NYC Winter Jazzfest, Day 2: January 7, 2012
Iyer's original compositions traced out his vision of a unifying musical future, one where acoustic, electronic, sampled and re-sampled sounds mix into one. On "Lude," Iyer navigated a continuous dialogue between dark left-hand thumps and right-hand loops, and evolved into a solo full of contrasting musical idioms. Iyer's signature "pings," a deadened series of repeated notes in the middle-upper register, contributed otherworldly sounds on "Optimism." The trio's penultimate song, "Hood," was the best example of the sound that the trio has crafted. It was an ever-expanding combination of piano blips, rollicking bass grooves and jungle-style drums, the pieces becoming more spectral and colliding into one another. Iyer's trio, though firmly influenced by trios such as Ahmad Jamal's, may have found the secret in liberating the trio sound by alienating it completely.
Very much the opposite of some of the slicker, more singular-minded ensembles of the festivals, the trio configuration of drummer Matt Wilson, guitarist Mary Halvorson and cornetist Kirk Knuffke sounded like a three-way conversation between the three improvisers. The trio's nomenclature fit; each musician's composition was executed in a searching manner, sifting through the openness of the bassless set-up and the varied, disparate influences that each player brought to the table. Sifter was like a small, unorthodox family where big swinging drums, spiky and unpredictable electric guitar and warm-but-adventurous cornet came together for a campfire.
Sifter's music traversed everything from spy blues to Ornette Coleman-style free-bop, but it was anything but convoluted. Some of the first pieces the trio played were so user-friendly that they happily welcomed up on-the-spot guest Joel Frahm to play tenor saxophone along with Knuffke. Frahm took the freedom he was given to build a story, one evolving from laconic to verbose and finally to aggressive, while the band responded appropriately. Some of Sifter's repertoire had a burlesque/cabaret quality like Knuffke's "Cramps," with its bouncing, circus type melody, and another composition by Halvorson that recalled a spaghetti western ballad. Despite their unorthodoxy, their compositions and improvisations had an appropriate rise and fall, even Halvorson's aggressive abstractions using the time-honored device of diminished chords to build tension.
Communication and democracy took on a big role during Sifter's set. Halvorson and Wilson shared melodic content and buoyant support for Knuffke's unpretentious playing almost equally. Sometimes Wilson would be the mediator between Halvorson's tautological guitar warps and Knuffke's rust-coated free playing. Knuffke and Wilson, who are contemporary collaborators in the Matt Wilson Quartet, have an innate, swinging lock-up that Halvorson rose to the task of contributing to. Nowadays, none of the three trio members have any reason to feel shunned from the jazz community, given all their involvement, but Sifter almost felt like the musical version of Tod Browning's "Freaks": a group of misfits banding together to create odd and wonderful music.
Ben Williams and Sound Effect
Popular side musicians, through their constant work with other musicians, often make terrific bandleaders and songwriters in their own right. Bassist Ben Williams proved this phenomenon fantastically with Sound Effect's performance at Sullivan Hall. The eclectic cast of guitarist Matt Stevens, drummer Justin Brown, pianist Gerald Clayton, percussionist Etienne Charles and alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw drew in Williams' enormous musical oeuvre and exhaled a deeply inspired performance. Williams had programmed a set of tunes from across the musical spectrum, from his own brand of rhythmic soul to established R'n'B and jazz hits.