John Zorn, Cindy Blackman, Dhafer Youssef, Jon Hassell, The Necks, Kenny Werner

Martin Longley By

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...to make a live Hassell sighting after all these years is a rare privilege. The admirer doubtless wants to make the occasion so mystical that it can't possibly convey all of the potential contained within the imagination.
John Zorn

Abrons Arts Center

February 7, 2009

This is getting to be a habit, as composer and alto saxophonist John Zorn erects his tent at the Abrons Arts Center once more, for two weekend shows, both of them merging older material with fresh compositions, presented by two of his dedicated ensembles. The first evening featured Masada, whilst this second concentrates on The Dreamers, plus a premiere of O'o, which is effectively "Son Of Dreamers." The O'o is an extinct Hawaiian bird. No-one's going to argue with Zorn over what its song was like. Conveniently, the septet are set for a recording session the next morning, so this acts as a hot-wired dress rehearsal run, complete with a full-house audience cheering them onwards.

Zorn, ever the perfectionist, halts a couple of numbers within their first minute or two, although this doesn't appear slack, but rather more like strict, quality control. Even though the combo is visibly uncertain of the new music, this diffidence is only evident in their faces and the greased-by-experience sign language they all have with their leader. Zorn himself doesn't play, but sits in conductor mode, ostensibly not doing much in practical terms, but in actuality triggering solos, controlling their length and encouraging (or discouraging) their level of gusto. The cast is selected for their fluency in the language of 1960s surf trash exotica, filmic boogaloo, cocktail psychedelia and neurotic spangloid sounds in general. Guitarist Marc Ribot is the prime deliverer of potent statements, usually responsible for tearing the ensemble skywards, but Kenny Wollesen (on the vibraphone) and Jamie Saft (on acoustic and electric keys) also take frequent solos. These are always integrated into the general fabric of the tunes, kicked along by the always excitable Joey Baron (on full drumkit) and Cyro Baptista, who is the source of forest-calling sounds throughout, busily and resourcefully tinkering with wood, metal, skin and (just like the Zorn of old) bird-tweet devices. Trevor Dunn often enjoys hyper-deep bass frequencies, but are these shuddering emanations intentional? Sitting here on the front row (admittedly in the full path of his amplifier), some of Dunn's lines sound on the verge of being distorted: pure woolly mammoth vibration.

The demarcation line is thin between what was presumably going to be a pair of sets, as the band vacates the stage following the O'o material. The crowd isn't sure whether this is intermission time or gig's end, so after much cheering, the septet returns with selections from The Dreamers album, almost like a very extended encore. It's an invigorating evening of avant retro-style collisions, with both band and audience thrilled to be hearing this mostly new music.

Cindy Blackman's Explorations

Jazz Standard

February 7, 2009

Drummer Cindy Blackman is debuting her new Explorations band, its most notable feature being the twinning of two keyboardists, in the electric Miles Davis manner. The club's acoustic piano remains shrouded. Zacai Curtis plays Fender Rhodes, while Marc Cary fiddles about with Moog-ey spaghetti, also attending to his laptop. Initially, Cary comes across as a distracted and uncertain outsider presence, as Curtis takes the solo spotlight. But as this late-night set progresses, Cary emerges from his shell, issuing some stridently pitched statements that establish a stylistic dominance, at least for a brief stretch. Blackman herself is less extroverted than usual, though she's still a powerful presence when compared to the majority of drummers. It could be that the material's freshness hasn't yet enabled full freak-out mode, as the band is still coming to grips with the tunes. Nevertheless, it's a celebratory gig, further refining Blackman's dual interests in hardcore post-bop and funky fusion, sometimes accessible and bright, at others roilingly spiritual in an uncompromising manner, this latter quality taken care of by the spiraling saxophone constructions of Antoine Roney.

Dhafer Youssef

Highline Ballroom

February 9, 2009

Here, the Tunisian oud player and singer Dhafer Youssef is leading a quartet that's situated further towards the centre of jazz, when compared with past outfits. He has Scott Colley on bass, Satoshi Takeishi at the drums and Tigran Hamasyan playing piano. This make-up also continues the always- international scope of Youssef's music, with these last two hailing from Japan and Armenia respectively. His pieces could be described as archetypally spiritual, capitalizing on the prayer-call qualities of his vaulting vocal style. Having never witnessed Youssef in action before, it's a revelation to see that when his voice moves up a notch, to its purest high-calling state, he actually presses a digit against the side of his nose, to alter his entire internal valve-system. Either this, or it's a secret signal to the sound engineer, to switch on the magical Dhafer special effect..! This is a transcendent vocal pitch unheard anywhere else, a trademarked Youssef technique which evokes an agelessly abstract quality that can't help but transport the audience up to a new plateau of thought. His oud picking has a translucent quality that helps him on this pathway to heightened concentration. Perhaps the ultimate result of such a floating approach, over a single long set, is to court instances of lost attention amongst the crowd, but the overall rewards are worth the efforts of extended meditation.

