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.