Booker T. Jones, Abdullah Ibrahim, Neil Cowley, Nils Petter Molvaer, Arve Henriksen & Dave Douglas
“ Brass Ecstasy allows just what its name promises: a complete tubular blowing orgy. ”
June 10, 2009
Booker T. Jones, as in Booker T. & The MGs. The quite intimate Joe's Pub is sold out, not surprisingly. This Hammond B3 organ grinder is here to push his new solo disc, Potato Hole. The album features Memphis man Jones working with The Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young, exploring his rockier, bluesier potential. Jones certainly isn't favoring the slinky soul-cruising so beloved of the MGs. He cuts a sprightly, youthful figure, seated at his old wooden-paneled keyboard, Leslie speaker whirling at his side. Most of the set concentrates on the new self-penned material, but there are still some strategically-placed old classics included from the MGs repertoire. Not least the 1962 hit "Green Onions," which arrives surprisingly early in the running order. Jones also drops in "Hip Hug-Her" and "Time Is Tight." With these oldies, it's as if time has reversed by four or five decades, recalling the distinctive MGs sound.
There's a rugged vitality to the new rockier tunes, each of them bolting out to ride through their three or four minute struttings, dotted with keyboard and twin-guitar solos that make their point with a targeted purposefulness. Joined by his much younger band, Jones probably needs fresher blooded creatures to keep pace with his own chugging enthusiasm. Even though the numbers don't feature words, they often have a narrative content that Jones explains at the outset. "She Breaks" and "Potato Hole" are prime examples, while "Native New Yorker" is given a particularly hot spot. The encore is a clumping "Get Behind The Mule," the selection of this Tom Waits song underlining Booker T.'s usual good taste in cover material.
Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya
June 13, 2009
Earlier in the week, Abdullah Ibrahim gave three nights of solo piano recitals at the Jazz Standard club, to reflect the release of his similarly inclined Senzo album. This was followed by another three nights with his Ekaya ensemble, who are long-established but rarely found out on the road. At the second of these sessions, an aura of calm concentration pervades. Ibrahim can appear aloof from his audience, but this is probably just his inward-looking manner, as once the music's veil has lifted, he's beaming and projecting warmth to the fully-packed tables. He remains virtually silent for the duration, so this is not a performer who's going to appeal to folks that yearn for constant commentary, inclusiveness or even full-blown wisecracks.
The whole experience of Ibrahim's music is one of complete immersion into a spiritual realm of careful mood-painting. The horn section is specifically arrayed with the purpose of making luminous brush-strokes, purposefully building up layers of warm, enfolding sound. Their solos are ranged with equality, and each front liner is highly impressive, prompting virtually compulsory applause for each tightly focused statement. Tenor man Keith Loftis, altoist Cleave Guyton, trombonist Stafford Hunter and baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall are all suitably introverted, but also harbouring hidden furnaces, occasionally opening their white hot portals wider. Ibrahim probably spoke his piece on the piano earlier on in the week, as he feels more like the magisterial composer-figure here, his solos seeming to dissolve into the complete vista of each tune. It's the horn players that are hoisting the expressive load onto the front tables. This is music that has to be savored.
The Neil Cowley Trio
June 16, 2009
In June, a clutch of British acts beamed across the Atlantic under the banner of Made In The UK, and principally alighting on the Rochester Jazz Festival. This meant that New York became an unavoidable stop-off, so The Neil Cowley Trio turned up at Joe's Pub to play an early evening set. It seems that the captive Rochester audience was both massive and massively enthusiastic, but word of this English bunch hasn't yet spread too far around Manhattan, and their mission was to scale the upward gradient of a smallish crowd. Londoner Cowley's compositions are well-equipped for such a challenge, brimming as they are with pounding hooks, forceful forward thrust and a near-minimalist attention to repetition. The pianist also leads the threesome in a typically self-conscious, uncomfortably twitchy, absurdly English sense of humor. Its American equivalent is provided by The Bad Plus, which is convenient, as they're the main source of what could be called an influence on Cowley, with their charging-buffalo approach to melody, their snagging themes and their addition of rock or pop dynamics to the effete syncopations of jazz.