Jon Hassell

Carnegie Hall

February 10, 2009

This is the Memphis-born trumpeter Jon Hassell's first gig in New York for around two decades, and he doesn't even play around Europe with any particular frequency. The band is called Maarifa Street, named after his 2005 album, and formed in that very year. Aside from Hassell's own contribution, it's often difficult to discern who's playing what, with this line-up of electronicist sample-weavers. The Norwegian Jan Bang arrives from DJ environs, while laptopper Dino Deane gives the appearance of a sound-trapper who's evolved from academic quarters. Even the role of bassman Peter Freeman is not so clarified. There are many instances of the glugging low-presence that's become a Hassell trademark, and most often these indigestions are a visible product of Freeman's fingering, but at other times it's apparent that Bang is contributing the bass-flood globules. Even violinist Kheir-Eddine M'Kachiche seems to have some of his phrases captured by the samplists, for making into a disembodied cloud. It's also a joy to witness Hassell absently caressing his keyboard in-between making trumpet issuances, creating an opalescent cascade that is, once again, a trademark. But there is no quality more individual than the sound of the leader's trumpet, a frosted, speckled, dusted, flecked, granular, spumed, sandstormed (how can it be captured within the realm of words?) emission that seems untethered by the physical reality of its player's actual lips. It's a sound that sums up the essence of the Middle Eastern and North African lands (or some further archetypally exotic zone beyond both of these), but isn't specifically attempting to impersonate another pre-existing instrument. Trumpet statements are made like verbalized sentences, whilst the treacled slowness of a liquid groove plods beautifully ever onwards.

Ideally, Hassell's music might be experienced at a wood-glade festival or in an art gallery where audience perambulation is encouraged. After so many years of soaking up his sonics in an armchair situation, the formality of a concert is almost a distraction from the inward-gazing calm that's needed to appreciate his Fourth World meditations. Nevertheless, to make a live Hassell sighting after all these years is a rare privilege. The admirer doubtless wants to make the occasion so mystical that it can't possibly convey all of the potential contained within the imagination.

The Necks

(le) Poisson Rouge

February 10, 2009

Then, later that same evening, the pellucid improvisation continues its linear current. With Hassell, the spontaneous contributions are part of a pre-composed structure, but with The Necks all is constructed via real-time instinct. This Australian trio has been adopting this approach since 1987, but each time it's ritualizing onstage, the threesome never fails to make music an unfamiliar, inquiring adventure. There seem to be only a pair of "rules." One is that each improvisation will usually last a long time, at least an hour or maybe more. The other is that each performance will mostly feature some kind of ongoing, or mildly repetitive "groove." Therefore, they step sideways from most of the familiar improvising tendencies from both the jazz and rock worlds. The Necks have an ability to make their output important, to invest their lines, riffs and pulses with a sense of crucial impetus. They never sound like they're going to lose their way, yet their path always sneaks up as a surprise.

Pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Tony Buck have the advantage of not always sounding like they're playing the piano, bass and drums. They often use these instruments as tools to make sounds that have a group existence, part of a united instant-composing process rather than operating as a divisible "piano trio." Abrahams is trinkling with such repetitive density that he sounds like he's fighting through a room clogged up with stacked, surplus pianos. Buck is crinkling and crackling bent metal, making pure chain-mail hiss. Swanton is hitting a riff that has no edges or demarcations, just pure deepness. There comes a point where (maybe after as much as thirty minutes), everything gradually locks, intersects and grinds into a kind of throbbing perfection. Then this moment diminishes, and the piece will, after all or enough has been said, come to a conclusion. Everything is just right...

The Kenny Werner Trio

Jazz Standard

February 11, 2009

The Brooklyn pianist Kenny Werner is known as an individualist composer, pushing jazz further onwards, but he's also steeped in the tradition of bebop and even pre-bop. His physical stance and aural aspect is of the Art Tatum variety, which is a pretty impressive antecedent to drop. There's a total confidence in the way he ejects an impatient keyboard babble from his mind, immediately picked out by his nimble fingers. There's an inevitability to the logic of his outpourings, but Werner doesn't dawdle around the areas of touch-predictability, always remembering the blues, and retaining a certain rustic charm from the old stride days. His beret-topped head is tossed backwards in a trance of ecstasy, and his rapport with drummer Ari Hoenig recalls the previous week's empathy between Joey Calderazzo and Jeff "Tain" Watts at this very club. Hoenig is always watching Werner, crouched as if to pounce, picking up on his leader's every phrase and underlining, answering or just plain hitting it back to source. Once more, the bass is caught in the middle, with Johannes Weidenmueller taking a more responsible position. Guitarist Gilad Hekselman guests on a few numbers, but his gentle showers tend to calm the proceedings before the set's final bracing dash. Often jazz piano can too easily slide into cocktail lounge tics, but Werner makes every note bite, matching Hoenig with each extroverted embellishment and every heightening of the fun factor.

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