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New Universe Music Festival: Day 2, November 21, 2010

New Universe Music Festival: Day 2, November 21, 2010

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Day 1 | Day 2
The New Universe Music Festival
Raleigh, North Carolina
November 20-21, 2010

It's no small challenge to make a new festival viable, especially when it represents something of a niche within a niche. The attendance at the first day of the New Universe Music Festival was impressive enough, but with an influx of even more dedicated fans coming from all over the United States—the Deadhead equivalent of fusion icon John McLaughlin followers, whose performance with his 4th Dimension group was to close out the main part of the second night—there was literally a lineup around the block of the Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh, North Carolina, before the doors opened at 5:45PM on the festival's second and final day.

There were plenty of rumors floating around in the hall about the festival finale—an all-star tribute to McLaughlin—with all kinds of names being suggested. At the end of the day there was only one guest who managed to make the trek to Raleigh; but it was, perhaps, the best and most exciting one surprise possible; a longtime friend and musical partner who dates back to McLaughlin's 1970s experiments in the fusion of western jazz with Indian tradition with Shakti. His guest spot with McLaughlin, at the New Universe Music Festival, provided irrefutable proof that, like any good friendship, it's not necessary to see each other all the time; if the relationship is strong enough, it's possible to come together, after years apart, and pick things up as if it were only yesterday.

From left: Scott Kinsey, Arto Tuncboyacian, Matthew Garrison

Like the first day, the evening opened up with a CD listening party, this time featuring keyboardist Scott Kinsey, bassist Matthew Garrison and percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian, discussing and playing tracks from their just mastered and soon-to-be-released Abstract Logix debut as Human Element. Beyond an introduction to this exciting new collective, with music contributed by all its members, including drummer Gary Novak (who was unable to attend the festival, replaced at the group's show the night before by Ranjit Barot), it was a strong endorsement for potential future careers as comedians for Tuncboyaciyan or Garrison, should the music thing not work out. Engaged amongst themselves, but equally responsive to their audience, they made the listening party a perfect warm-up a great evening.

Chapter Index
  1. Wayne Krantz
  2. Lenny White's Anomaly
  3. John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension
  4. All-Star Tribute to John McLaughlin

Wayne Krantz

Guitarist Wayne Krantz also has a possible second career in comedy, though his approach was much drier than either the puckish Tuncboyaciyan or boisterous Garrison. As he introduced the members of his trio—drummer Cliff Almond and contrabass legend Anthony Jackson—he explained how Jackson had played Raleigh back in the 1970s. With a slight pause, he then quipped "he had to wait this long to come back because it's taken this long for the city to recover from the last time."

Wayne Krantz

Krantz's music doesn't make for an easy listen. Knotty arrangements act as jumping off and rallying points for open-ended group improvisation, and are challenging enough in and of themselves, but live, even more so than on recordings like his recent Krantz Carlock Lefebvre (Abstract Logix, 2009), where he kept things relatively short and to the point. Two tracks from that album ranged from the alt-rock energy of "Rushdie" to the post-new wave vocal track, "I Was Like." But unlike the recording, where Krantz employed a different sonic spectrum—from tensile acoustic to heavily distorted and wah-driven electric—in performance, Krantz's tone was a curious combination of high end edge and slight overdrive; a strangely funky tone that felt like the aural equivalent of glass shards.

Unlike his 2007 trio performance at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal—which suffered from such poor sound that it ultimately lost almost all of the nuances so essential in the group's performance—here in Raleigh, the sound was still loud, but absolutely clear, revealing all, as it should. With Krantz's stylistic blend of muted lines, occasional bursts of frightening speed and an instantly recognizable but slightly skewed harmonic approach, it was too easy to lose track of what was going on in a band that, while ready and capable of kicking it hard, also demonstrated refreshing dynamic control—especially Almond, one of those players whose name may not be well-known, but who has been heard with everyone from The Manhattan Transfer and Michel Camilo to John Tropea and Patti Labelle. There's value in every project, no doubt, but it's clear with Krantz, that Almond gets the chance to be at his most reckless, thundering away at times with a frenetic backbeat, other times turning to delicate cymbal colors, and always doing exactly what the music needed.

Anthony Jackson

Jackson, too, was clearly enjoying the chance to dig in hard with Krantz and Almond. The six-string electric bassist—a veteran of countless sessions ranging from Lee Ritenour and Steve Khan to Dave Liebman and Chick Corea, and who released his long overdue debut as a co-leader earlier this year with Greek bassist Yiorgos Fanakas, Interspirit (Abstract Logix, 2010)—was as visually animated as he's ever been, despite sitting in a chair for the entire set. His ability to act as both harmonic anchor and contrapuntal partner was all the more remarkable for his actually reading Krantz's charts. Krantz's cues not only move to new thematic segments, but often reflect meter and tempo shifts, meaning everyone has to keep their eye on the guitarist; how Jackson managed to read the charts and maintain eye contact is anybody's guess.

