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Live From New York

Themselves, John Hollenbeck, Uri Caine, The Arditti Quartet & DJ Spooky

By Published: December 23, 2009
Themselves/Eyedea & Abilities

The Knitting Factory

November 27, 2009

This was shaping up to be more extended than anticipated. Showtime was advertised as being nine-thirty, but upon arrival it seemed that Themselves were set to take the stage at ten-thirty. Their set was lengthy, but with not a trace of sagging. This made Eyedea & Abilities much more of a late nighter proposition, and by the time they played, the crowd had noticeably thinned.

This pair of MC/DJ duos were representing Hip Hop at its furthest reaches, at the opposite end to mainstream rap, but actually more in keeping with the form's original sonically adventuring spirit. The terms "MC" and "DJ" are only vaguely accurate, particularly in the case of Oakland's Themselves, where such roles are spliced and shaken until the dedicated tabulator feels kinda nauseous.

Themselves have been away and inactive for six years, but chief raconteur Doseone (Adam Drucker) was at the old pre-Brooklyn Knit last year, spearheading the expanded (and similarly excellent) Subtle. He and Jel (Jeffrey Logan) have an uncompromisingly hands-on approach to sample-triggering, visibly hammering out beats, rumbling bass tones and tapping tinny clickety-clacks, their digits performing a micro-ballet across their black box array. Themselves were both garbed in grey gear, with signature arrows emblazoned on waistcoats and jackets. Doseone has a Mohican and a suit, whilst Jel is his comparative straight man.

This is extreme Hip Hop, a chaotic spillage of barely controlled jaggedness that's just as likely to find appeal among the experimental rock and electronica cabals. Doseone is quite simply (or complicatedly) one of music's (any kind of music's) sharpest young frontmen: unique, lunatic, twisted, wise-cracking and tongue-twisting. He's a twitchy mess of perverse thought, instantly ejaculated in rhyme. Jel is persistently fiddling with scratched-up sonic waste matter, constructing brutal collages of sculpted noise. Their set's extended stay notwithstanding, theirs was totally compelling—and compulsive—music for every second and every song.

Of course, this is a very hard act for the Minnesotan Eydea & Abilities to follow. On any other evening they would have been a substantial headliner, but immediately chasing Themselves they suffered heavily by comparison. Yes, DJ Abilities (Gregory Keltgen) is expressive on his laptop/turntable blend, scratching swiftly behind Eyedea's nimble lines (Michael Larsen), but the pair was fighting against the late shift, as the audience reduced after midnight, as well as the sheer godlike impact just made by Themselves. Doseone and Jel returned to the stage towards the close, boosting the set-up into four-piece mode, but by this time the evening's momentum was just on the point of slipping below acceptable levels.

John Hollenbeck

(le) Poisson Rouge

November 30, 2009

For a concert that crept ever closer to the dangerous three-hour mark, this was a remarkably engaging experience. Drummer, percussionist, composer and (now we discover) pianist John Hollenbeck was showcasing three of his very different groups and repertoires, with only two short intervals between the sets. The Claudia Quintet, his most renowned group, was taking a rest. On other memorably tedious occasions, such longueurs have inevitably led to the audience's attention being brutalized into submission, but with New Yorker Hollenbeck at the helm the night swept by without losing its sense of vitality and alertness.

The Poisson Rouge bookers had asked Hollenbeck to present his quintet arrangements of Meredith Monk music (he's now a regular player in her ensemble), but the drummer then seized the opportunity for one of his all-too-irregular Large Ensemble engagements. Hollenbeck also decided to open the evening with a trio that presented pieces he'd penned specially for his old college buddy Todd Reynolds, exploring the outer limits of violin technique. Hollenbeck soon found out that there weren't actually any limits to the interpreting skills of his chosen soloist. Besides the composer and Reynolds, vibraphonist Matt Moran (a Claudia cohort) completed the line-up.

