Boris, Wang Li, Sexmob & Colin Stetson

Martin Longley By

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Sadly, the excellent 92Y Tribeca arts centre will be closing its portals in the summer of 2013. Designed as a more youthful and adventurous outpost of the original 92Y in the Upper East Side, it combines an ideal space with imaginative booking policies. Not for much longer, unfortunately. This also means that WBGO will have to find a new home for The Checkout, its regular live broadcast show. This penultimate edition opened with Sexmob, the long-running quartet of wily rascals, unavoidably fronted by trumpeter and raconteur Steven Bernstein. This is a collective, but the other members are less forward, at least in the verbal arena. Briggan Krauss (saxophones), Tony Scherr (electric bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) joined Bernstein in the totally harmonious marriage (or perhaps swinger party would be a more appropriate image) involving deep complexity, ribald japery, complete self-expression and sheer non-compromise.

Sex Mob was celebrating the release of Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti (Royal Potato Family, 2013), subtitled Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music Of Nino Rota. This inevitably meant that the focus was on Rota's work for the flicks of Italian director Federico Fellini. Always primarily involved with the radical reinterpretation of popular songs, this repertoire offered a more arty base than has often been the case for Sexmob in the past.

First came "Amarcord," then "La Strada," their multiple themes not always immediately apparent, manifested in the guises of New Orleans street parading and New York free jazz. Suddenly, individual soloing prattles coalesced into romping circus stomps. Wild Italian partying. Bernstein had two microphones, one of them with a gravelly distortion effect that might normally get used on a harmonica. His tiny slide trumpet issued modal mash-ups with serrated edges. Krauss soared with passion, part Albert Ayler, part Sidney Bechet.

Towards the set's climax the horns engaged in a deranged duel, each issuing curtly alternating mini-statements of screaming precision. Bernstein imagined himself as an old-time radio performer, visualizing entire families huddling around their valve sets. He wore a suit to match those days, a neon-checked shocker that only the folks in the venue were privileged to witness. Scherr's bass tone was wonderfully organic and very individualistic, sounding at times like a tuba, at others snuffling out a deep dub reggae line. His strings had a warmly organic grumble, and his overall sound stood somewhere between the expected electric quality and an upright's taut springiness. Bernstein interspersed the tunes with excerpts from his handy Italian phrase book. To non-natives he almost sounded convincing, but why could we not cease our involuntary laughter? Sexmob filled its set with tomfoolery, but at any point it could twist into the stern throttling of improvisatory extremity. Not many combos are capable of such astounding diversity, especially during a single composition.

Colin Stetson

(le) Poisson Rouge

May 8, 2013

Here's another solo performer, echoing many of the qualities displayed by Wang Li the previous evening. Saxophonist Colin Stetson was also involved with forming extended pieces that revolved around drones, spirals, circular breathing and vocalizing into his instrument. The Stetson horn was way bigger than Li's tiny collection of fragile jaw harps. His bass saxophone was hoisted with the aid of a torso harness, Stetson eschewing the usual practice of placing it on a stand. It was such a beast that he alternated with an alto, possibly for artistic reasons, but most probably to give his lungs a rest. Stetson didn't just play his horn; he inhabited its very structure, creating gargantuan soundscapes that didn't usually pause during their development.

With vocal sounds that either sang or groaned like a didgeridoo, his emissions almost tread beyond the confines of saxophonic existence. His aims were often akin to those of Li, but his methods involved a much more strenuous engagement with his instrument. Stetson can be comfortably (or perhaps uncomfortably) placed within the jazz zone, but his rise has involved just as much of an engagement with the alternative rock scene, which is why this sold out Poisson gig pulled in a very mixed crowd in terms of age demographic and chosen garb-type. He might recall Evan Parker's never-ending circular-breathing ripples, but Stetson's palette was more linear and conventional, trimmed of embellishment and micro-details. His vocabulary was more brutal and minimalist, with less events on its slowly evolving horizons. He remained compelling, however. Just more rock 'n' roll than improvisatory in nature.


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