From left: Wayne Krantz, Cliff Almond

The multifaceted Krantz has been heard on recent albums by David Binney, Aliso (Criss Cross, 2010), and Donald Fagen, Morph the Cat (Reprise, 2006), as well as making a vital guest appearance on Ranjit Barot's Abstract Logix debut, Bada Boom ( 2010). As consummate a sideman as he is an egalitarian leader, he's always managed to insert himself into any situation, both fitting the context and sounding like nobody but himself. But with his own group, where he leveraged oblique ideas with equally abstruse sonic colors—kicking in an octave divider at times, to broaden the group's sound, other times employing a ring modulator that sent his ascending lines even further into the ozone—Krantz's eminently personal concept became as clear as the sound in the room. His is music that possesses the punch to hit on a visceral level, but also engages on a cerebral level; music that requires time and attention to fully and truly absorb.

Lenny White's Anomaly

By contrast, from the first notes of veteran fusion drummer Lenny White's opening tune with his Anomaly quartet—named after his 2010 Abstract Logix release and, for this show, expanded to a quintet with guitarist Jimmy Herring—it was clear that this was music for the body more than it was the head. Not that there weren't some tough lines and challenging constructs to navigate, as well as irregularly metered grooves to execute; but with bassist Richie Goods in tow, the former Return to Forever drummer kicked the funk hard and heavy.

Lenny White

As stunning as Herring was throughout the set—and with a relatively hometown audience yelling out Jimmy!! throughout the set—White's regular guitarist, Tom Guarna, was equally impressive. Better known for a string of mainstream records on the Steeplechase label, Guarna revealed that fusion was where it began for him in his youth, and if his playing at White's show was any indication, the next album he's working on—this time, to be produced by the drummer and intended as a hard-edged electric disc—will be well worth checking out. Together, Guarna and Herring made for some sweet double-guitar lines, and when the two traded off partway through the set, rather than being competitive, as is sometimes the case, it was a truly collaborative affair, clearly with respect and admiration, even as each responded to the other, then pushed each other to newer places they might not find on their own. Both players were capable of stunning virtuosity, but even when they were working their way forward at light speed, their distinctive personalities shone through.

Vince Evans

Goods—whose own Live at the Zinc Bar (RichMan Productions, 2009) was an overlooked gem which combined music from Wayne Shorter, Lenny White and Herbie Hancock, with a handful of Goods originals—was already primed during the group's sound check earlier in the day, where it was clear that the band was doing more than perfunctorily getting levels, it was playing. Hitting the stage for the actual show, Goods pushed the energy bar up even higher, with a combination of thumb-slapping funk and, in a solo segment, greater harmonic sophistication, even as he delivered a lyrical solo bass take on "Oh Danny Boy."

With a set list culled largely from Anomaly, White's playing was as seemingly effortless as ever, and the drummer appears—based on his recent All About Jazz interview and introductions during the Raleigh show—to be on a crusade to bring instrumental music back to the forefront. Given he was around when fusion was selling big, these days it's likely more a wish than a reality, but he made a strong case for the value—and accessibility—of his own music. He soloed rarely, and his first solo was paradoxical in its beginning quietly and ending even more so ("How about that," White said, after the song ended, "a quiet drum solo."), but he did raise the roof later in the set. Playing a light green kit with a remarkably deep bass drum, he introduced Herring's "Transients," from the guitarist's Lifeboat (Abstract Logix, 2008), saying "You heard him play it last night; now we're going to destroy this tune."

From left: Richie Goods, Tom Guarna, Jimmy Herring

And destroy they did, as part of a performance by a well-oiled group that took no prisoners. Keyboardist Vince Evans—a longtime White alum—was also a knockout, as he channeled everything from Jimmy Smith to Jan Hammer throughout the set, which so improved upon Anomaly with its fervent energy and commitment, that it made a strong case for White to consider making his next album a live one.

John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension

And so, it all comes down to this. As absolutely thrilling as every show was to this point, and as rich and varied as Abstract Logix's roster is in the fusion realm, the biggest draw of the New Universe Music Festival was, unequivocally, the return of John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension to Raleigh, after its first appearance in 2007. McLaughlin engenders such a loyal following that there are gray and no-hairs who have been traveling, Deadhead-like, from city to city for his 2010 North American tour, and while some came to Raleigh for the entire festival, it was clear that there were others for whom McLaughlin was the only reason to come.

