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Mike Ladd & Vijay Iyer: In All Languages

Rex  Butters By

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Redcat rocked with the recent touchdown of In What Language?, Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd's acclaimed multimedia performance piece that travels through the minds of post 911 airport inhabitants of color. Richly human, Ladd's text sings with the voices of Indian Cab drivers, Iranian business men, Afro-Americans, as well as observations from those doing the scanning. Funny, squeamish, angry, tragic, and unyieldingly hopeful in the face of overwhelming odds, the show played in New York last year and yielded a luminous CD released by Pi Recordings. With an interdisciplinary Berkeley doctorate in the Arts and Technology, Iyer's unlimited compositional palette crosses genres like a nervously punched cab driver's radio, yielding some of the most satisfying jazz/hiphop hybrids to date. His M-Base background bubbles up as one color in the wide spectrum he uses in his sonic set designs. Being one of the most original and technically accomplished younger players breaking through in no way diminishes the power of his romanticism.


Ladd's text claims inspiration from the ugly plight of Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi, who attended a film festival in Hong Kong, and then traveled to another in Brazil. A brief stop over at JFK in New York resulted in his being shackled to a bench in a small cell for hours before being returned, shackled to Hong Kong by INS agents. This was months before 911. The internationally recognized and astonished artist reportedly said, "I am not a thief! I am not a murderer!...I am just an Iranian, a film maker. But how could I say this, in what language?

Before a large screen presenting endless altered airport images, many effectively evoking the airtight ambiance, seven instrumentalists assembled behind 4 actor/vocalists. With two exceptions the crew duplicated the CD's personnel. Okkyung Lee handled the cello, occasionally doubling a bass line to good effect. Rizan Mizra joined the monologists, who included Ladd, and Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, herself a writer and veteran of Vernan Reid, Butch Morris, and Guillermo E. Brown. Also joining the wordists, Bessie Award winner Allison Easter hails from Stomp and Meredith Monk.

Iyer and Ladd opened with their duet, "the Color of My Circumference I, Ladd's nearly gritty baritone intoning against the rippling urgency of Iyer. The other speakers appear in slow motion The ensemble hops on subtly, then goes once Trevor Holder kicks in on drums. Stephan Crump authoritatively pumped on acoustic bass, and drove the band on electric. Easter flawlessly recited her complex part with Crump and Holder keeping it crisp. "Terminal City is an M-Base interlude, Diggs tells the story of the security screener on "Security. Remarkable Rudresh Mahanthappa blistered the alto, affording a rare glimpse of this talked about reed player. Crump made "DeGaulle gallop, while Mirza made "TLC'"s taxi driver live. His "Iragi Businessman delivered the clammy revulsion that turns surrealistically comic. Diggs related the sad tale of the "Three Lotto Stories with Ambrose Akinmusire improvising tricky trumpet and playing the convoluted melody line with Mahanthappa.

Unfortunately not on the CD, the funky cool jazz of "Smoking Section engaged guitarist Liberty Ellman in a friendly joust with Akinmusire. Easter made the most of her turn on "Taking Back the Airplane, investing it with sensuality and warmth. Iyer and Mahanthappa supported Mizra on the title song, with the alto again striking out into an adventurous solo. Easter's "Asylum played appropriately claustrophobic, while Ladd's final fiery declaration, "the Color of My Circumference IV, found the author and Crump pushing for a dramatic finale. Can the DVD be far behind?



In what must be the evening's only peevish complaint, the sound levels were incorrect. Redcat's acoustics afford audibility of unmiked conversations on stage to the back row. Here, the band regularly overwhelmed the intelligibility of the four speakers to the detriment of the text's beauty and importance. Rather than increasing the actors' volume, a small uniform decrease in band level should have balanced the mix.


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