Published since 2004
John first fell under the spell of free jazz in the 1970s when he wistfully regarded the loft jazz scene from across the Atlantic
The first set featured Tyshawn Sorey on solo piano. If he is known at all, it is as a drummer, having worked with Dave Douglas and Steve Coleman, and featured on a recent live recording of the Sirone-Bang ensemble. Seated at the piano, clad all in black, Sorey struck an imposing presence. He began low key, with restrained renditions, following scores, of two compositions mining a similar terrain of slow, sparse, almost romantic playing, leavened by occasional more emphatic stabs. What came next was more energetic: five improvisations, starting with a pounded investigation of the keyboards extremities, which he developed as a motif in the ensuing improvisation. Sorey approached the piano very much as a sound generator, not only exploring under the lid, but all around the Festival Steinway. He even used his scores to modulate the strings, dampening the sonorities and producing distorted, almost electronic buzzing tones. Later he scrumpled up the scores and rubbed them across the keys before throwing them to the floor, eliciting yells of approval from sometime pianist Cooper-Moore, lying prone in front of the stage!
Sorey also took a drum stick to first the keyboard, then the strings and finally the frame of the piano itself. Almost everything at hand went inside the piano at some stage, including his jacket! It wasn't all contrivance though, his antics were blended with more conventional playing, sometimes gentle, others ferocious. In the last piece his manipulations drew first a koto like twanging from the keyboard, then the sound of pealing bells. After stalking around the piano, and delving once more into its innards, he came back to the keyboard and set up a hyperkinetic blur across the keys, before a forearm smash led to a violent crescendo, concluded by slamming down the lid and leaping up from his stool to great applause from the small audience. Energising stuff, and for some of those present this was the set of the Festival so far.
Bassist Todd Nicholson's Otic band was up next, with an unusual all brass frontline. Alongside him were Nate Wooley on trumpet, Tatsuya Nakatani on percussion and Lower East Side trombone stalwart Steve Swell, who together play in a free improv trio under the Blue Collar moniker. Nicholson has played with many luminaries of the NYC scene, including Billy Bang, Frank Lowe and Butch Morris, and was leading an equally talented band here. The three compositions by Nicholson showcased a wide emotional and musical range.
Rumbling drums and ominous arco bass heralded a convoluted horn fanfare, read from scores, before digging in to set up a rolling groove. Swell's trombone chortled sweetly and purposefully over powerful walking bass. Wooley's clean trumpet lines mutated into blistering runs and spurts, then half valve growls. He supplemented long tones with a vocalised buzz, before forcing out gobbets of split notes in a fantastic solo that used extended technique for truly musical ends.
The second piece was looser more like a free improv, developing incrementally from the spectral filaments of Swell's muted vocalisations and Wooley's tremulous multiphonics. Swooshing trombone engaged trumpet blurts and vigorous arco rubs on the bass in a three way conversation, with Nakatani bowing fizzing elongated tones from the side of his snare before contributing clattering percussion. Swell stuttered rapid fire bursts with his slide at its furthest extension, then subsided into a gentle wind, from which emerged the melancholy jointly voiced theme. More improv followed incorporating breath sounds, Nakatani blowing on paper, and minimalist snorts, before the ensembles plaintive lines whispered to a mournful close.
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