Jack DeJohnette, Project/Object, William Bell and Johnny Winter
January 6, 2010
This was the second night of a residency featuring the debut of a new fusion-orientated quintet. Drummer Jack DeJohnette is no stranger to electrification, but this lineup presented an intriguing proposition, confounding the audience in any attempt to predict exactly where the music would roam. The front line features alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and guitarist David Fiuczynski, immediately suggesting the prospect of an aggressively modernist vanguard. On keyboards (mostly synthesized) there was George Colligan, and on electro-acoustic bass, Jerome Harris.
DeJohnette and company were balanced effectively between touches of retro that harked back to the 1970s and around 50 percent of a feel that suggested moving onward into this new decade. The presence of Fiuczynski and his two-necked guitar provided ample opportunity for global wandering, as he employed his 12-string upper frets in a search for another axis on other axes. Sometimes during the course of a single solo, he would suggest microtonal sitar flourishes with flashing slides up and down the neck. He would then invest his strings with the qualities of a mandolin or National steel guitar, reveling in a vocabulary of sound that is rarely found within the confines of a conventional jazz guitar solo.
Mahanthappa appeared uncompromising as he tore out extended ribbons of complicated melodic ascendance, playing in much the same fashion as he would if he were fronting one of his own outfits. Harris contributed to the global traveling by vocalizing in a style side-step that distilled elements of Indian Dhrupad and Tuvan Khoomei singing. The only example of failed ethnic appropriation was Colligan's somewhat cheesed-up sitar/santoor/squeeble synth-setting during the closing epic that was "Ahmad The Terrible."
DeJohnette briefly filled out the texture on melodica, but remained firmly behind the kit for the duration. His one extended solo savored the rich tonalities of his skins, well-amplified in what amounted to a Birdland show at its most speaker-stressing level. There wasn't a great deal of ensemble composing, but the copious soloing was always engagingly delivered. This group finds DeJohnette in one of his more extreme habitats, and is much spikier and more aggressive than might be initially expected.
Project/Object with Ike Willis and Ray White
B.B. King Blues Club
January 7, 2010
To deem Project/Object merely a tribute band doesn't feel appropriate. This is a combo that's been deeply pickled in the repertoire of Frank Zappa for nigh on two decades, delivering his music with dexterity while grasping the composer's slippery sense of free-form humor. The crew's guitar-playing leader André Cholmondeley is also devoted to making minor tweaks of Zappa's lyrical contentupdates in the name of topicality. In other words, they're not completely dedicated to building The Church of Frank Zappa. The man's corpus is still subject to improvisational transformation and conceptual renewal.
Perhaps most importantly, Project/Object has a reputation for heading out on the road with original Zappa sidemen. In October 2007, the musicians played a barnstorming gig at The Lion's Den in Greenwich Village (a still-jumping joint that's now more soberly known as Sullivan Hall) featuring saxophonist, singer and flutist Napoleon Murphy Brock. For this tour, they've managed to unite a pair of Zappa's staunchest allies from the 1976-1988 recording and touring period. Ike Willis and Ray White are both singers and guitarists, and both of them have arrived from a soul-blues-funk background. The pair's stunning harmonies were a big part of Zappa's signature sound on the albums that marked his greatest mainstream successSheik Yerbouti (1979, Zappa Records), Joe's Garage (1979, Zappa Records), You Are What You Is (1981, Barking Pumpkin Records) and Tinseltown Rebellion (1981, Barking Pumpkin Records), to name just a few from this period of his prodigious catalog. Willis had his first guest stint with Project/Object in 1995, and this tour with the band marks the first time he and White have hit the road together in 25 years.
The evening's set list wasn't limited to the Sheik YerGarage Thing-Fish Rebellion period, though. Project/Object is committed to all Zappa eras, and so the White/Willis duo was given the opportunity to interpret older songs from before their time in Zappa's band. Not surprisingly, the One Size Fits All (1975, Zappa Records) and Over-Nite Sensation (1973, Zappa Records) albums were given particular prominence, with sterling renditions of "Zomby Woof," "San Ber'dino," "Montana" and "I'm The Slime." Cholmondeley was featured on the highly unlikely "Evelyn, A Modified Dog," which is surely one of the least-covered Zappa songs in the book.
