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Dr. Lonnie Smith, Marva Whitney, Billy Prince, Marc Ribot & Steven Bernstein

Martin Longley By

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Dr. Lonnie Smith Big Band
Jazz Standard
December 30, 2010

The holiday season allowed organist Dr. Lonnie Smith the luxury of surrounding himself with big band ranks. The virtual guarantee of sold-out sets created a situation where the Hammond B-3 man was able to make the change from his customary small combo settings. Indeed, the week had opened with Smith's regular trio playing for two nights, but the third evening of the week's residency offered the first stateside chance to hear the big band, an assemblage that would return for another two nights.

From the start it was apparent that the turbaned Smith's talents were certainly not going to be subsumed by horn-blasting arrangements. He was very much swirling at the core, delivering a regular sequence of highly expressive solos.

It was not only the leader's organ-clipping that was expressive. Smith's beard-wisped visage was constantly open, reflecting each lightly percussive ripple, each rumbling run. He masters the complete range of expression, from dainty trickles to urgent crescendos. It's not clear whether the organ was speaking his mind, or whether Smith's lips were voicing the organ notes. Which came first?

At first, the horn sections were mostly coloring his actions, providing a crisp canopy for Smith's warmly organic surges. Before too long, the audience's attention was allowed to fall on the rest of this expansive territory. Trombonist and musical director Corey King was similarly readable as he prompted the battalion with its mobilization cues. Even though this was the opening set, the band was already tight, but there was always a flexibility where King could allow a solo to attain its natural climax before spurring the next thematic blast. There was a particularly sharp dialogue between King and guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, who happens to also be a member of the foundation Smith trio. Kreisberg seemed to be the link between the rhythm section and the horns.

The opening pair of originals from Smith's album Spiral (Palmetto, 2010) couldn't have made a stronger statement. The title tune was closer to the soul-jazz groove that might be expected when the organist's palette increased from trio to big band. It was made particularly transcendent by an eloquent (and beautifully extended) alto saxophone solo courtesy of Logan Richardson. Phrasing sensitivity found new borders.

When "Beehive" began to take off, it doubtless took some audience members by surprise. Moving from the 1960s to the freakier end of the 1970s, this tune could almost be ripping pages out of the Frank Zappa songbook, led by a clanging, effects-crunched Kreisberg guitar riff. Almost not-guitar, disembodied into sheer alloy-distress. Such excessive complexity may well have been a touch too much for the following night's New Year's Eve party scene (if the band elected to play the tune again), but it was thrilling to witness Smith charging out into more of an extremist zone than usual. He was visibly reveling in the behemoth buzz-rush. In a completely contrasting mood, the following "Chelsea Bridge" was the ultimate in emotive levitation, carried aloft by a breathtaking solo tenor saxophone narrative from John Ellis.

With Smith himself issuing deep clumps of lowness, this is already an ensemble possessing an abundance of bass weight. Besides the upright-thrumming of bassist Vicente Archer, the horns were boasting Clark Gayton's sousaphone, highlighted by a featured solo spell so light-lipped and agile that we could clearly visualize his almost dainty hippo-waddle right down a reveling New Orleans thoroughfare. Special mention should also be made of the whip cracking-ly sharp sticksman Jamire Williams, the third regular member of Smith's core trio. His taut funk rubberisms drove the big band hard and loose, cracked and cool. Right at the close of 2010, this was amongst the year's mightiest gigs.

Marva Whitney/Billy Prince/The Sweet Divines
The Bell House
December 31, 2010

This is the second New Year's Eve that I've spent at The Bell House, lapping up a soul revue by the Dig Deeper retro-activist collective. It's been a sage decision on both occasions. Even though the show was sold out, there wasn't any uncomfortable claustrophobia or mindless ignoring of the music. The crowd were completely in thrall to the performances, and the dance floor was becoming an actual dance floor, as the night's three sets steadily escalated their stepping power.

Dig Deeper is fronted by Mr. Robinson and DJ Honky, usually accustomed to hosting their monthly gig at Southpaw, another Brooklyn club, just across the Gowanus border in Park Slope. Acting as the house band for this Bell House foray were The Sweet Divines, an enlarged group of local NYC singers who specialize in backing up visiting soul luminaries from the 1960s and upwards. During the opening set Eli "Paperboy" Reed, amongst their younger collaborators, made an early singing appearance, even though the band's guest vocalists usually boast several decades more experience.

A few years ago, The Divines might not have seemed so remarkable amongst soul covers specialists, but they've now evolved into a much more confident team, getting into the grit and the flash in equal measure. Particularly developed is the manner in which the four out-front girl vocalists (essentially, the Sweet Divines themselves) swap their lines, and holler out with an equal footing, much brasher and more relaxed than previously. It's also amusing to note the presence of trombonist Sam Kulik in the horn section, witnessed only a few days earlier at one of the most avant-Yule gigs humanly possible in a band led by the terminally manic Kevin Shea at The University Of The Streets.

Detroit singer Billy Prince is best known for his time with The Precisions, and this appearance was apparently his first in NYC for nigh on four decades. He was emanating sheer ecstasy at being held in the spotlight in the midst of an electric welcome from the crowd. As if possessing a voice full of nuance, poise and agility wasn't sufficient, the years became immaterial as Prince recreated the vibrations of his heyday, as physically communicative with his followers as he was on the sonic level. He was a complete performer, working the throng with ease, and sensing the energy in the room, drew it inwards to use for his own spectacular purposes.

