J.D. Allen, Joel Harrison, Mats Gustafsson/Thurston Moore, Steve Reid, Joey Calderazzo & Eddie Palmieri
“ In person, [J.D.] Allen rams the breath out of his audience, winding them with a reeling display of sheer professionalism, blooded by a completely uncompromising attention to visceral spontaneity. ”
January 26, 2009
Smoke is a cosily atmospheric haunt that's removed from the downtown jazz club heartland, though a Broadway location on the Upper West Side still makes for a convenient subway ride. The place is smaller than might be imagined, possessing only a few rows of tables and a wall-length bar, all focused on the compact stage, its sound emanating into a room that boasts an excellent acoustic warmth. So, some of the battle is already won when the Detroit-born tenor man J.D. Allen hits the stage, accompanied by bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. This is the same team that recorded the award-winning I Am I Am in 2008. They're previewing material that is featured on the soon-coming Shine album, though presumably this disc will have individual titles and track demarcations.
In person, Allen rams the breath out of his audience, winding them with a reeling display of sheer professionalism, blooded by a completely uncompromising attention to visceral spontaneity. Over the course of two sets, the trio refuses to pause between compositions, or talk to the audience. There's no time for such niceties when there's hard-blowin' to be done. The scope of this trio's invention is enthralling. Even though the sonic formula doesn't alter much, mainly taken at high-density, in full-tilt, the vibrant relationship between the threesome never allows repetition to enter the proceedings. Allen's toughened solos are so electric that he impels a constant interest in his grapplings, his thorny, even old-fashioned, tone organically welcoming as opposed to studiedly academic. The second set does indeed benefit from a break. Some time to reflect on the passing storm, and gird the body for the next onslaught. As expected, a further uninterrupted gush doesn't fall prey to any flagging, and the soloing individuality of August and Royston is sufficient to compete with their leader's, creating a strengthened triangle of stormy perseverance. Allen is usually the focus, but his partners are almost his equals, making this a democracy that's won through fisticuffs.
Merkin Concert Hall
January 29, 2009
At first, this gig comes across as one of those composition-commissioning gumbos, with no clear focus and a glut of various performers, a concert with the title Vox Americana, which essentially revolves around the writing of singer-guitarist Joel Harrison. Some sort of grappling-handle does become available as the two halves progress, but the program suffers from too much ambition, and too many idea-manifestations crammed into one evening. The first guest is Oliver Lake, who turns his planned saxophone solo into a poetry reading, opening the way for Vox Americana itself, a suite for seven players which utilizes fragments of recorded text. The message is broadly political but diffused into general, abstract snatches which lend an aura of protest without being particularly targeted. Sonically, these bursts sit uncomfortably on top of the musicsometimes too loud; at others submerged in the mix. Lake is the guest, but his soloing is underused, with fellow altoman David Binney snatching at least as much time under the spotlight. Towards the end, Harrison decides to deliver a folksy vocal, an act which compounds the feeling that he's cramming all of his versatile wares into the show. A feeling of tension pervades, and there's a sense that the players have not yet fully grasped the score.
Following the intermission, and perhaps sensing that the evening is becoming overcrowded, Lake aborts his planned solo piece, and Wendy Sutter gives the world premiere of Harrison's "Sonata For Solo Cello." The composer views this as a "meditation on mortality," inspired by the passing of his father at the beginning of 2008. It's a starkly atmospheric work, with Sutter mulling over every groan and grain, leaving plenty of space around her emphatic strokes. This piece is followed by the evening's best section in an already improved second set. Harrison has arranged a sequence of tunes penned by, or associated with, the drummer Paul Motian, cleverly retaining his character but also imposing the nuances made by a highly sensitized String Choir. There's an attractive contrast in the equally restrained guitaring of Harrison and Liberty Ellman, and some expressive soloing and interlacing from the other strings: Christian Howes, Sam Bardfeld (violins), Mat Maneri (viola) and Tomas Ulrich (cello). Lake steps up for Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso," making his strongest contribution in spontaneous fashion to an ensemble that he seemingly wasn't planning on joining (unless there's some confusion in the program). Motian's "Drum Music" is another high point, taking string delicacy to the edge of aggression. In the end, this second set redeemed the uncertainties of the first half.
Mats Gustafsson & Thurston Moore
January 30, 2009
Rehab is the re-named Club Midway, in Alphabet City, but it still looks exactly the same. The music happens down in the basement, which has become an occasional home for wonked jazz sounds. Well, principally Dutch drummer Han Bennink, on his regular Stateside visits. The promoter is Tom Surgal, and he's equally attuned to the spheres of blizzard-feedback rock'n'roll and blizzard-squall improvised jazz. Who better to book, then, than the Swedish saxophone behemoth Mats Gustafsson and the local New Yorker, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, himself a sympathizer with, nay, avid follower, of free music.
