crucial junctures.
King is the rebel force, attempting to burn up Iverson's crease-less suit. Yes, the dapper pianist still maintains his civil host image, politely thanking the audience for their trial of lining up outside in the biting Manhattan gale. His irony is so subtle that it might not be irony. And Iverson gets to ramming, pouring out an endless river of logically melodic virtuosity. It helped that your scribe was perched right next to the drumkit, which afforded a peculiar bias on that night, a perfect vantage point for witnessing all three players vibrating within their personal vortexes.
Daedelus is hiding from the sun. This patchwork electronicist's sound has grown darker, increasingly influenced by dubstep and the tone-wrenching, bass-stretching feel of those generally nether-end regions. A few years back, Alfred Darlington (for it is he) was cramming disco, surf and R&B pabulum into his fantastical collages, making a sound in keeping with his Los Angeles dwelling-zone. Darlington Daedelus is still not afraid to force-feed poop-pop fragments into the accelerated live mix, but now there's a lot more ripped dumbbell plumbings and jittery spurtings involved. (Darlington was born with the name Weisberg-Roberts, so hopefully he'll feel no need to change his name again in the near future, lest true confusion reign.)
Garbed as ever in Victorian circus ringmaster attire, Daedelus adds improvisational uncertainty by employing his flashing-lighted Monome to control samples on his laptop. This is a strangely primitivist box that allows a hands-on interface for electronic musicians (and a way for the crowd to visualize sound). Nobody else delivers a set in the same manner as Daedelus. He's always concerned with racing at the highest speed, building up a heavily-layered rush of sonic detritus, which manages to combine experimentalism with accessibility. Nevertheless, attempting to dance during his performance would require vast stores of energy and extremely fleet feet. Impressionistic swaying might be best advised. Actual pouncing on beats could be a near impossibility. Daedelus succeeded in keeping the crowd riveted, maintaining vitality, action and substance all the way. The dancing was mostly inside our heads.
I've been to see the Doctor on a couple of occasions, catching him in a mood where he seemed to be going through the motions, tired and lackluster. I've also seen him on peak form at an equal number of gigs, and this first of the night's two sets found him in that particular shape. Firstly, the sound mix was just right, lending the Doc's vocals a dryly drawled edge, with all members of The Lower 911 band equally audible. This was certainly appreciated whenever Ronnie Cuber
ripped out one of his frequent tenor saxophone solos, throatily smoking and slurring.
Mr. Mac Rebennack (for it is he) was seated so that a mere swivel would allow him to play acoustic piano or whirred organ, each instrument topped with what looked awfully like human skulls. Often he'd use one hand on each keyboard, marrying the two sounds. On the few occasions when he wasn't playing these instruments, the Doctor would stand up to shake some percussion or even give a rare demonstration of his old guitar skills. Nowadays, Rebennack's a slimmed downa brightly healthy dudester who is seemingly less dependent on his cane. The older the better, maybe. "Right Place, Wrong Time" and "I Walk On Gilded Splinters" provided the absolute pinnacle of this set.