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Live From New York

May 2005

By Published: May 10, 2005
Rome Neal's portrayal of Thelonious Monk in the one-man play Monk (Abingdon Theater, through May 8th) is deeply human, steering clear of idolatry and caricature. Jason Zinoman of The Times called it "a pleasant evening... not an emotional ride and one wonders what play he was watching. Laurence Holder's script deals forthrightly with Monk's mental illness and wrestles with an underlying paradox - for here is Monk, a self-described "man of few words , holding forth in an hour-plus monologue. But it is Monk's inner life that plays out before us (thanks to supplemental audio, we're even privy to the voices in his head). With his penetrating gaze, Neal prods the audience beyond mere spectatorship and the effect is unsettling. Pathos emerges in ways we don't expect: The death of Monk's beloved mother has Neal doubled over in pain, sobbing. Holder also sketches the enigmatic texture of Monk's important relationships: with his wife Nellie, his patron Pannonica and his fellow piano genius Bud Powell. Bill Lee's original, prerecorded music, while not especially Monk-like, enhances the beauty and grit of the unfolding drama. Toward the end of the play, Neal dances to a tender ballad, combining Monk's famous spinning movements with a whimsy of his own. It is a brilliant use of the "dream ballet concept from the mainstream Broadway tradition.

Early April was busy for reedist John Tchicai: first playing duo with bassist Adam Lane at the Hudson View Gardens "Sundays at 5" Lounge series (April 6th), then with guitarist Garrison Fewell at Cornelia Street Café for AAJ-NY's "1s & 2s concert series (April 7th). (Tchicai and Lane also played quartet with Paul Smoker and Gerry Hemingway at Zebulon on April 10th.) At HVG, home of our own Laurence Donohue-Greene, who curates the jazz there, Tchicai and Lane deepened the chemistry they first documented on DOS (CIMP). Even without an amp, Lane projected an enormous sound and set a firm rhythmic direction on two adventurous sets. Tchicai played bass clarinet on the first, tenor on the second. The first set was largely improvised, while the second featured tunes -including Tchicai's "Secret , Lane's "Melodic Fragment #7 and even the standard "Alice in Wonderland which Tchicai sang. The Fewell-Tchicai duets were more restrained - often pianissimo, in fact - but no less inventive. Fewell steered closer to the minimalism of Jim Hall than the frenetic energy of Joe Morris or Dom Minasi, and showed a remarkable affinity for the angular bop language of Monk on Tchicai's "Yogi In Disguise , based on Monk's "Friday the Thirteenth . Tchicai's slow legato treatment of "Auld Lang Syne was another bass clarinet highlight.

~ David Adler

On Apr. 1st, John Zorn's new club The Stone began greeting enthusiastic packed houses with "John Zorn's Improv Party . Half the club's namesake - Stephanie Stone (widow of the late Irving)- sat front row as a collective of musicians mixed and matched in various formations playing densely improvised spontaneous percussive compositions. Zorn's trio invocation, featuring drummers Kenny Wollesen and Tony Buck, appropriately ended with the proprietor's pointed acknowledgement to Ms. Stone. Joining Okkyung Lee (cello) was Ned Rothenberg (bass clarinet), the club's first music curator (the club designates a different musician each month). Lukas Ligeti (drums/percussion) and Shanir Blumenkranz (bass) supported the duo (Rothenberg switching to clarinet) in a spectacular orchestral coda of coordinated circular breathing techniques - Lee effectively creaking out continuous effects in applying pressure to strings, sound scientist Ligeti rubbing stick tips on cymbals, Rothenberg selecting a morphing and mesmerizing note pattern. Of the many other not-soon-to-be-forgotten moments: the rhythm section-less "3 Altos of Marty Ehrlich, Rothenberg and Zorn and the Wollesen-Ligeti duo. With Ligeti the lead voice, the two suitably complemented one another for the longest improv of the set; Wollesen colored spaces with tones, beats and accents, offering form to Ligeti's atonal proclivity. And in the tradition of Zorn's improv parties, the closing joined everyone together for a set-ending send-off for the new club.

With a growing number of musicians to keep track of, staying on top of the continuous onslaught is one task, visiting and/or revisiting the chestnuts of yesteryear and decades past is yet another ever time-consuming yet essential pleasure for music fans as more recordings are being reissued these days, many of which haven't seen the light of day since their original issue. One such timeless session by a musician who—if you're lucky—plays on occasion (primarily Philadelphia, his hometown) is Byard Lancaster's It's Not Up To Us (Vortex, 1966) with guitarist Sonny Sharrock. Revisiting his all-encompassing jazz originals and interpretations with longtime similar-minded associate, percussionist Harold E. Smith (drummer, didgeridoo, conch shells), Lancaster visited Brooklyn's Sistas' Place (April 4th) with a two-bassist quartet. His bass clarinet (second perhaps only to Bennie Maupin as the instrument's most impressive post-Dolphy player) flew over undertones provided by his dynamic double-bass backing of Edward Crockett and Bert Harris, one arco while the other alternately went pizzicato.

