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Edgefest 2017: Give the Drummers Some, Part 1-2

Troy Dostert By

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Finishing out the first night was the trio of drummer Pheeroan akLaff, bassist Julian Thayer, and multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Scott Robinson. With characteristic warmth and geniality, akLaff explained in his opening remarks that the idea behind the group's music was to "strengthen unity and purpose to bring peace to the planet," and he dedicated the performance to sculptor Rob Fisher, someone he honored as having been a partner and mentor to all three musicians. There was an innate spirituality to the group's music. Starting with Robinson's long, almost sub-audible notes on contrabass saxophone, the trio started in a meditative vein but gradually raised the intensity level, as Robinson's expanding phrases and explorations of the lower register of the instrument generated momentum. The group seemed most at home in a loose, free-bop context, with abundant opportunities for Robinson to stretch out on his panoply of instruments: in addition to his contrabass and tenor saxophones, he made especially memorable use of a theremin, where his otherworldly excursions took the music into another dimension altogether. But when all was said and done, Robinson's far-ranging facility was perhaps most convincing on tenor: when he got especially revved-up during one of his more invigorating solos, it brought the house down.

Thursday night's programming represented the wide gamut of stylistic approaches for which Edgefest has become justly celebrated. Drummer Jonathan Taylor brought his quintet of Detroit-based musicians to kick things off with a flourish, as the group's heady and challenging compositions struck a balance between form and freedom. Double-threat Molly Jones, who played both soprano and tenor sax, made a terrific two-horn team with tenorist Marcus Elliot, as the pair frequently alternated between fiery surges and soulful interludes. Reminiscent of the inside/outside approach of some of the classic Black Saint label's releases from the 80s and 90s, this was music for both head and heart, always with a bluesy sensibility even during the more adventurous moments of the music. Taylor brought plenty of high-energy technique to his kit, but he always managed to stay in sync with his excellent rhythm team of bassist Jaribu Shahid... and pianist Michael Malis.

With his forceful, percussive piano style, Malis put in quite a workout with Taylor's band, yet he apparently had plenty of energy left in reserve, as he shared the next set with the indomitable William Hooker for a jaw-dropping display of improvisational power. Hooker seemed to invite the audience into the performance by walking down the aisle and shaking hands with those he could reach while on his way to the stage, in a sign that something extraordinary was about to happen. Then, using a John Lomax field recording of an Alabama prison work song as a catalyst, he and Malis launched into a number of freewheeling improvisations that harnessed the emotional power of the recording while simultaneously redirecting it. Shouting "Let's Not Forget!" repeatedly at the outset, it was clear that Hooker had weighty matters on his mind—and he played like it, with periodic outbursts and exclamations to spur Malis and himself to greater heights. With a fusillade of intensity, Hooker seemed at times to push his kit to the limits, with Malis matching his vigor with each strike of the toms. Malis has a strong classical sensibility behind much of his playing, but his more untethered statements revealed a barely-controlled fury; combined with Hooker's impassioned and relentless attacks, the result was one of the festival's most riveting and overpowering performances.

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