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Live From New York

February 2003

By Published: February 1, 2003

Hearing Liebman at the Gallery was an experience beyond words.

Last month I wrote about Jason Moran’s newest music, based on the rhythms of human speech. Soon after, I encountered Alex Ross, in the New Yorker, discussing Steve Reich’s speech-inspired work in “Different Trains,” “The Cave,” and, most recently, “Three Tales.” Ross also cited Janácek’s “Jenufa” and “The Cunning Little Vixen” as precedents. Certainly this doesn’t take anything away from Moran’s achievement, but it does fill out the picture.

John Benitez’s Soul Expressions is a funk-oriented group and an outlet for the leader’s lively electric bass playing; the lineup boasts drummer Steve Hass, tenor saxophonist Bob Franceschini, and the remarkable vibraphonist Christos Rafalides (whose Manhattan Vibes CD is worth checking out). Guitarist Adam Rogers came on board for the group’s Jazz Gallery gig, the second set of which got off to a shaky but hilarious start. Less than a minute in, the melody instruments flubbed their entrance, quite noticeably. Benitez brought the tune to a peremptory halt, approached the microphone, and asked, “How’s the sound out there?” He continued, “We don’t drink or use drugs. This is a drug-free band.” It was onward and upward from there, with burning improv making up for an overall lack of planning.

The following night, Benitez returned to co-lead a quartet with the great Dave Liebman, with Phil Markowitz on piano and Adam Nussbaum on drums. This was of a different order altogether. Liebman began alone, on tenor, sketching a melody that soon emerged as “Invitation.” Benitez and Nussbaum entered ferociously and would maintain that intensity for two sets. Markowitz hushed the room with his rubato intro on Nussbaum’s ballad “For Us”; he also brought in his classic waltz “Sno’ Peas,” as well as an inventive head based on “I Love You.” Benitez’s “J Ben Jazz,” a brisk, tuneful entry from his excellent disc Descarga In New York (Khaeon), followed the darkly romantic melody and feel of Larry Willis’s “To Wisdom, The Prize,” long a part of Liebman’s repertoire. One especially tricky Benitez vehicle tripped up the band toward the end of the evening. But no matter, for Liebman’s tenor choruses on “Footprints,” the finale, were nothing short of earth-shattering — particularly the unaccompanied ones.

Liebman’s phrasing is physical; his pauses are deliberate, and at times fairly long. When he takes his breath, a quiet comes over him. He’ll look calmly off to the side, perhaps lift his arm in a semi-voluntary, affirming gesture toward bandmates. And then he’ll begin again: contorted yet graceful torrents of swinging chromaticism and multiphonic fury, all perfectly timed and purposefully, severely dissonant. Liebman’s authority has been earned over more than three decades, at times on bandstands led by Miles Davis and Elvin Jones. On the mic, the saxophonist recalled gigging with Elvin at the Vanguard and meeting a teenaged Adam Nussbaum for the first time. Viewing and hearing shared histories such as these, in the intimate setting of the Gallery, was an experience beyond words.

JoAnne Brackeen returned to the Jazz Standard in advance of her new release, Friday: Live at the Jazz Standard (Arkadia), due out in February. The album, waxed prior to the Standard’s recent renovation, finds Brackeen at the helm of a quartet featuring Ravi Coltrane, Ira Coleman, and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. This time around Ugonna Okegwo occupied the bass slot, and the band was on fire. Brackeen inked an exceedingly tricky tune named for the club itself. Other highlights included a polyrhythmic interpretation of “Over the Rainbow,” a charging, boppish line called “Chatterbox,” and a blistering romp on “Countdown” (the first Coltrane tune I had ever heard Ravi play). Brackeen is phenomenal in both the playing and writing departments, and her new disc bears that out. There’s another Latin-themed record in the can as well.

Randy Weston’s African Rhythms Sextet was missing a bassist the last time I heard them (at Caramoor). It had seemed a truncated performance, and after catching the group at the Standard, I know why. This time Alex Blake all but stole the show, strumming and grooving and using the bass essentially as a percussion instrument, all while sitting down. Percussionist Neil Clarke, in place of a trap drummer, gave the band an agile, uncluttered feel. Trombonist Benny Powell was at his best muted, on the ballad portion of “Hi-Fly”; special guest Regina Carter sprung into action when the same tune, after a trick ending, turned into a bouncy 6/8 jam. And T.K. Blue (Talib Kibwe), on alto and soprano, blew heatedly over Weston’s intriguing vamp-based vehicles, as well as a brisk minor blues to close. Weston, for his part, played beautifully but in brief spurts, opting mainly to stay out of the way.

