Joseph Jarman, Bob Wilber, Charles McPherson & Vinny Golia
In the search for ever-more unusual venues, I journeyed to the Belarusan Church on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, the current home of Connection Works. This is an artist-operated, non-profit organization that divides its resources between gigs and workshop activities, featuring established players as well as less-familiar names. Their chief focus is local, hence the subtitle, Brooklyn Jazz Wide Open. The Connection Works advisory board includes Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano and Woody Allen.
Was a surprisingly sparse attendance due to the semi-obscure nature of the venue, or the dawning-of-spring sunshine that dazzled just outside the open doors of this afternoon gig? An appearance by the old Art Ensemble Of Chicago reedsman Joseph Jarman is quite a rare event in NYC, but no members of the usual downtown crew were making a cross-borough journey.
Jarman was joining the local Works trio, comprising Rob Garcia (drums), Daniel Kelly (piano) and Michel Gentile (flute). Considering the guest's immense stature in the history of jazz, the meeting had an air of equality, with the repertoire coming from the Art Ensemble as well as the members of Works itself. Jarman and company applied themselves to these pieces as if they were a newly formed band, emphasizing the relaxed, inviting nature of this gig.
Jarman intoned some Bob Dylan lines, removed from their old context and sounding like something else entirely. The ritualistic ambiance prevailed through "Hail, We Now Sing Joy" and Jarman's own "Lifetime Visions (For The Magnificent Human)," then into the Works pieces, including "A Debt Of Gratitude," which was penned by Gentile only days earlier.
Jarman switched between alto and soprano saxophones, rattling bamboo percussion in-between. His tone remains ruggedly powerful, merging complexity with sore-ear abrasiveness. The music was divided between exultant themes and ceremonial abstraction, and there were several profound moments that rose above the general excellence. Kelly exploded into a suddenly desperate piano solo, abusing the upright's keys with a theatrical force, having the effect of whipping the other three players into a sympathetic agitation. Then, in the midst of a beautifully transparent flute solo during Garcia's closing "Thank You," as the music approached near-silence, Jarman placed both horns in his mouth and mischievously erupted in a jarringly discordant fanfare, which ended up closing out an all-too-brief set.
Peter Apfelbaum had already opened up the afternoon with an informal and insightful recollection of his formative experiences, being heavily influenced by the Art Ensemble and their Chicagoan extended family. To follow Jarman and the Works trio, he brought together the smaller quintet version of his New York Hieroglyphics group. This provided a contrasting though sympathetic alternative to the preceding set.
While Apfelbaum's compositions are globally aware, their tendency is to channel their rousing, spiritual qualities through grooves rather than abstraction or free-form expression. Instead, the Hieroglyphics are a tightly-wound unit that bounces from pan-African themes to reggae lopes, from heated funk to old-style big band impersonations (the multi-instrumental capacities of Apfelbaum and Peck Allmond widen an already far-reaching scope).
Once again, there was a ringing, thundering quality to the church's upright piano that offered a particularly pushy sound that wouldn't exist on a concert grand. Apfelbaum colored his themes on the keys and would stand up to blow gritty tenor saxophone solos. Allmond was switching from trumpet to saxophone and then electrified thumb piano. Dave Phelps was spidering choppy funk licks on guitar, while Patrice Blanchard made lightly dotted tar dollops on bass. Underneath (or over the top) of all this was Dafnis Prieto, one of the hottest new-ish drummers on the scene. He's a poly-rhythmic wizard, but this doesn't impede his naturally earthy qualities. He's a technical time-signature contortionist master, but he's also aiming to get your body on to the church dancefloor.
Jarman and Apfelbaum are connected in attitude, but their music ended up being joyfully different, as the two bands created completely separate moods, both exceptional in their individual manners.
Bob Wilber & David Ostwald's Gully Low Jazz Band
Every so often, tubaman David Ostwald's weekly early evening gig at Birdland is transformed into more of a one-off occasion. On this particular date, the set provided a good excuse to celebrate a pair of close-proximity birthdays. First, the august record producer George Avakian was reaching his 91st year. He was surrounded by family, friends and admirers, as Ostwald peppered the gig with imaginary cocktail party groupings of artists whom Avakian had produced (mostly for Columbia), discovered or conceptually directed (or a combination of all three). One of the clusters we'd like to eavesdrop on included Miles Davis, Liberace, Ravi Shankar and Doris Day.
The second birthday cake delivery was intended for reedsman Bob Wilber, though it was slightly in advance of the actual day of his comparative whippersnapper 81st. Conveniently, this veteran of Soprano Summit and The World's Greatest Jazz Band remained onstage with Ostwald's combo for most of the duration, swapping between clarinet and curved soprano saxophone.