Most of the numbers start out bounding, snapping through changes that could earn them the classification of prog jazz. Cowley's banging with virtuosity, having a systems music approach to tune-development. Along with bassist Richard Sadler and drummer Evan Jenkins, he's obsessed with the art of surprising pauses, jerked swerves and coordinated stabbings. Jenkins might pound away in thrash metal mode, but he can also scuttle around his kit making tiny cymbal or hi-hat embellishments, all in the midst of a rock-out race. Cowley often likes to construct a crashing wall of sound, a melodic waterfall that's outwardly hard, but with small, emotive chinks visible under close inspection. Observing the trio's energy-rush is a rather exhausting activity, but it feels very satisfying afterwards.
Nils Petter Molvaer/Arve Henriksen
(le) Poisson Rouge
June 16, 2009
A double-bill of Norwegian trumpeters, though sadly the initial perception that these two generations of bandleader would be performing together, was soon proved incorrect. That would have been an enticing prospect, given that both are spiritually descended from the granular disembodiment techniques employed by Jon Hassell. This fact becomes much clearer when spending a single evening witnessing Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvaer, in speedy succession. First, Henriksen plays with sampleman Jan Bang, his horn channelled through a morass of laptop and effects extensions, all with the glorious aim of making trumpet sound like human voice, and human voice made trumpetesque. Henriksen sings high, pure notes into his mouthpiece, harmonizing with naked metal and internalized software alike. He also takes his horn out of his mouth, leaning forward to sing into the same microphone, issuing prayer-like invocations that have no horizon. Meanwhile, Bang potters away, snatching traces of Henriksen's output (or so it seems) and manipulating phrases into repeats, or even slow beats. The orientation of their music is very much environmental, and once again the club's avant-garde approach to lighting impresses with its extremity. The whole space is plunged into a nearly complete darkness, all the better to catch the crowd in the duo's spell.
Of course, this is only one particular aspect of Henriksen's repertoire. Another night, and he might sound more like a jazz trumpeter. It's the same with his countryman Nils Petter Molvaer. As if the two trumpeters had made a pact, he too chooses to play most of his set at an abstract level of ritual development. He too invokes the Jon Hassell texturing sound, although initially Molvaer is at the mercy of a fluctuating microphone/effects interface. He has an excitingly stripped down trio featuring two of Norway's key players: guitarist Eivind Aarset and drummer Audun Kleive. Soon, they can't resist the temptation to climax the gig with some more muscular interaction, eventually rising up to an aggressive assault of noise-interference. This is a wise move, following the steady thoughtfulness of the evening's music, allowing the audience a sense of release, without dispersing the carefully amassed vibrations with too much abruptness.
Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy
June 18, 2009
It's easy to lose count of the various bands operated by trumpeter Dave Douglas. He likes to maintain a huge variety of playing situations, and Brass Ecstasy allows just what its name promises: a complete tubular blowing orgy, with the exception of a sticksman, Nasheet Waits, to harry the street parade up onto the stage. It's the opening night of a four-day run, and over the course of two sets, Douglas manages to play almost all the contents of his new Spirit Moves album, only leaving out its Hank Williams cover. The trumpeter freely confesses that he's been inspired by Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, and two of his bandmates, Luis Bonilla (trombone) and Vincent Chancey (French horn), were actually members of that very ensemble. The remaining horner is Marcus Rojas, blubbering away on tuba. Each of the Douglas compositions is allowed to extend and, substantial though the disc's charms are, it's not surprising that the live experience hoists them up onto the next step towards fulfillment of the band's hedonistic objective. The arrangements are now allowing increased breathing space between the horns, a looseness that is still reasonably controlled, but now treading on the perimeter of uninhibited release.
Douglas is constantly wired, pointing his horn skywards and jetting out passionately rattled phrases, as if his mission is to brim over the supreme being's spittoon. He's a master of technique, but Douglas also has a very personal message to impart. His bell-blasting sidekicks are equal to the task of matching his prowess, with even Rojas issuing several nimble huffs right down at the blubbery bowel end of the range. Bonilla and Chancey share a very similar space, so their solos complement each other admirably, with the trombonist becoming the most heated, whilst the French horner prefers to exude a buttery smoothness.