From "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise to "I'm An Old Cowhand , Lancaster wisely selected segments to occasionally break up melodically extemporizing with deep-rooted rattling improvisations that shook the very foundation of the jazz standard repertoire while still remaining true by assuredly returning from whence he came as in the early period Coltrane standard "Blue Train , funneled into a blistering-paced latter Coltrane-inspired rendition covering a range that seemed to extend beyond saxophonic possibilities. The space's unfortunate and haunting feedback at times strangely complemented the eerie at-times sounds or was thankfully drowned out by intense interplay blanketing more major distraction.

~ Laurence Donohue-Greene

Most saxophone-drum duos, regardless of quality, usually traffic in gusto rather than subtlety. The collaboration of English saxophonist John Butcher and American drummer Gerry Hemingway (presented by Roulette at Location One. Apr. 16th), was a welcome respite from all that bravura. Instead of sharp jagged beams, the music expanded and contracted like a delicate soap bubble, only once fully foraying into sounds above a whisper. What is most striking about Butcher is that he becomes more compelling the quieter he plays. Like all good Brits, he is a master circular breather and can create effects on his horn ranging from birdcalls to space radio waves. Hemingway too can conjure up some wonderful aural effects and was aided at the performance by a touch-activated electronics setup. The duo played three pieces of decreasing length (20, 15 and 7 minutes), eschewing any emphasis on melody or pure tone. The improvisations were cerebral rather than instinctual and developed slowly and deliberately, careful thought given to each sound. The rare loud moment was a release of tension, like a tree falling rather than a volcano erupting. The set's last piece featured Butcher playing his soprano sax into the carpet underneath Hemingway's kit while the drummer methodically bowed away on a cymbal. A masterful example of understatement.

If there was further proof needed that jazz critics don't know anything, your correspondent was certain that altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa was at least a devotee of British altoist Mike Osborne, if not a serious student. Turns out he has never heard of him though—like scientists developing parallel hypotheses across the globe—his playing has come to many of the same conclusions. Marked by a wonderful concoction of fierce intellect and dripping emotion, Mahanthappa's music would have fit nicely in early '70s London. But it was on display at Sweet Rhythm (Apr. 21st) in a quartet with frequent foil Vijay Iyer on piano, Francois Moutin on bass and Eliot Humberto Kavee on drums. The music was plucked from Mahanthappa's newest album for Pi Records, an exposition on the countless dialects of the leader's ethnic home of India. Iyer's rich chord voicings filled the underbelly of Mahanthappa's brisk runs while Moutin and Kavee provided a syncopated post bop underpinning. Again, your correspondent misplayed, assuming Moutin to be limited by his more typical straight ahead appearances and then being surprised at how out there he could - and did - get. Like his hero, wait, the guy he had never heard of, Mahanthappa layered urgency into every piece by eschewing long tones, instead presenting his melodic ideas in mosaic fashion - lots of small connecting phrases that create an image of a busy Eastern marketplace full of Babel-like buzzing.

~ Andrey Henkin

Kenny Barron concluded the opening week of his "mini-festival at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola with an international quartet featuring bassist George Mraz, percussionist Mino Cinelu and guitarist Romero Lubambo. Barron opened the third set (Apr. 9th) with a pretty piano prelude prior to launching into "One Note Samba with the trio. Lubambo then took the first solo, setting a bright and breezy the tone for the evening, with the leader sustaining the mood. The ever-melodic Mraz followed, then the three engaged in a series of exciting exchanges with Cinelu's drums before ending in perfect unison. Barron began the next number with an airy introduction to his composition "Clouds , segueing seamlessly into a bossa nova rhythm over which Lubambo and Mraz grooved graciously, before delivering a stunning multiclimactic piano solo. Lubambo's "Donato thrust the band into a blissful ambiance with Barron swaying at the piano as he engaged in a spirited four-way conversation with the band on the joyous samba. The set concluded with Barron leading the group on a spontaneously improvised "journey , which began eerily with the pianist accompanied by Cinelu's electronic percussion and eventually settled into a tour de force rendition of "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise that concluded with the audience rhythmically snapping their fingers and clapping as the music quietly faded.

Arthur Blythe made his way back east for a rewarding week at the Blue Note with an allstar group featuring special guest saxophonists Dewey Redman (4/19-21) and Ravi Coltrane (4/22-24), with organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, guitarist James "Blood Ulmer and drummer Jeff "Tain Watts. Beginning the week's final set Sunday night with his original "As Of Yet, the altoist filled the room with the distinctively powerful tone that has made him a favorite of New York audiences since he first came here back in the '70s. Coltrane followed with an authoritative solo, displaying his mastery of the tenor saxophone, and the exceptional organ trio utilized the composition's funky angular melody as a springboard for their own personal statements, which took the familiar song to new and interesting places. The set's second selection, Blythe's "Faceless Woman, a melancholic melody with an exotic rhythm, inspired exciting exploratory solos, propelled by Watts' effusive drumming, from Coltrane, Ulmer and Smith, following the composer's moving introduction. The group swung straight ahead on Monk's "Wee See, with Blythe and Coltrane trading fours with Watts as Blood and Smith took turns comping creatively behind the soloists. The generous set ended with each of the band's members displaying their individual mastery of the blues on the Ellington classic "Things Ain't What They Used To Be .

~ Russ Musto

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~David Adler NY@Night Columnist,

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~Bruce Gallanter Proprietor, Downtown Music Gallery

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