Henry Cole, Joe McPhee & Ravi Coltrane

Henry Cole, Joe McPhee & Ravi Coltrane
Martin Longley By

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Henry Cole & The Afrobeat Collective
92Y Tribeca
May 30, 2012

The Checkout is a monthly live broadcast for the WBGO radio station, presented by DJ Josh Jackson. The deal down at 92Y Tribeca always involves two formidable combos, often featuring a very familiar act coupled with a surging fresh presence on the scene. As the red light of "live" winks on, the night is governed by the demands of a tight start to the proceedings. Admission is usually reasonably priced, and the bar features some exciting special offers. Even though 92Y's location might be initially elusive, once its spot just below Canal Street is discovered it's suddenly very convenient for the nearby subway stations. The venue has a pleasing atmosphere and invariably pulls in a vigorous and varied crowd, even on a potentially slow Wednesday night. These factors combine to make the haunt a hot discovery that still emits an aura of newness. Besides jazz bands, 92Y also books a broad range of global music, hip hop, funk, rock and singer/songwriter artists, mostly presenting two or even three bands in a single session.

So, the night opened up with The Gilad Hekselman Trio, augmented by guest-starring tenor man Mark Turner. The Israeli guitarist favors a mainstream jazz tone, which can produce a certain aura of luminescent blandness, particularly when negotiating some rather robotic unison themes. His original pieces have an overly cerebral structure, almost predictable in their convoluted contortions. These brightly pastoral patterns seem to exist because they can, lurking at the opposite end to the alternative manifestation of bluesy earthiness in jazz expression. This is much colder, and distantly inspired by jazz rock fusion templates. Although Hekselman's music sounds more organic, it still falls prey to this self-consciousness. Turner and drummer Obed Calvaire were, fortunately, responsible for roughing up the foundation strictures, the saxophonist imparting a glowingly organic tone to his fleet circulatory statements—immediately closer and more intimately entwined with the listener. Calvaire adopted a harder attack, breaking up the beats with hard clatters, deft skitters and demonic fills.

The highly contrasting pairing between Hekselman and drummer Henry Cole's Afrobeat Collective soon led to a dividing of the stylistic tributaries, sparking a steady evolution towards poly-rhythmic ecstasy. Cole soon set up a liberating pulse with his two fellow Puerto Rican percussionists. In fact, the majority of this 11-piece Collective hailed from its leader's home isle. The audience might have expected to hear a fusion that gobbled up elements of classic Nigerian Afrobeat, descended from the mighty Fela Kuti, but the reality was that only a handful of numbers overtly embraced these qualities. Cole may well display a groove-lattice accumulation that's in the spirit of Kuti's old stickman Tony Allen, but the rhythmic emphasis was more on hardcore Puerto Rican conga and chekeré slapping and shaking. Cole's compositions merge jazz, funk, rock, salsa and rap, but not so much of the undiluted Afrobeat of his band name. In the end, though misleading, this didn't matter. Most audience members would be interested in all of these musical varieties anyway, and their permutations of ratio were consistently exciting, Cole creating a virgin form that became something beyond its constituent parts.

A particularly unusual element was the raggedly emotive rapping stance of poet Hérmes Ayala, driven by jagged keyboard chopping and fighting horn section riffs. In the spirit of Kuti, even if his word-streams don't sound much like the Afrobeat legend's fevered rants, Ayala operated his own distinctive and declamatory technique. John Ellis tore out frequent gobbets of tenor saxophone gristle, rough with a soulful funk texture, speeding and weaving around the combo's urgent pulse. Ripping solos were also sent flying from baritone saxophonist Billy Carrion Jr's and electric guitarist Matt Stevens, low end bullfrogging and Santana-esque tone-bleedings in turn. Pacing electric bass lines provided a liquid bed for all of the spotlighted higher end action. Next up, there was a hardcore vocal-and-percussion breakdown, Puerto Rican veering towards Cuban and Haitian territories. There was even room for some retro 1970s keyboard warbling, further widening the brew's already much-mingled seasonings.

Joe McPhee/Thurston Moore/Bill Nace
May 31, 2012


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