Undead Jazz Festival: Kenny's Castaways Edition
Every zombie film fan knows that being bitten by a creature of the night is a fate worse than death. The only cure is to have a member of your party load up a shotgun and take you out before you turn into a limping, brain-hungry shell of a person. So giving an event a header like "The Undead Jazz Festival" in a climate where the sentiment of "Jazz is Dead" feels stronger than ever seems like co-founders Adam Schatz and Brice Rosenbloom were playing into the pessimistic rants of the jazz police who have pronounced this genre DOA. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Schatz and Rosenbloom have decided to take up the idea that jazz, at least for a time, was dead but has come back stronger than ever. To the audiences who packed Kenny's Castaways over two nights, the hours-long display of new sounds in jazz and creative music sounded more like a phoenix-like rebirth than a Romero-esque horror show.
The Ben Wendel group was the first to hit the stage. Wendel's group, above all else, emphasized the attention to movement and flow that modern jazz has so delicately refined. Wendel, perhaps best known for his work with the evocative, genre-splicing band Kneebody, allowed his effects-driven tenor sound (not to mention his own keen sense of melody) to flow effortlessly through the electric vibrations of the quintet. Guitarist Nir Felder, armed with a particularly un-jazzy Fender Stratocaster, incorporated all the pings and clanks of extended guitar techniques into his fiery soloing. Wendel's bassoon blends surprisingly well with the electric guitar sound, proving that there are still new sounds to be explored in jazz.
Uri Caine's band was introduced as a group that played Mozart and Mahler and that's more or less what they were. However, Caine's "classical variations" ensembles are a far cry from Ellington's rendition of the Nutcracker suite. Caine deviated from his piano sonatas into bebop-flavored jaunts while drummer Jim Black supplied everything from the mysterious rumbles of Middle Eastern percussion to loud, funky break beats. Improvising over 18th century concert music with 21st century textures was nothing for trumpeter Ralph Alessi, who not only navigated this type of fusion but put his own mark on it. In the spirit of genre revival, Caine's group inhaled sharply and gave a rescue breath to classical music, reminding audiences that rondos and dances are meant to excite listeners, not to bore them to tears.
Ralph Alessi's This Against That was a change of pace. It was a very personal mixture of jazz styles that comes out of Alessi's involvement with the highly innovative Brooklyn scene. The group set up sparse melodies and harmonies, while allowing themselves time to stretch into long, thoughtful free improvisations. Alessi and saxophonist Tony Malaby skated beautifully over Andy Milne's Fender Rhodes, while bassist Drew Gress laid a foundation that sewed the ensemble together while allowing him unlimited possibilities.
Drummer Dan Weiss and guitarist Miles Okazaki were next. Duos are sometimes seen as musical dares; the audience wonders what kinds of musical forms two musicians can produce and whether they can sustain interest. In this respect, Okazaki and Weiss were largely a success. The duo kicked off the set with a refreshingly authentic Brazilian piece and then morphed into a middle section comprised of Okazaki's compositions. Okazaki's interplay with Weiss got repetitive at times, if only for the fact that he would show off his enormous talent as a guitarist and then revert to safer waters. Weiss showed off his long hours of studying Indian tabla drum performances, vocalizing and playing over Okazaki's multi-layered accompaniment.
After the two musicians left the stage, 12 replaced them. Tony Malaby's Novela was, simply put, a dangerous ensemble. Occasionally conducted by keyboardist Kris Davis (who also arrange Malaby's music for the ensemble), Novela unleashed a relentless torrent of musical structures that were loud, aggressive, provocative, dissonant and surely controversial amongst the crowd. Malaby's screeching soprano wailings collided with Davis's Fender Rhodes, while the rest of the ensemble, including two bass clarinets, trumpet, saxophone drums and an earth-quaking tuba, plowed through the charts at mostly their own pace. It was an example of how jazz can still shock even the most jaded of audiences. The spirit of Sun Ra is not lost.