Marva Whitney was born in Kansas City, and rose to fame as a singer with James Brown. In a weakened physical state from a stroke in 2009, she performed in a seated position. This gave Whitney a disadvantage compared to the theatrical flash of Prince, but her vocals remained tough and extroverted with a was a harder, funkier edge, perfectly suited to the opening of a set at the chiming of midnight.

Marc Ribot
(le) Poisson Rouge
January 5, 2011

The snowy wasteland of January appears to be the nominated month of the weekly residency, and who is ultra-versatile guitarist Marc Ribot to shy away from such an opportunity? This is the NYC denizen who collects a number of bands, creating copious outlets for his many talents. Whether it's his sensitive underbelly of acoustic picking, or his mangling distortion-wreckage carapace, Ribot has a compatible concept and doubtless a resultant combo. All of his bands are exceptional specialists in their given fields of operation, and sometimes Ribot even finds the time to gather up other bands, acting as an ornery guest.

The first of his four Wednesday nights at this all-musics-welcome Bleecker Street haunt began with a solo set, reflecting the contents of Ribot's most recent album, Silent Movies (Pi Recordings, 2010). He was improvising with the widest range possible: from skeletal scratches and moist body-rubs, to trotting gypsy fluidity. Ribot is sensitized to the most gossamer classicism, as well as a completely fractured abstraction where he probes the inner nature of his guitar, treating it like a pure wood and metal object, made for tapping, rapping and scraping. He's able to shock and soothe with an alarmingly sudden transition between natures.

Theoretically, within the next two settings Ribot was acting as a guest with two of his favorite Latin outfits on the NYC scene. In truth, his presence tends to subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) subvert the folkloric core of the music in question, adding elements that nudge each act towards a slightly different outcome. Ribot met the Peruvian cajón player (Juan Medrano) Cotito while touring with singer Susana Baca, and their rapport was soon established to the point where collaborations are now frequent. Even though Cotito's light-palmed box-slapping is central to the material, it should be mentioned that it's his richly reverberant voice that often transports the songs into a higher place. Ribot was exchanging the soloing duties with Cotito's own guitarist, each complementing rather than combating. The concept of the evening was carefully worked out to provide a steadily building intensity, from solo guitar, through this gently propulsive set, and ending up with the celebratory ecstasy of Ribot's work with his young Colombian crew.

The guitarist is often found working beside La Cumiamba eNeYé, a group whose collective nature seems to mean that it can perform in a variety of sizes, from a parading street-combo up to a festival-sized rabble. On this particular evening, the incarnation was on the expanded side with singers, extra percussionists and the most distinctive element of their twin wooden flutes, producing sounds that are closer to the buzzing of a didgeridoo than the burr of a shakuhachi (although the similarities with the latter Japanese flute are not entirely lost). As the set progressed, Ribot began to turn up the burner, invoking the imagined spirit of an avant-garde Santana. Dense drum lattices would splice into percussive flute attacks (another comparison would be with the harsh grain of their North African counterparts), then the band's clarinetist would repeatedly wait out Ribot's latest climax, sometimes successfully arcing the Latin lunacy even higher. At no point were the hardcore Colombian cumbia roots compromised. Ribot added his own roughness, and the music was transformed into something else, but still an entity that completely embraces (and enriches) the tradition.

Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra
January 6, 2011

Trumpeter Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra has so far given very few performances of its Sly & The Family Stone tribute show. This manifestation in the relatively new Littlefield club in the industrial edges of Brooklyn's Park Slope offered one of those rare opportunities, glorying in the MTO's extremely impressive all-star personnel. When it opened around a year back, Littlefield emanated the aura of a rock/electronica habitat, but in recent months several of NYC's alternative jazz promoters have been striking up regular relationships. This particular gig was a victory celebration for Search & Restore 's successful Kickstarter Project fund-raising drive. Littlefield might be not much more than a converted factory shell, but this was one of its most heated evenings, packed with a full throng, twitching along en masse to one of the city's funkiest ensembles interpreting the music of one of the globe's funkiest beings. Who else would be in the top funking five with Sly Stone? George Clinton , James Brown, Prince? Would it just be a top four? Bootsy Collins?

Adding a goodly amount of period funk was keyboardist Uri Caine, but the impressive roster also included most of the usual downtown posse: Kenny Wollesen (drums), Peter Apfelbaum, Doug Wieselman (reeds), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone) and Charlie Burnham (repeatedly attention-grabbing wah-wah violin). Many of the Stone works appeared in instrumental guise, and even when the vocalists hit the stage, there was no lack of soloing. Lead singer Dean Bowman would repeatedly come onstage, only to find that the orchestra wasn't letting up in their winding introductions. Nevertheless, he would amuse himself with what probably shouldn't be called scatting, because Bowman was intent on impersonating instruments in a more specific manner. He was prone to vibrato attacks, and could easily handle the low, low, low bass intonations required by some of the numbers. The auxiliary singer was Fiona McBain, a member of Brooklyn roots combo Olabelle whose stylings were probably too formal for the Stoned universe.

Bernstein is always a master when conducting large bands (and smaller combos too, come to think of it), completely in touch with the sheer physicality of digit-waggling as the perfect prompt for crescendos, sudden cutaways and general solo action. His conducting is a performance in itself. The orchestra was funkin' hard, and the songbook was ideal. Well, almost ideal. Call me conventional, but I felt the distinct absence of "Dance To The Music," "I Want To Take You Higher" and "Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again) ." We could probably have survived an omission of "Que Sera." Otherwise, all was mighty, hitting the heart and soles with the other certified classics "Stand," "Everyday People," "Family Affair" and "You Can Make It If You Try."


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