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Live From New York

January 2006

By Published: January 17, 2006
Boston-based pianist Donal Fox has been performing his "Monk and Bach Project" for five years with a rotating rhythm section and stellar results. He may though have recently found perfect foils in George Mraz (bass) and Lewis Nash (drums) during last month's week-long residency at Dizzy's Club, the project's NYC debut. Fox, equally steeped in jazz and classical, utilizes Monk and Bach as mere samples of his cross-genre proficiency. On Dec. 7th, he showcased original arrangements as his trio broke new ground that the MJQ and pianist Jacques Loussier explored but only in a more mainstream sense. The spontaneity in the improvisational-based performances framed by Fox' understanding and virtuosity in both idioms allowed him naturally to incorporate and explore themes of each on moment's notice, resulting in a personal combination of the two. Mraz' omnipresence as one of jazz bass' most under-rated veterans provided an anchor much like Percy Heath with deep yet concise and always melodic playing ("Blues for Handel"). Nash, a one-man band, weaved simultaneous rhythms without breaking a sweat (Monk's "Bright Mississippi"). Rhythmically and melodically always in tune, the three swung through Schumann's "Kinderscenen, Op.15 no. 1" while interspersing Bach embellishments into "Cinema Paradiso". The encore brought the group's namesake to the fore: Monk's "Ugly Beauty" seamlessly fused with Bach's "Little Prelude in C minor".

~ Laurence Donohue-Greene

Fresh off a triumphant performance with The Thing earlier in the week, Norwegian rhythm section mates Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (electric bass) joined with another Scandinavian, Finnish guitarist Raoul Björkenheim, for the US debut of The Scorch Trio (Dec. 2nd). The occasion was the 49th birthday celebration for Manny Maris of Downtown Music Gallery held at Bowery Poetry Club. Whereas The Thing is a fully cooperative trio, Scorch, by virtue of Björkenheim's array of 6- and 12-string electric guitars and viola de gamba, is an improv rock trio akin to Cream in its musical hierarchy.

The music was loud as befitted the instrumentation and Flaten exceeded what might otherwise have been a limited role by incorporating lots of effect pedals and pummeling the neck of the bass, a carryover from his unique style on upright. Nilssen-Love had to substitute subtlety for sheer power just in order to be heard at times, limiting somewhat his impressive vocabulary. Björkenheim though was in his element, a mix of Sonny Sharrock and Jimi Hendrix, with all the guitarist faces audiences love. The music was at its most interesting when the guitar lines resolved into atypical cadences, punctuated by Nilssen-Love's fractured rhythms. When the music reduced in volume for the second piece, Björkenheim could be more textural and inventive, to the benefit of the improvisations and this reviewer's eardrums.

Listeners worried that saxophonist Joe Lovano has set aside some of his more visceral tendencies in the past couple of years should have attended his duet set with drummer Idris Muhammad at Sweet Rhythm on Dec. 15th. Part of the club's month of sax-drums collaborations, Lovano and Muhammad channeled some of the energy peers Sonny Fortune and Rashied Ali must have left in the room from the week before.

The opening free improv, leading into Sonny Rollins' rousing "Airegin", set the tone for the evening and showed off Lovano's versatility on both his usual tenor and the club debut of his aulochrome, a fused double soprano sax with an extended tonal range. The second tune, an original blues by Lovano featured his alto clarinet in tight lockstep with Muhammad's cymbal heavy rhythms. By the time the duo had dispensed with Lovano's "Blackwell's Message" (for Ed Blackwell) and the standard "A Weaver of Dreams", any resemblance to Interstellar Space was supplanted by a thoroughly gutbucket blues sensibility. The closing "Lonnie's Lament" was played in a much more straight foward manner than the rest of the set, or even how the tune was played originally by Coltrane. In fact, the whole set, apart from the 30 minute opener was a refreshing mixture of freedom within structure, Lovano in his raspy glory and Muhammad playing the stiff rhythms that any drummer whose roots lay in R&B, Lou Donaldson and Pharoah Sanders would play.

~ Andrey Henkin

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