John Hollenbeck’s show at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia, adjacent to Symphony Space, came on the heels of the Toronto premiere of “Folkmoot” the week before, at the IAJE conference. Back in New York, Kirk Nurock conducted “Folkmoot” and two additional works for four trumpets, four trombones, five woodwinds, Kermit Driscoll on electric bass, Gary Versace on piano, Matt Moran on vibes, and Hollenbeck on drums and electronics. Vocalist Theo Bleckmann joined the group for “A Blessing,” the beautiful lyrics of which are from an Irish benediction Hollenbeck found on his grandmother’s funeral mass card (it begins, “may the road rise to meet you”). “Regen und Gnade” (rain and grace) cycled between dissonant, overlapping horn passages and a calming, uplifting melodic passage, with clicking keys at the end simulating the sound of rain on a rooftop. Each piece found Hollenbeck striving to incorporate the unusual touch, the distinguishing feature that would lift the performance decisively above the ordinary.

But the main event was “The Drum Major Instinct,” Hollenbeck’s musical treatment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous 1968 sermon. Cloaked in complete darkness, Hollenbeck and three trombonists (Jacob Garchik, Rob Hudson, Kurtis Pivert) followed the cadences of King’s oratorical tour de force. Ageless in his moral clarity and conviction, King drew upon the bible and psychoanalysis to build a case against racism and war. (These words were all the more powerful post-Trent Lott and pre-Gulf War II.) The darkness, intended partly as a metaphor for color-blindness, had the effect of heightening the aural sense and thus the emotional impact. Movement and gesture also played a role: The trombonists made full use of the stage, ambling back and forth to modify the sonic balance. One was startled, when the lights came up, to see them arrayed in a straight line as at the beginning — but with their backs to the audience.

Makor observed the MLK holiday with a two-night tribute to “Strange Fruit” — both the song and the new documentary by Joel Katz. The first night brought a flock of hip-hop acts to the stage, beginning with Guillermo E. Brown and the Beat Kids, who offered a brief, spacey set of electro-acoustic jams. Best known for his drumming with David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Rob Reddy, and other out-jazzers, Brown is also immersed in electronica; his Blue Series album, Soul at the Hands of the Machine, is an exceptionally creative entry in the field. Here his keyboards and samples jelled with live bass and drums, while Latasha Diggs (of Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar) provided vocals and additional samples. The project seemed new and unpolished, but not without potential. An eerie, fragmented rendition of “Strange Fruit” brought the rather animated conversation at the bar to an abrupt halt. Rounding out the evening’s lineup were J-Live, Djinji Brown (Marion Brown’s son), and A-Drift, at least two of whom hail from the Seven Heads roster (“Home of the New-Age B-Boy”). J-Live, sporting a gray sweatshirt and a hair pick, won over a slender crowd and managed to pair references to Lady Macbeth and Bela Karoli (you know, the Olympic gymnastics coach).

Joel Katz’s documentary aired the following night, in Makor’s third-floor screening room. It’s a beautiful film to look at, despite its brutal subject matter. Near the beginning, Abbey Lincoln reads the lyrics to “Strange Fruit” matter-of-factly but with tears welling up. Toward the end Billie Holiday performs the song in its entirety, backed only by Mal Waldron, for the BBC in 1958. While the credits roll, Cassandra Wilson offers a stunning rendition, with Mark Peterson snapping the strings of his upright bass and Marvin Sewell wigging out on fuzz-slide guitar. In addition to the horrific subject of lynching, the film touches upon the role of Jews in the Civil Rights movement, the impact of McCarthyism, and the intersection of music and politics in general. We also learn a great deal about the song’s composer, Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan), an eccentric Jewish schoolteacher with ambiguous Communist ties. Don Byron wrote the score and also appears as an interviewee. Among the other contributors are Milt Gabler, Pete Seeger, Billie Holiday scholar Farrah Jasmine Griffin, Ph.D., and Michael and Robby Meeropol, Abel’s adopted sons (and the biological sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg). The film does grow tendentious toward its conclusion, particularly when the hard-to-stomach Amiri Baraka rears his head.

Djinji Brown returned later in the week to open for DJ Spooky’s Optometry Project at Southpaw in Brooklyn. Ben Neill, inventor of the “mutantrumpet” and a frequent Spooky collaborator, also warmed up the crowd before Spooky took the stage, around midnight. Wearing his trademark wool cap and a Sun Ra tee, Spooky inveighed against President Bush and the impending war in colorful, four-letter terms before launching into a hot but uneven set. On hand throughout the show was drummer Mike Clark of Headhunters fame, who just released an acoustic record called Summertime on Ben Perowsky’s JazzKey label. The live drums-turntables combo didn’t always yield cohesive results, and Spooky’s several turns on electric upright bass were less than dazzling. But there were long periods of sparkling turntable invention, and the gestalt became a lot clearer when Spooky cued up videos and other visual elements on a projector screen. One could feel more creative heat as one moved closer to the stage, but this also entailed listening to a group of musclehead hecklers assembled near the front door. Spooky heard them loud and clear, ignoring them for a bit but then casting a stern glance their way between tracks. His stage patter took on a more defensive tone for a while, but there was no need — the crowd was with him.

