Jazz Composers Collective Concert Series
Certain musicians cannot help but dominate the proceedings whenever and wherever they perform, such is their brilliance. Slide guitarist David Tronzo fits that description, for he stole the show at the latest installment of the Jazz Composers Collective (JCC) concert series. Playing duo with electric bassist Stomu Takeishi and sitting in afterward with saxophonist Michael Blake's group Malissippi, Tronzo brought the room to a hush with his virtuosity. You wouldn't think that an old Silvertone guitar, a tiny Danelectro amp, volume and fuzz/wah pedals and a touch of reverb could be made to sound, literally, like a million bucks.
Tronzo has taken slide playing to a whole new level. He uses the device intermittently for maximum effect; it sits on his fourth fretting finger most of the time, constantly at the ready. While improvising, he can move seamlessly back and forth from fingers to slide within the same phrase, allowing him a level of expressiveness that most players achieve only in their dreams. He can play contrapuntal passages by doubling or harmonizing a slide line with a fretting finger or two. He can simulate a lap steel like nobody's business. He can vary tones by using different kinds of slides - a plastic cup, an old-fashioned medicine bottle, a handkerchief-covered slide - or, incredibly, medicine bottle and metal slide simultaneously for a poly-timbral effect. If you think everything on the guitar has already been played, Tronzo will set you straight. And he'll think of ten new things by next week.
Together with Takeishi, whose impish intensity is riveting, Tronzo weaves web after web, mood after mood. The duo's free-improv aesthetic is undergirded by impeccable precision; they can turn on a dime together, executing difficult unison passages and shifts in dynamics that seem to arise out of nowhere yet make perfect sense. Atonal funk, circus waltz, Americana, latin/soul groove - Tronzo/Takeishi can take stylistic mish-mash and make it coherent and even beautiful.
To close the set, Tronzo chooses his adaptation of the Stephen Foster song "Hard Times Ain't Gonna Come No More." The country tinge brings Bill Frisell's Nashville album to mind, but here it's as though Tronzo is playing Jerry Douglas's dobro parts and Frisell's guitar parts at the same time. Yet the effect is not cute or comic. It is profoundly moving. And it becomes clear that Tronzo has developed his unorthodox style not to shock people, not to satisfy some random desire to be freakish, but to play better music. He deserves far more recognition than he gets. Amazingly, both he and Takeishi are consistently absent from their respective categories in the annual Downbeat Critics' Poll.
Sharing the bill with the Tronzo/Takeishi duo is saxophonist Michael Blake and his "Malissippi" ensemble. Blake is a member of the Lounge Lizards, as well as Ben Allison's Medicine Wheel and the Herbie Nichols Project. In the latter two groups he shares saxophone duties with Ted Nash, whose music was featured at the previous JCC concert back in November 1999. Blake's original music is a good deal more "out" than Nash's, his tenor style more gruff and unhinged. During his solos he'll let loose with a multiphonic growl that feels like nails on a chalkboard. Love it or hate it, you'll certainly remember it. On two numbers Blake plays tenor and soprano simultaneously, in the manner of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. He even improvises on tenor while sustaining a note on soprano during the cadenza to "Lucky Charms," a ballad tribute to veteran tenor man Lucky Thompson.
Matt Munisteri of the Flying Neutrinos fills the guitar chair and doubles on banjo. He gets a deliciously fat tone from his barely amplified archtop, turning in excellent solos on "Lucky Charms" and the lowdown-and-dirty "Addis Ababa." Affable Master of Ceremonies Ben Allison is on the bass, laying down the bottom and playing a brilliant solo on the fast-swinging "Merle the Pearl." Jeff Ballard goes off on the drums during the 6/4 tune "King Precious" and nails the retro-rock groove of "Surfin' Sahara." But the highlight of Blake's set comes when David Tronzo returns to the stage for "Dear Ear," "Surfin' Sahara," and the final selection, a gorgeous and somewhat sad melody titled "Young'n." Stomu Takeishi also joins the crowd for this understated, intimate finale.
Once again, the Jazz Composers Collective has pulled off an entirely unpredictable evening of great music. The camaraderie, enthusiasm, and unjaded aura of the players at these shows speaks volumes about the continued vitality of jazz. But don't take my word for it - show up on March 23 for the next concert in the series, featuring the music of pianist Frank Kimbrough.