NYC Winter Jazzfest, Day 1: January 6, 2012
Medeski clearly had a strong fascination with the pure sounds a piano could make. After Monk/Tatum style runs of note clusters, he would create moving volleys between thumping tones with his left hand and cold, water droplets with his right. He lured his audience into repetitive structures of sound that shifted ever so slightly, even in the most extreme registers of the piano. Left-hand ideas would submit to right-hand ideas and then rebel against them later. In the muddy depths of the instrument, Medeski accustomed his listeners to the extremity and let the echoed overtones of sound ring out. His subversions of sweeter pop melodies were often abrupt but not childish, only really tugging the rug from beneath the crowd, not pulling it out from under them.
What nobody could have expected, however, was his abandonment of the piano altogether in favor of a long, wooden flute. Medeski procured the long, indigenous-style flute from the side of the stage and began to whistle out joyous fife dances, sliding his finger across the length of it to adjust what was, upon later musing, one pitch with several other overtones attached. Then Medeski returned to the piano, but not without leaving the audience pleasantly reminded that having the word "solo" attached does not mean what might be assumed.
Festivals like these are as much living workshops as they are showcases. The band, comprised of alto saxophonists Pete Robbins and Oscar Noriega, bassist Simon Jermyn and drummers Ches Smith and John Hollenbeck, may have a name later, but at Winter Jazzfest it was an exploration of the possibilities of a two-alto/two-drummer/one-bass group. The quintet functioned as jazz for the Aphex Twin set: a jungle-grooved, dub-bass heavy soundscape punctuated by ferocity, operating in both live and looped time.
The set could have felt complete with just Smith and Hollenbeck collaborating. Armed with bells, wood blocks and a whole array of other percussion pieces, the two composerly drummers contributing constant, Latin-inspired rumbles along with crashing and thumping one-drop reggae, gracefully sewed together by Jermyn. The rest of the band got in on the rhythm action as well, Jermyn echoing glitchy electronics and the horns hammering their alto keys to make long, stunted ribbons of sound. Robbins and Noriega fit in best with funky drum-and-bass numbers, Robbins often jabbing with Maceo Parker style jabs while Noriega churned out long lines and piercing wails. The two altos played mostly oblique melodies, linking up gently and briefly between their moments of autonomy. The horns would continuously tense up to a fever pitch, either by the sheer power of dissonance or by their looping cells of rhythm, heightening it all up to a satisfying release. Though there are still some kinks to be worked out (Schatz announced that they had played "one-half of a time" before this), the band's control of both sound and concept was promising.
Michael Blake's Hellbent
Last year, the Asphalt Orchestra accosted stages and marched its party music through the streets. This year, it was saxophonist Michael Blake's turn to bring the street band aesthetic. Hellbent was crafted in the New Orleans style, not just in the stepping rhythms of Marcus Rojas's tuba but also in the powder-keg funk of drummer Calvin Weston and the rollicking brass expressions of trumpeter Steven Bernstein.
Hellbent didn't just pursue the funeral band sound, either. Blake and Bernstein occasionally got entangled in free jazz bouts a la Don Cherry/Ornette Coleman. Violinist Charlie Burnham contributed an electrified, Jimi Hendrix-brand yowl, complete with the chugging of a wah-wah pedal. Weston's pyrotechnics indicated a modern gospel influence and Rojas's "tuba scratching" had a glimmer of hip-hop turntablism. The band mostly used Blake's melodies as a template for group improvisation, so when it wasn't in NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) mode, it had the freedom to shift into different styles seamlessly.
Hellbent's cast was composed of familiar names that are still criminally underrated musicians. Rojas needs to be given superb credit for successfully doing what most upright bass players (let alone bass-function tuba players) strive for: possessing a deep pocket while playing bass lines and a strong soloing ability. With bassist Ben Allison, Blake is known for his melodicism, but he also needs to be given credit for his aggressive and lightning-fast approach in avant-garde contexts. Bernstein's slide trumpet sounded impassioned and shimmering and Burnham's double-stops wowed the crowd.
Marco Benevento Solo