With the Large Ensemble looming, Hollenbeck made the canny decision to unveil his wraith-like compositional aspects. Reynolds was scything sweetly, Moran glimmered across his magic metallophones, Hollenbeck barely struck his skins as he set up soft clockwork patterns, scuttling gracefully. They enveloped the audience in a spangled enchantment, creating an aura of dreamlike lucidity.

The Future Quest quintet possesses greater density, but it still observes a respect for stillness. This combo is involved with the Meredith Monk Ensemble, performing earlier in the year as part of her Whitney Museum retrospective. Hollenbeck is joined by Ellery Eskelin, Tony Malaby (saxophones), Gary Versace (piano/organ), and then it looks like some uninhibited soul is performing a hippy gyration in front of the stage. No! It's Theo Bleckmann, normally known for his singing. He wafts from right to left, throwing static poses before joining the band onstage to shape his perfectly controlled choirboy tones. He's become a virtual Meredith Monk, aping her vocal delivery accurately, as Future Quest performs a micro-history of her works. The composer is in the house, and she looks very pleased with these prime evocations of her pieces. They simultaneously match authenticity with a shape-shifting re-interpretation.

Hollenbeck had gradually introduced some sturdier beats, hinting at the full pulse that would soon drive his Large Ensemble. Eskelin and Malaby were both issuing statements of coiled, understated power. Following another short break, the full big band colonized the stage. The last time I caught them, at the Jazz Standard, the music seemed not too removed from conventional big-band history. This time, it still sounded jazz-like, but was toppling that vocabulary more towards minimalism, which is not to say the full ensemble was either too gentle, too quiet or too homogenised.

It was well into the evening when Hollenbeck remembered that it might be an idea to promote the Eternal Interlude album that was providing his repertoire. He was too busy entertaining the crowd with his eccentric wit: half-bumbling, half-rapiered. The album's title composition was actually the grand finale of the night, managing to surpass an already outstanding sequence of epic excursions. It was here that the Large Ensemble's sparkling layers of minimalist build-up were most apparent, with Versace surely in thrall to Terry Riley as he set up tantalizing curlicues of electric organ, whilst Bleckmann gradually rose up from inaudibility, swelling against a gleaming wall of steadily intensifying repeats. Hollenbeck's composing for his Large Ensemble has now developed a deeply personal language, retaining jazz values as it launches into a pan-stylistic orbit.

Uri Caine/The Arditti Quartet

(le) Poisson Rouge

December 1, 2009

At the same haunt on the following evening, your reviewer was perched on a stool right next to Hollenbeck. He's on a new-music roll. We talked about how the club is now literally serving milk and cookies—a bold new move in keeping with its alternative cast. And there were we all, the previous night, presuming that his observation on the milk'n'cookie scene was just another surreal Hollenbeck joke.

For this gig, it's fellow New Yorker Uri Caine who's unveiling a new work, penned for the Arditti Quartet. But not before this long-established (1974) British string group gave it's own early-evening recital of pieces by Harrison Birtwistle ("The Tree Of Strings"), Conlon Nancarrow ("Quartet No. 3") and Iannis Xenakis ("Tetras"). Usually, the Ardittis leaven their modernism with a stray ancient work, but these three composers had been chosen for their similar sense of intensely resonant friction. Instead of conveying a diverse set of contrasts, the Ardittis had elected to lock the audience into a dramatic, sometimes harsh world of riffing cello, slippery violin or viola streaks and radical changes in speed, space, texture, rhythm and attack.

All victual-vending had been suspended for this first half (even the milk'n'cookies), the quartet limned under static light, foregoing the club's distinctive shadow-shifting visuals. They were subtly amplified, but with no trace of unintentional distortion or hiss. Purity triumphed. Doubtless at the request of the Ardittis, all unnecessary distractions were banished, so that the gathering could completely drown in such a masterful depth of expression.

