It's hard to say which was the bigger surprise: spending an evening at the Knitting Factory hearing some of the best jazz players around or being just one of hundreds doing the same thing, with at least 50 more waiting to get into the sold-out night. True, the Winter Jazzfest takes over the one-time hotspot once a year, using all three stages to present artists that might be lured onto the festival circuit the following summer, but Jan. 12th was an unusually strong showing, with a triple-header of David Murray, Dave Douglas and Iva Bittova with Don Byron serving as the centerpiece for a bill of two dozen groups. Murray was reliably solid with his Black Saint Quartet, benefiting from heavy roadwork. Douglas presented a new trio with Mark Feldman and Scott Colley, playing standards with a nicely off-kilter feeling as if half the band was missing. Czech violinist Bittova was the wild card; with her upstate residency still fairly fresh, her trio with Byron and Lisa Moore was her first new project here; the common ground the three composers found was, pure and simple, in melody. The Winter Jazzfest also offers the chance to traipse about and stumble on pleasant surprises, as in sets by Jerome Sabbagh and Eldar. The smaller rooms housed a Wayne Horvitz quartet, Amir ElSaffar's excellent Two Rivers band and a strong performance by Matana Roberts' sextet. It was, by design, impossible to catch everything, but as Douglas said onstage, "Maybe next year they'll do two nights.
Elliott Sharp at The Stone
The multiple electric guitar onslaught is nothing new and generally (if it's not an allstar Dylan cover) holds promise of a ruckus of overtones, hum and feedback. Unless, that is, Elliott Sharp is at the reins. More mathematician than garage rocker, Sharp exercised an invisible hand over the dozen guitars (two on electric bass) employed for a realization of his Syndakit at The Stone Jan. 17th. The piece is controlled yet extremely flexible, giving the players 144 (a dozen square, natch) short phrases or 'fragments' to choose from. The group (which included Ron Anderson, Mary Halvorson, Dave Hofstra, Roger Kleir and Marc Sloan) made a varied yet coherent show of it, opening with a quickly repeated single note passed slowly around the semi-circle and slowly introducing sliding riffs up and down the necks, then quick trills as the volume rose to a powerful but short of painful level. At times two or three duos or trios would emerge against a soft background squall, but they would soon splinter or revert to the single-note motif. As the 40-minute piece reached a crescendo, a psychedelic swirl filled the room, derived perhaps from the sheer amplitude the band was pushing, giving a claustrophobic feeling of being trapped inside a Lesley speaker. But it was never about blasting chords, never about blistering leads, never about letting strings ring, never about call and response or repeated lines and variations; the overall sound tended more toward concurrent clusters or maybe shifting Tectonic plates.
~ Kurt Gottschalk
Tony Malaby at Barbes
There's nothing like the intimacy of experiencing a local legend in a neighborhood bar. During one of those sudden cold snaps common to New York winters tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby debuted a new trio featuring Chicago-based cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer-about-town John Hollenbeck at Barbès Jan. 2nd, a Park Slope watering-hole for thirsty listeners. Malaby, ever adaptable to his immediate musical surroundings, seemed particularly comfortable in this setting, effortlessly intermingling with Lonberg-Holm's insistent bowing and plucking and Hollenbeck's mercurial mix of percussive and melodic gestures. The cellist used a variety of electronic signal processors (overdrive, digital sequencer, etc.) to fine musical effect, especially on the set's third number, an untitled exploration into mad science. Hollenbeck, in addition to his standard kit, blew melodica over several pieces creating a swarming soundscape on "Anemone , then hovering harmonically over a cover of Bill Frisell's "Waiting Inside and played marimba on "Warble Peck with a touch of bump and bounce. This last tune brought the opening set to satisfying closure, featuring short stuttered notes from the cello mixed with slow, soft-reed vibratos from the tenor. Together they created gentle oscillations that seemed to fill the room with ghosted wolf-notes as the ambling theme gradually cooled to a single protracted tone.