The band went right back to "Trouble Every Day" from 1966, although updating its lyrics with sly references to current issues. "City Of Tiny Lites" and "Disco Boy" represented the pure distillation of perverted pop, and then White threw the band into a sequence that reproduced most of side two from 1980's You Are What You Is, creating a scathing Broadway mini-opera that peaked with "Charlie's Enormous Mouth."
From "Peaches En Regalia" to "Tinsel Town Rebellion," the range was broad. Instrumental extension to pop compression. Cholmondeley adopted a relatively modest approach, not choosing to take too many extended guitar breaks, and leaving several openings for White's bluiesier soloing. The latter's shining passage arrived (both vocally and on guitar) during the escalating "Outside Now," lifted from the Joe's Garage trilogy. This was an ascendant stretch among the many that occurred during the evening's lengthy but continually gripping pair of sets.
David Johnsen's fuzz bass solo deserves special mention and was probably the most spiritually connected to Zappa's own razoring vortex of abrasiveness. Keyboardist Eric Svalgard came across as a demented research scientist, dedicated to coaxing out new variants of 1970s cosmic debris. Then, the young violinist Katie Jacoby injected several numbers with even greater vigor, slashing away with rhythmic precision, her hard attack not interfering with a virtuoso negotiation of Zappa's themes. The second set featured Ed Palermo on alto saxophone, bringing along a fruity funkiness to the tunes that are already in his bloodstream. Palermo too has been devoting his big band life to the Zappa oeuvre.
Most of all, though, it was a rapturous experience to hear Willis and White as a united front line performing the material as if they'd only just stepped off the Zappa road bus. Project/Object have honed all the old moves, but the musicians are also committed to making this music relevant to the present, delivering the often complicated arrangements with complete confidence, crazed abandonment and no visible scores. Avant-soul, squealing jazz-rock, new music pomp, dirty blues, electronic collage and disco castratothey've mastered all of Zappa's obsessions.
This was almost too much of a good time, but the evening had already opened at 7 p.m. with a pointed set by Astrograss, an old-fashioned Brooklyn acoustic combo in the classic Ralph Stanley configuration that dedicating themselves (believe it) to bluegrass stylings of Zappa songs. A doo wopped classic such as "Sharleena" offers an effortless stylistic sidestep, but when they sprinted through "Stick It Out," with panting robo-sex vocals joining in with the Bill Monroe-ed harmonies, it all sounded genuinely subversive, not to mention deeply grin-spreading.
Johnny Winter/William Bell
B.B. King Blues Club
January 11, 2010
Bluesman Johnny Winter was playing a January mini-residency on Mondays at B.B. King's, but this gig was clearly the best on offer due to its remarkably juicy inclusion of soul singer William Bell as the opening act. He beams out a youthful energy, even though reality has him down as a 70-year-old man. Principally known as a major figure on the Stax label, Bell offered his most well-known hit shockingly early in the set to a crowd that didn't seem to fully appreciate its significance, chatting as they were throughout "Private Number." This was a 1968 duet with Judy Clay, but on this night Bell was delivering a solo vocal version, flanked by The Uptown Horns. Bell's other prime achievement was co-writing "Born Under A Bad Sign" with Booker T, so this inevitably provided another set peak.
Johnny Winter might appear physically frail nowadays, shuffling over to his chair, where he remained for the duration, but the sound he makes is still crackling with vitality, both in terms of singing and guitar playing. Some of Winter's selections possess a rocky individuality, but he seems to be increasingly probing the old songbook, whether for blues or rock'n'roll oldies.
There were a pair of Freddie King numbers, followed by "Bony Moronie" (Larry Williams), "Red House" (Jimi Hendrix) and "It's All Over Now" (The Womacks). Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" turned up as one of the encores, as the NYC harp-blower Jon Paris took a break from his freebie set at Lucille's Bar next door. Whichever song is being tackled, it's infused with Winter's screaming tone, and just about the only negative point to make is that the band rarely lets up, the density is constant and the sound doesn't allow much space for thought. Even so, the smoldering doesn't cease.