simakDialog at Shapeshifter Lab

John Mark McGuire By

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Shapeshifter Lab
Brookyn, NYC
November 10, 2014

The music of simakDialog represents a voyage of discovery: exploring new sonic landscapes through their ambitious, unpretentious but highly skilled approach to playing as individual musicians, and their corporate trust in one another's ability to grasp the subtle dynamics of a given moment and guide the music to its ultimate destination (wherever that may happen to be!).

Despite my affection for their most exotic and unique musical expressions, it wasn't until last month that I finally got an opportunity to see them perform live (residing 1,000 miles south of NYC in a remote portion of North Central Florida can have such an impact on a guy, despite the strongest of passions). To say that my patience was rewarded would be quite an understatement, as the band put on a performance that was easily among the finest I have ever witnessed.

Group founder, leader and composer, keyboardist Riza Arshad, was right at home on the house Fender Rhodes. Throughout the gripping 90-minute set, he continually coaxed wave after wave of classic, textured voicings which harkened back to the earliest days of progressive jazz fusion—when the Rhodes was a default instrument that no self-respecting keyboardist could possibly be without. But his playing transcended that era—grasping its essential core essence, but continually pushing the music beyond all previously-established bounds.

To his immediate right were the pair of percussionists who accompanied the band on this trip (in their native Indonesia, the band typically performs with three percussionists)—veteran master of Sudanese percussion, Endang "Jean-Claude" Ramdan, and Cucu Kurnia. What made Arshad's keyboard excursions all the more dramatic was the telepathic link these two phenomenal percussionists shared with him (and each other). Not only did they follow his polyrhythmic improvisations stride-for-stride, but the two percussionists shared an acute awareness of the dynamics of the moment as well. As walls of sound built up and crescendoed from Arshad's emotionally drenched Rhodes work, both Ramdan and Kurnia echoed his dynamics in perfect synchronicity and feel.

It was an unforgettable experience as privileged, overwhelmingly astonished listener and onlooker. I have seen bands perform with similar levels of "music improv ESP" in the past (Brand X at "The Old Waldorf" in San Francisco, back in November of 1978, comes to mind). But this was beyond anything ever witnessed, as the individual dynamics of each player were a perfect compliment to the magical moments that were transpiring.

... And, through it all, between the percussion section and the band's relative newcomer, bassist Rudy Zulkarnaen (who replaced legendary Indonesian bassist, Adhithya Pratama, less than a year prior), there was still a clearly discernible underlying pulse that was maintained—no matter how far out of bounds to which the music waltzed its way. Zulkarnaen was the only member of the band who had sheet music (no demerits there, given the complexity and constant changes of the music's underlying structures), but he never sounded like a passenger in the backseat of this adventure ride; his playing was vibrant, dead-on accurate and equally attuned to the shifting intensities of each respective piece. He was a very soulful player, capable of keeping a steady flow through even the most fluctuating, demanding of passages. He's also a gifted, articulate improviser, as well, as evidenced by his solo on the group's remake of the Allan Holdsworth classic, "Water On The Brain, Part Two."

No matter how off the sheets the music ventured, Zulkarnaen remained poised, buoyant and rock-solid.

The icing on the cake for the evening, though, was the stellar guitar work of Tohpati Ario. The group's only other remaining founding member, Ario played like a man possessed, his cascading runs decorating the music in perfect fashion. He displayed a penchant for digging into his very deep bag of tones, continually pulling out the most surprising sounds at the most opportune moments.

Ario's playing was rooted in spontaneity; full of nuance and emotion, his expressions on his instrument reflected his pioneering approach to seeking out everything a given song had to offer. His solos were like a mosaic of miniature masterpieces strung together, one after the other, as he pushed through thresholds of expression on guitar and explored all of the potential afforded by each musical moment. The result, especially on this very special night, was profoundly moving. Ario's voice on his instrument is unlike any other I have ever experienced, and he pushed the music as hard as he obviously pushed himself.

On a night of supreme music excellence, Ario was the authoritative voice that sang, unfettered, above it all. His playing carried the music to another level of creative discovery that few guitarists would have the daring to attempt in a live performance setting. This was the big payoff in a high-stakes game; it was the genius of expression, fully realized. It was as good as live improvisational guitar playing in a group setting gets.

As if what was presented was not incredible enough, the show was decorated by the contributions of two very special guests. Guitarist extraordinaire (and fellow MoonJune Records artist) Beledo—whose trio opened the show in powerful fashion—joined the band near the end of the show, providing some shimmering, glassy chord voicings and some stellar lead guitar exchanges with Ario on the band's remake of their song, "Tak Jauh."

The other guest was master Brazilian percussionist, Thomaz de Castro, who put on a virtuosic display on a variety of unique percussion devices indigenous to his native culture. Thomaz, as I was to find out shortly after the show, is also the "Operations Director" of New York City's world-famous venue, The Iridium.

In retrospect, I have to conclude that after four decades of following and having the privilege of witnessing some of the greatest jazz, rock and progressive music groups their respective genres have had to offer, this show easily ranks among the finest, most powerful performances I've ever attended. Rarely is improvisation so fresh, ingenious and still highly polished. The entire evening was pure magic.

... And simakDialog cemented its position as one of progressive music's most vital, brilliant and singularly unique artists.

One day, the world will wake up to the enormous depth of talent in Indonesia that MoonJune's Leonardo Pavkovic has already discovered and is bringing to light; more power and "Godspeed!" to him, in this pursuit!


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