As the holidays approach, Derek Bailey makes his annual New York pilgrimage for a short residency at Tonic, and provides Christmas shoppers with one last high profile show before the New Year. This all-star show, however, was no gift. Considering the packed house, the question was whom the crowd came to see? This group recalled the days when Bailey played genre-straddling shows with cross-sections of the Britjazz scene. A more unlikely lineup would be hard to imagine and many in the crowd presumably came for the novelty. While sometimes unlikely groupings result in phenomenal one-of-a-kind performances, often times they just fall flat. The quartet started suddenly while the crowd was still getting seated. While each 45-minute set was well received, in actuality there was little to cheer for as the improvs went nowhere and the musicians had few moments of inspiration. The energy came from the left infield of Bailey and Baron. Bailey, obviously the most experienced free improviser, provided the most interesting contributions. While he does not vary his playing much from show to show, his highly individual style still matches up well with other protagonists. Baron's drumming was hyperactive, and he seemed to take as much delight in the sounds he produced as the audience. There was a look of childlike wonder on his face throughout.
The rest of the quartet unfortunately did not match up. Zorn, when he was actually playing, looked unenthusiastic, and sounded so. He would involve himself so infrequently that his playing proved distracting to what Bailey and Baron were doing. Reggie Workman, normally one of the most dependable bassists around, frankly was ill-equipped for this gig. He should be the last person included in the lineup for a free jazz show. In more traditional settings, his reserve and taste are assets, but he lacks the "bag of tricks" possessed by the Kowalds, Guys, or Phillips necessary for this situation. Nothing makes free jazz falter more than a musician not wholly involved. This was presumably the first encounter between Bailey and Workman and for good reason.
The second set had a few scattered moments of interest. Zorn had an extended workout on his mouthpiece that made the rest of his instrument superfluous. Bailey and Barron plugged away dependably. There seemed to be a higher comfort level among the four, rendering the first set as "practice". By this time, Workman had abandoned any attempt at legitimate playing, and started hitting his bass and himself, acknowledging his unwelcome presence. Comments that free jazz can be too serious have some merit, but Workman's antics seemed to be the result of his discomfort rather than his attempt at humor.
The sets ended to thunderous applause from a seemingly undiscriminating audience. The only audible complaints were about the shortness of each set, since it was one of the rare occasions when Tonic was cleared out between sets. When advertised, the evening's performance was one that demanded attendance, but, in reality, could have been safely skipped, saving money for the far superior Derek Bailey/Susie Ibarra gig the next week.