As Wilber now resides in the obscure English village of Chipping Campden, this was something of a rare showing in his native NYC. This Wednesday session is always popular, which is why it's celebrating its 10th year. Even so, the presence of Wilber and Avakian swelled the audience even further, creating a very warm, party-like atmosphere. The tuba-pumping leader was in his element, his humor as dry as a crackling autumn leaf.
Ostwald's crew is a shifting body throughout each month. On this particular evening he was joined by Ed Polcer (cornet), Jim Fryer (trombone), Ehud Asherie (piano) and Marion Felder (controlled-thunder drums). Wilber's presence prompted a slight sideways step outside their accustomed Louis Armstrong-connected repertoire. They opened with a dashing "China Boy," manifested in more of a Bix Beiderbecke form, even though it was recorded by Pops. Wilber was spotlit with minimal accompaniment during "When You're Smiling," and his wife Pug Horton stepped up for a brief vocal spell.
The solo succession was sprightly as Wilber, Polcer and Fryer all demonstrated the art of profound brevity. When Asherie took a solo, the mood would disperse into a gauzy contemplation, in sharp contrast to Felder's stormily booming outbreaks. The tunes flew by with a relaxed looseness, even though the players were completely in control. Their grasp of the material is so firm that they can afford to jump and swerve around the melodies. It was thrilling to catch Wilber in such an ideal setting, belying his years with such swiftly fluent soloing action.
The Charles McPherson Quintet
On the day of NYC's worst rainstorm in many a year, saxophonist Charles McPherson chose to open the evening's first set with "Spring Is Here," albeit in a toughened hard-bop incarnation. Here is another player whose age doesn't affect his stamina. If McPherson has slowed down, then he must have been truly ferocious back in his prime 1960s days with Charles Mingus.
This performance shimmered with a constantly high level of gripping action. Even the ballads retained a measure of implied strength. McPherson's hard-writhing attack was the dominant element, but he had Tom Harrell standing by his side, unmoving, eyes closed, like some bearded sage fresh from a desert fast. When Harrell placed his horn to his lips, he issued crisply dotted solos that developed a narrative flow. He was mostly choosing flügelhorn, taking the roseate route.
Once the frontmen had delivered their statements (on tunes penned mostly by Harrell, with an occasional McPherson piece), there was no time for audience complacency during Jeb Patton's piano solos. He was jabbing aggressively, rolling out dense phrases after the fashion of Fats Waller or Art Tatum, but with a modernized Don Pullen diamond-hardness. His style's also reminiscent of Kenny Werner's art-barrelhouse, human player-piano approach. Piano solos frequently allow the listener to rest in-between bursts of horn hyperactivity, but this is emphatically not true when Patton's at the keyboard.
Meanwhile, Ray Drummond and Willie Jones III were stoking the bass and drums, respectively, adding up to a band of equal strengths and tussling dominance. Throughout this breathlessly compulsive set, all five players were consistently magnetizing the attention, constantly introducing some new gesture of excitement, some unpredictable twist. Their sonic realm was a sheer pleasure to inhabit. How could McPherson possibly have escalated any further during the night's following two sets? Perhaps he did so, but a superior gig would be difficult to comprehend.
Vinny Golia/Adam Lane/Weasel Walter
Issue Project Room
The second half of March found an extensive posse of West Coast performers hitting NYC, mostly prompted by reedsman Larry Ochs getting to curate for two weeks at The Stone. Several artists also managed to book satellite gigs at other venues, including this trio showing in Gowanus, Brooklyn, by Vinny Golia. The multiple-reed specialist dwells in Los Angeles, and his other Californian cohort is drummer Weasel Walter, recently transplanted to New York. Local bassman Adam Lane replaced Damon Smith, who'd appeared on the trio's recent album.
Golia is as much known for his texturally layered compositions as for his free-form adventuring, but it was the latter mission that took hold of the threesome for this early evening set. Their improvisations didn't strike any unexpected poses, adhering to what might be expected from such a line-up. They'd range from voluble density to smattered sensitivity, then back again. Golia passed from clarinet to soprano saxophone, then baritone followed by piccolo, investigating pathways that mostly took a spiraling development, rising or descending in a logical fashion.
Walter appeared in a less devastating mode than usual, caught up in an often skeletal framework of cymbal-rubs, tiny tumblings, gong-strikes and small percussion scatterings. He made occasional extreme weight-droppings, magnifying the concentrated minimalism of certain stretches with brief explosions of emphasis. Lane was inserting cardboard or small-stick mutes between his strings, or bowing out long, mournful tones. The venue's intimate gathering heightened the aura of focused attention to sonic detail, facilitating the steady concentration of the players. The improvisations took on a character of equality, with each player maintaining a balance that served the music as a whole rather than pandering to their own ego-potentials. Not that the second possibility is always a negative choice. That just wasn't their mood on this particular night.