It is no hyperbole to call the French-Haitian singer Anais Maviel a force of nature. She sings from the heart and the gut, her voice merging with her environment for healing and revelation wherever she goes. Any context, from spare, painfully intimate solo shows to sprawling twenty-piece orchestral projects, is enriched by her thoughtful and spirited approach. Her recent set at Y Not Jazz Room, to which she also invited Miya Masaoka and Al Margolis, was animated by primal drives only a gifted improviser can channel.
She began with soft screams into a surdo (Caribbean bass drum) raised over her head. Lines of symmetrical, open-vowel melody appeared like lightning arcing the sky with no rain in sight. After several minutes in these gathering clouds, she set the surdo down and dropped a mallet to its head to give the pulse of thunder. Slowly her voice expanded and she began to shape more definite notes in her throat. She stooped over the surdo, now with two mallets, to strike its edges and twang dark strings attached to its sides. Now we'd come closer to the dirt. As she played, she spoke to the drum, answering its quavering baritone with peals of high alto tones. As that dialogue quieted, a Nepalese singing bowl came to rest on the drum. It was struck with mallets and bowed as she entered into a trance-like call and response sequence. I had the sensation of being on a shifting body of water. After a pause, she picked up her n'goni (West African strung gourd) and plucked out soothing, regular patterns as she entered into a suite of lyrical fragments. Verses culled from the Irish ballad "My Lagan Love" were odd but strikingly effective after so many wordless moments. To close, she played a mbira (African thumb piano) accompanied by choruses of laughter and vocal clicks reminiscent of Bantu languages. I felt I was in the shade of a jungle canopy along a river to the sea.
Koto player Miya Masaoka and electronic musician Al Margolis, experimenting with a new duet project, did the second set. Masaoka began with a short series of improvisations on the 21-string koto, mokugyo (Japanese hand percussion), and bells. Her bent notes and scraping added depth to the distinctive texture of plucked koto strings. Margolis stood behind his laptop in the background, sampling sounds that Masaoka was producing and playing them back quietly as she continued to play, creating a scratchy, looped soundscape. Margolis added a few acoustic sounds of his own with a slide whistle and viola. Their program was eclectic, moving in several different conceptual directions. Masaoka surprised me somewhat by playing a piece from the traditional Japanese koto repertoire directly from the sheet music. After moving the koto's many bridges to retune, the duo also played an original written composition. This one was more "western" in character, a brief, highly melodic piece dedicated to the Y Not Jazz Room.
As a finale, all three performers played together in real time-Margolis on viola, Masaoka on koto, and Maviel on vocals. It was a cautious but engaging improvisation, with each player striving for maximal openness. All three played just at the edge of audibility for long stretches. Margolis coaxed harmonics from the viola bridge. Masaoka scraped the koto strings for groaning lines. Maviel hummed, clicked, and tumbled out descending cadences. It struck me as very honest music-and like so many modern experiments, both at the heart and at the fringes of jazz.
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