Surgal is the drumming half of White Out, with electronicist Lin Culbertson, and this combo gets to open the show, playing with guest violinist Samara Lubelski, who's a member of Moore's current solo group. The women tend to reel out great swathes of textured drone, or spangled cascades, leaving Surgal freer to putter around his resonantly tuned kit, maintaining an ongoing detail of suspended time. Perhaps White Out is heard in its jazziest form on this particular evening, setting up an incrementally building 'scape for the headliner arrival, tumbling and crashing onto the shore. When Gustafsson and Moore take to the stage (with Thurston's brother Gene on second guitar), the edges are very much more serrated. They're still operating in the layering-up area, but the quality of noise is ripped-up, scarred and flayed. The guitars emit gigantic gloops of distorted glue, whilst Gustafsson can easily compete, not needing an amplifier, just happy with his massive lung capacity. He's lugging baritone, barking roughly, hacking up thick leathery clumps, as all three extremists dedicate themselves to a united wall of sound. Eventually, Gustafsson crouches forward, addressing his tiny table of primitive electronic boxes, now emitting his own grumbling thunder. There's little separation desired here, as the trio set about the manufacture of a co-owned thunder. They manage to keep this up on a sustained level, ensnaring the interest without any flagging of energy or invention in the realms of texture-evolution. There's always a new variant, a fresh relationship within the hurling barrage.
The Steve Reid Ensemble
February 3, 2009
One of Steve Reid's greatest achievements will go down as his drumming job on "Dancing In The Street" for Martha & The Vandellas. He's also famed for stints with Fela Kuti and Sun Ra, but in recent years Reid has been exposed to a younger audience as a result of his rediscovery by Soul Jazz Records and DJ Gilles Peterson in the UK, leading to a regular partnership with double-barrelled laptopper Four Tet. Now, Reid is shifting focus to leading his own Ensemble, shedding the electronic elements and returning to the hardcore spiritual jazz groove. The Russian keyboardist Boris Netsvetaev has become a regular core of Reid's band, a musical director whose own crunchily percussive organ is pivotal to the leader's signature sound. Reid's Ensemble needs some organization, as its various elements sometimes swirl and pulsate so much that they're near to breaking out of orbit. It's Netsvetaev and English bassman Dominic Lash who are entrusted with the funked-up backbone, while percussionist Mamadou Sars is responsible for a greater weight of the beat-patterns than would normally be the case. Indeed, it's Reid who's mostly left free to embellish, almost too much so when it feels like he's not latching on to the pulse of his bandmates. His skins don't seem to be struck with anywhere near the same emphasis as his cymbals, and Reid lacks the tight snap of, say, Tony Allen (the Nigerian Afrobeat master), not to mention failing to suggest the implied accents of a Paul Motian.
This reviewer is seated close to the congas, possibly missing out on some of the drumkit detail, but nevertheless Reid frequently sounded too unmoored. Aside from this particular problem, when the Ensemble does knit together, particularly as the set neared its climax, there's a unique feeling of free-groove excitement, a quality that few outfits aim for nowadays.
The Joey Calderazzo Trio
February 4, 2009
Some artists keep their tongues still, letting the music speak, but most audience members would agree that it's beneficial to hear introductions, explanations or even anecdotes, as a background to the compositions, and also as a pleasurable entertainment ritual. Pianist Joey Calderazzo goes one step further, pacing up and down the stage in stand-up comedian role, adopting a Robert Downey Jr. persona, or maybe Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce. He has so much twitchy energy that it needs venting between numbers, but there is still ample dynamism in store for his energized piano solos, particularly when Calderazzo's now-ingrained rapport with drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts comes into play. Bassist Boris Kozlov performs well throughout, but he's ultimately the firmly-planted anchor, standing betwixt the volatile exchanges of Calderazzo and Watts. These two have been entwined as part of the Branford Marsalis Quartet for just over a decade, with "Tain" also having been the long-standing sticksman with this particular trio.
Calderazzo continues to re-invent his material, sometimes returning to tunes that have been contributed to the repertoires of Marsalis and Michael Brecker but now playing them in what he probably considers to be their 'pure' form, undoctored by other bandleaders. Calderazzo is very theatrical in the way he decorates his melodies in their solo excursions, but he also has a very hardened, gushing aggression that escalates when in dialogue with the storm-brewing Watts, editing out any uncertainties in favor of a pointed attack. Then, for his next tune, he'll float delicately on the surface of a sensitive ballad, proving himself to be ideally versatile.
February 6, 2009
Pianist and composer Eddie Palmieri (a sit-down comedian) has revived La Perfecta, the 1960s mini-orchestra that recorded throughout that decade and into the 1970s. This is essentially Nuyorican salsa dance music, and therefore feels constrained by the formal seating environment of the Rose Theater. However, it takes Palmieri about twenty minutes to discard such concerns, and even though the audience aren't shaking from a standing-up position, the whole auditorium aura is soon mentally loosened, sending out waves of groove-relaxation. Soon, the old stiffness is forgotten. The aging process is ignored, as Palmieri leads with gusto, and lead singer Herman Olivera deftly heads up the formation dance moves while delivering his impassioned lines. Trombonist Jimmy Bosch and trumpeter Brian Lynch virtually run towards the front-of-stage microphone to dash off repeated solos that always burn with crackling precision and emotional expressivity. Even though flautist Karen Jospeh doesn't solo in the conventional sense, her continual percussive embellishments add drama to many of the pieces, calling up a strong Cuban influence. The most potent 1960s and '70s vibration is provided by Nelson Gonzalez, whose amplifier sound on the Cuban tres is almost psychedelic, a disembodied bleed that's sometimes hard to locate, until suddenly homing in on his fingers bares the source of this sonic wonderment.