An alternative space can often have a beneficial effect. Unlike most classical temples, the Poisson hadn't provided programs, so the audience had to guess, initially, which pieces were being played. As soon as leader and founder Irvine Arditti discovered this, he elected to communicate directly, in a surprisingly humorous vein. This helped to flesh out the musical background in a more memorable and personal manner.

Your scribe was seated at a frontal table for this first set, completely surrounded by sound. For the second half, he removed himself to the rear wall, and this might have had an effect on his lessened appreciation of the sonics of Uri Caine's new Caprices For String Quartet And Piano. By comparison, these sounded smoother, suffering as they followed the more aggressive sound-worlds of Birtwistle, Nancarrow and Xenakis.

The Ardittis and Caine performed with the expected technical dash, but each short movement felt like an exercise in gratuitous string-flowing, accompanied by dappled piano colorations. Caine frequently lurked in the background, where surely he should have been an equal, or even an upfront focus of attention. There were a scattering of solo piano flourishes, where Caine's cascading force elicited smiles from the Ardittis, but generally this was too lacking in personalized angularity. Perhaps this was just the expectation arising out of Caine's accustomed tactic of radical re-structuring. Where the second set might have been expected to transcend the first, this was noticeably not the case.

DJ Spooky's Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica

Brooklyn Academy Of Music

December 2, 2009

Commissioned as part of BAM's long-running Next Wave season, DJ Spooky's Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica sets out to address the effect of global warming (and territorial politics) on that southernmost continent. It's a multi-media piece that's as grandiose as its weighty title implies. Spooky, who was born as Paul D. Miller, and whose sub-title has long been That Subliminal Kid, has steadily become removed from club culture, to the point where he's now involved in a full-scale theatrical production such as this.

Spooky has written the music for the conveniently-named ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), who are amongst New York's major new music interpreters. Their manifestation for this work is a three-piece string section (two violins, cello) with piano. Bob McGrath is the visual director, demanding high production values throughout a show that's not much longer than an hour in length.

Spooky began the performance by dragging a set of dangling chimes across a chunk of ice. Let's make it clear right from the start: this work would have benefited from more ice. As a huge gauze-like screen descended, Spooky moved center-stage to his turntable table, and the high density image-cascade began, projected frontally, as well as on two askew-angled screens behind the performers, and also flickering around the walls of the theater. On a technical level, the piece proceeded to impress with its sheer large-scale slickness and visual ambition. This was state-of-the-art image transmission on a godlike scale.

Spooky's music falls into the minimalist category, though it's not really influenced by any of that mode's greats (Glass, Reich, Riley, etc.). It's less concerned with repetition, and more conventionally melodic. ICE proffer a spirited reading, full of lusty bowing and rugged fingering. Spooky's own DJ contribution is barely discernible. He's busy twiddling faders and knobs, but his equalisations aren't exactly radical. He's using a theremin, but again, the resulting sonics weren't too clear. Obviously, as the composer, he wasn't obliged to contribute anything onstage. Spooky could have just taken his seat amongst the audience. But the fact that he was up there with his turntables made the viewer feel like demanding greater audio rupturing, or a least some mild interference. There was talk of Spooky representing the 'sound of the continent,' but this wasn't particularly apparent in the music.

This was the key issue. Nothing was unpleasant. But conversely, nothing rose higher. The whole mass was blandly one-dimensional. Our lust for chaos, transgression or unpredictability became apparent. As the imagery grew increasingly scientific and hyperactive, the consumer began to feel that this was akin to watching a PowerPoint presentation in a hotel conference room—on a gargantuan scale. The earlier pictures of close-up ice might have pointed the way for a more subtle, impressionistic experience of sub-zero, but instead there was an increasingly obvious scrolling of text, making the message take on the bludgeoning character of advertising. The opposite of subliminal. On a more positive note, when the piece concluded, it seemed surprisingly short, so at least the audience bombardment was entertaining, avoiding the possible side-effect of dreary tedium.


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