Dave Douglas, Wadada Leo Smith & Taylor Ho Bynum

Dave Douglas, Wadada Leo Smith & Taylor Ho Bynum
Martin Longley By

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The Dave Douglas/Donny McCaslin Key Motion Quintet
Jazz Standard
December 8, 2011

This was the first of four Dave Douglas nights at the Jazz Standard, each of them highlighting a different performance perspective. The unexpected has become the expected where this high-wire trumpeter is concerned. Douglas is perpetually scouting for fresh settings, new musical concepts and unfamiliar terrain where he's able to stretch his abilities, to heighten an already fearsome virtuosity and communicative playing passion. Three out of the four combos were premiering unexplored parameters. The second evening teamed Douglas with the new music ensemble So Percussion and the third unveiled a new acoustic quintet featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and pianist Vijay Iyer, whilst the closing session was the only one which could be viewed as in any way retrospective, as the tried and trusty Brass Ecstasy waddled its Art Ensemble Of New Orleans way onto the stage.

The opening Thursday night set involved, perhaps, the most rugged, pushy—and certainly the most electrified—sounds. The Key Motion Quintet is co-led by tenor man Donny McCaslin, setting out to combine the repertoires of his recent Perpetual Motion (2011) with the songbook of Douglas's own Keystone combo (the McCaslin disc was released by Greenleaf Music, so it's all in the Douglas family). Key Motion also features drummer Mark Guiliana and electric bassist Tim Lefebvre, from Perpetual Motion, and keyboardist Adam Benjamin who, in addition to playing on the album, is also a Keystone regular. Despite this grafting of personnel and songbooks, the resultant band became something else again, partly due to the sheer excitement of its live presence, and partly because the music has clearly evolved, tightening its rubbery looseness.

Both Benjamin and Lefebvre were dedicated to the electronic perversion of their instruments, emitting sounds through a veil of knobbery—distorting, fragmenting, spangling, cutting, cracking and frosting—but invariably sounding like themselves. In a demonic pact with Guiliana, they set about turning fusion into a darkly funky, subliminally threatening beast. The rhythms were jittery, the interlocks were on the run, and the punch was deep down at bowel level. The front line of horns was left to dwell in a comparatively traditional house of jazz rules, spurting a constant alarum and operating at a flashing level of execution. Douglas talked directly into his trumpet, shaping phrases whether crisply muted or outwardly expelled. McCaslin's tone was less vocal, more liquid, like a subterranean current, searching for its blowhole. It was as if the old bebop language had been forced to mutate into a new form that was more of a patchwork, urged towards a greater schizophrenia by the rhythm team's twitching constructions.

Key Motion is developing a dub jazz vocabulary. During McCaslin's "Energy Generation," Lefebvre flooded his volume control up to full with his pinky, intermittently creating a low bleed of sub-tones. Guiliana was the master of strictly controlled cymbal skitters and self-muted clumping blows, while Benjamin played his Fender Rhodes with one hand, adjusting his effects filtration unit with the other. If eyes were closed, some of this threesome's sounds would shade into each others' corners. This first set found a band sounding as if they'd been closely twinned for quite some time. The rapport was deeply locking into place. All elements were perfectly interrelated—the groove, the tunes, the momentum, the tension, the band stance of playful humor, the ripping horn solos over innovative soundscapes, and the sense that spotlighted passages were being taken in unpredictable ratios and in surprising sequences; not always alone, but in headlong tandem. Audience attention was totally gripped throughout.

Wadada Leo Smith
December 16, 2011

How many birthday cakes can a trumpeter gobble? To celebrate his 70th year, the Interpretations Series presented two nights of new music from Wadada Leo Smith at Brooklyn's recently transplanted Roulette. This meant three bands each night and a communal cake at the end of each evening. Smith's actual birthday fell two days after the second gig, so maybe there were more cakes on the way. The first evening's candles were of the frustratingly fire-hazard kind that spring back into life after being extinguished, with Smith blowing them out through his trumpet, which seemed like a highly appropriate act. The first night's proceedings were constructed very contrastingly with the second session. Each of the three sets (the Mbira trio, a string quartet with singer Thomas Buckner, and the Golden Quartet) restrained themselves to around thirty minutes apiece, and the show concluded surprisingly early.

This second evening operated at the other extreme. Following an afternoon's rehearsal of this complex, varied and ambitious music, a sound check was still in progress even as the audience was gathering. The gig began around 30 minutes late, and each set doubled its duration compared to those of the previous evening; it was, after all, a Friday night. Even so, Smith wanted to relax into the experience, to savor the unfolding of what amounted to a lot of freshly penned work. All three ensembles and settings took hold of the audience firmly, and there was no sense of crawling timepieces in the house. The epic evening rolled on by in a consistently engaging fashion.

First off, the Golden Quartet was expanded to a Golden Sextet, with Susie Ibarra joining Pheeroan AkLaff on a second drum kit, and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton emerging from decades past to revive his old partnership with Smith. The rapidly ascending young Cuban pianist David Virelles replaced Angelica Sanchez from the previous evening, while John Lindberg was, as ever, on upright bass. Smith's general body language gave the impression of stern impatience and dissatisfied frustration, as he repeatedly made overt gestures to Virelles, guiding his relationship to the music's careful evolution. Smith's manner might have been the result of a certain way that he chooses to display excitement and urgency or, alternatively, he could have been expressing negative sentiments.

During previous performances by this group, his signaling wasn't so pronounced, making all of this visually distracting, here and during the next two sets. While Smith probably just prefers to seek out the best possible performances, and it might have been better for the audience to close its collective peepers, it was ultimately desirable to forge ahead and concentrate on the sheer aural input.



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