Ben Monder’s one-night gig at the Standard featured his regular quartet, with Theo Bleckmann on voice, Kermit Driscoll on electric bass, and Satoshi Takeishi on drums and percussion. Applying prodigious classical technique (foot stool and all) to the electric guitar, Monder continues to write music of astounding technical and harmonic difficulty. There were several passages even he couldn’t conquer, but that didn’t diminish the music’s power in the least. Theo Bleckmann’s ghostly vocals, often processed, added an indispensable layer of drama. Driscoll nailed every note, and Takeishi, one of our most limber and captivating percussionists, infused even the most impenetrable sections with a modicum of breath and spaciousness.

The Lascivious Biddies are just as laid-back and chatty in front of a capacity crowd at Joe’s Pub as they are on a quiet night at Cornelia Street, where I heard them last. A gig at Joe’s would be auspicious at any time, but this was the band’s first hit of the new year. Spirits were high, and the ladies kept their short set upbeat and lighthearted. The centerpiece was Deidre Rodman’s “Intellectual,” a new song detailing a date with an insufferable philosophy student. Guitarist Amanda Monaco worked in some Van Halen-style tapping amid randomly shouted references Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein.

Over at the Standard, Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra was finishing up a three-night run, with Sex Mob bassist Tony Scherr filling in for Ben Allison, who had injured his hand. I walked in while guitarist/vocalist Doug Wamble was extolling the glory of reefer. In a veiled reference to the less luxurious environment of Tonic, the band’s regular haunt, Bernstein praised the Standard’s toasty heat. But the club also furnished MTO with excellent sound. Peter Apfelbaum’s tenor sounded marvelous, as did Charlie Burnham’s violin. All the elements were beautifully balanced. Wamble’s slide guitar, Clark Gayton’s trombone, Doug Wieselman’s clarinet, and of course Bernstein’s slide trumpet were the most prominent voices in a set that ranged from Dixieland to funk and swamp blues.

Celebrating the release of their new disc Walking the Line (Fresh Sound), the New Jazz Composers Octet rolled into Joe’s Pub and sounded tremendous. Since the group’s auspicious 1999 debut, First Steps Into Reality, David Weiss’s leadership has remained constant but the band’s lineup has fluctuated. At the Pub we heard Weiss on trumpet, Steve Davis on trombone, Myron Walden on alto, Jimmy Greene on tenor and soprano, and Gary Smulyan on baritone. In the rhythm section were pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Dwayne Burno, and drummer E.J. Strickland. The set began with a fiery arrangement of Chick Corea’s “Inner Space” — perhaps not what you’d expect from a composers band, but the NJCO mandate does include a select few covers, and this one was killing, with five horns in place of Chick’s original two. Burno and Strickland proved a monstrous pairing throughout; the prominent soloists were Walden, Greene, and Xavier Davis. The gifted pianist contributed two biblically themed works, “David & Goliath” and “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego,” both from an as-yet-unrecorded suite. “Turning Gate” and “Walking the Line” rounded out an ambitious and fiercely swinging set.

Iridium played host to a January guitar summit — a double bill featuring the Pat Martino Quartet and a Great Guitars trio with Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli, and Frank Vignola (the 70s incarnation included Kessel, Byrd, and Ellis). The trio went first, swinging and lushly harmonizing their way through standards like “Indiana,” “Girl Talk,” and “Triste.” The dynamic level often hovered around pianissimo, allowing the gorgeous tones of the instruments to be fully appreciated. All three brandished custom Benedettos; both Alden and Bucky played seven-strings through small amps, while Vignola played acoustically, with only a mic picking up his blazing, rhythmically taut fretwork. Bucky’s propulsive chord solos and warm triple-octave phrases balanced Alden’s more treble-heavy line playing. Vignola, sounding remarkably close to Django, brought down the house with his athletic solo on “Lester Leaps In.” Then Martino took the stage with pianist Jim Ridl, bassist Steve Varner, and drummer Ari Hoenig. With his huge, bass-rich, reverby tone and iron-hard attack, Martino couldn’t have sounded more different — i.e., less acoustic — than what had come before. He swung like crazy, with heaps of help from Hoenig, the band’s greatest asset. But a muddy mix and an oversupply of pet phrases diminished the set’s impact.

Recommended Discs:
  • Fred Hersch, Live at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto)
  • Dahl/Andersen/Heral, The Sign (Stunt)
  • Omar Sosa, Ayaguna (Ota)
  • OAM Trio, Flow (Fresh Sound/New Talent)
  • Happy Apple, Youth Oriented (Sunnyside)
  • Jim Cifelli New York Nonet, Tunnel Vision (Short Notice)


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