Detroit Jazz Festival: Detroit, MI September 2-5, 2011
Pianist Amina Figarova's sextet conjured pieces that opened and closed on lush melodies of Ellingtonian sweep, filled in their middle by more urgent dissections of the wide-angle veneer.
Figarova's soloing on the afternoon was regularly fast-moving, but never rushed, spiraling through perfectly classical lines that were a marvel in their technical proficiency if, at times, a bit stately. A charging low-end statement in the late going broke that mold, as Figarova unleashed a torrent of roiling emotion that later jumped into spacious bop flirting with ragtime. Trumpeter Ernie Hammes likewise favored rapid-fire onslaughts, but might turn from the searing brass to offer pockets of whimsy, as when brashness fed into sweet pop melodies on Figarova's composition for the trumpeter, "Ernie's Song," or to outright jokes as when Hammes immediately and faithfully mimicked the honking from a riverboat passing by the Waterfront stage.
But tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas supplied the real grist for the mill, releasing extended, agitated statements that fluttered and popped under increasing pressure, then rose to expire in vaporous gasps. On "Back in New Orleans," he became the solo bluesman, wailing alone on the street corner. But when bassist Roland Guerin met up with him, the two entered into a spirited conversation, the type two friends might have over politics or sports or other fleeting matters of great importance. Flutist Bart Platteau, Figarova's husband, sailed, as his name would suggest, at the top of the turmoil, supplying a nice leavening effect. On "Flight Number," an upbeat, charging piece, he blew long, wistful calls full of hard-earned wisdomthe calming voice of reason over the band's predominant, passion-driven exuberance.
Violinist Regina Carter's Reverse Thread ensemble does, indeed, spin back to the origins of Western music, traversing the line from such basins of American song as New Orleans and Carter's native Detroit, back across the Atlantic and through the cafés of Europe, to the cradle of Africa where music and humanity were born.
Bolstered by the kora (West African harp) on one side and the accordion on the other, and with the Western rhythm staples of double-bass and drum kit at her back, Carter swung, scraped and plucked her way through a full yet airy music that, at least figuratively, scattered clouds on this afternoon of intermittent showers. Her violin marched admirably on "New for New Orleans," then squealed high-end trills of delight on the heels of bassist Chris Lightcap's skipping solo. She plucked the melody of "Un Aguinaldo pa Regina," then sent her violin into mournful singing with the bow. The Indian melody, "Kanou," was rendered almost as an Irish fiddle tune ripe for dancingthe thread farther stretched.
Yacouba Sissoko's kora playing was crisp and lyrical throughout, filling grand musical space and, on its own, covering a large swath of the planet's musical language. Will Holshouser's accordion often settled the affair into cozy European cafés, but also blended Old World song with energy sparked from repeated blues figures. He often partnered with Lightcap to forge a thick, yet quickly flowing undercurrent that smoothly swept the group along through a casual yet invigorating set. And the crowd rose to its feet to applaud the journey as it came to its end.
Several times during inter-song banter, pianist Vijay Iyer asked the audience if the sound was okay. "It's cacophonous up here," he said. The sound was, in fact, just fine (aside from the battle it too often had to wage with blaring dance floor pronouncements from an M.C. on a nearby party boat.) Still Iyer's comment captured a key element of his band's performance.
The music was dark and charging, the notes from its individual instruments sounded as if they'd been shot inside a box or small room, causing a tremendous ricocheting that soon formed of a splendid, multicolored webbing that buzzed with constant motion. A natural result of this paradigm was the frequent occurrence of group crescendo, which thrilled each time it arose exactly because it was not shoved in to artificially inflate the music, but instead grew from the music organically, and expired as a natural, welcome release of tension.
Iyer also squeezed this formalizing box to a smaller scale, at times seeming to lay it on his keyboard to designate the range and course on his fingers' motion. On "Darn That Dream," for instance, he steadily worked his way into the highest ranges of his instrument by repeating and repeating rapidlybut perfectlydrawn figures over a specific patch of keys then, a bit later, shifting slightly to his right and continuing the process. Bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore followed similar paths, casting many sharp, cutting edges to form an electrifying rhythm of pulsating metal mesh.
So, no, the music was not free of discordance. But nor did it mash into a blurry, dull mess. For 75 minutes Iyer, Crump and Gilmore weaved a highly modern, progressive, well-delineated yet powerfully tangled form of music that never sagged.