John McLaughlin (in background: Gary Husband)

They weren't disappointed. Opening the set with a tune that has become something of a signature for McLaughlin and his group—original members Gary Husband (keyboards, percussion) and Mark Mondesir (drums), along with relative newcomer, bassist Etienne Mbappe—McLaughlin's power chords led to a blistering version of "Raju" that made clear just how far this group has evolved since is earlier incarnation, with young French bass phenom Hadrien Feraud. Feraud may have been young and hungry, but his relative inexperience pulled the group down a bit, as did his rather relentlessly busy approach. Mbappé has all the chops, but also demonstrated maturity that will no doubt come to Feraud in time, and gave The 4th Dimension, well, an added dimension of much-needed space. When the group locked in for a display of light-speed interplay it was as thrilling as it's ever been—more so, in fact—but when the groove demanded a more relaxed approach, as it did with the gospel-tinged "Unknown Dissident," from Electric Dreams (Columbia, 1979), Mbappé's playing allowed the music to breathe in ways that it simply couldn't in 2007.

Gary Husband

But it's not only Mbappé bringing something new to the table. Husband—who's celebrating his own new release with the all-star Dirty & Beautiful Volume One (Abstract Logix, 2010)—continues to grow as a keyboardist, channeling a sense of the keyboards as orchestra rooted in the similarly expansive approach of the late Joe Zawinul, but with an unmistakably personal slant on texture, harmony and melody. Unlike 2007, where he occasionally jumped behind a smaller "jungle kit," this time he's touring with a full drum set, and when he leapt behind it to engage in some stunning interaction with Mondesir on "The Fine Line"—one of two tracks performed from the group's latest release (and first studio effort), To The One (Abstract Logix, 2010)—he proved that he's lost none of his power or invention on the kit. Mondesir, too, was playing better than ever, and the two drummers' contrasting styles—Mondesir a more polished, albeit equally energetic player, with Husband the rawer and more unfettered free thinker—was a sight to see.

Mbappé—playing with a pair of silk gloves—delivered his own series of impressive solos throughout, but it was in his ensemble work where he especially shone, if only because he connected with the rest of the group on such a mitochondrial level, encouraging and supporting some of McLaughlin's best rhythm playing in years. He also drove the funk on Husband's rock-hard "Solli," popping and slapping the strings while McLaughlin pumped out a series of overdriven power chords, before leaping into a trade-off with Husband that was one of the set's high points.

Etienne Mbappé

The performance wasn't without its flaws—at one point, Husband had the wrong setting for a tune, and elsewhere, McLaughlin's high velocity sometimes got the better of him—but these were extremely minor quibbles in a performance where everyone was truly going for it. Taking risks in music means not always succeeding, but sometimes the journey is simply more compelling than the ultimate destination. While the show leaned heavily on a truncated version of the 2007 set list, McLaughlin did pull out a second tune from To The One: a blistering take of "Recovery." But it was when the set neared its conclusion that the guitarist pulled out the biggest surprise of all—an unannounced guest appearance by master tablaist Zakir Hussain, a longtime member of both Shakti and Remember Shakti. Hussain came onstage for an extended version of "Mother Tongues," featuring the percussion trade-off to end all percussion trade-offs, as Mondesir and Husband were driven hard—but ultimately succeeded—to keep up with Hussain's remarkable ability to divide, subdivide and then further break time down.

But the most magical moments were when Hussain and McLaughlin traded off; it's been about a decade since the two last played together, but it was like picking up a conversation exactly where it left off, as the two pushed and pulled each other in a visible and audible reflection of mutual respect, love and friendship. For anyone in attendance, it was one of those memorable moments that, ultimately, will make the 2010 New Universe Music Festival go down as a world-renowned event. And when, as the song drew to a close, McLaughlin hinted at "Meeting of the Spirits," from Mahavishnu Orchestra's The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971), the crowd went wild.

Zakir Hussain

An encore of "Light at the Edge of the World," made famous by Pharoah Sanders, took the performance out on a gentle note, once again demonstrating how McLaughlin may be best-known for his almost unparalleled speed, but there's always a lyrical subtext that imbues even his most blistering attacks, and when he occasionally leaps into a searing bend, holding it to build the tension, the contrast makes it all the more powerful. It also became clear that McLaughlin understood how, at the New Universe Music Festival, he had a truly special audience. While fans familiar with his music come to his shows around the continent, here the audience was especially attuned—not just to his music, but to the overall space he occupies in the broader musical continuum, and the legendary guitarist was clearly moved by the attention and acceptance.

All-Star Tribute to John McLaughlin

To make the final evening of the first New Universe Music Festival even more special, a grand finale billed as an "All-Star Tribute to John McLaughlin" gave no indication of what that was to mean, of what shape it was going to take. With Gary Husband as the primary mover and shaker behind the event—organizing the rehearsals, writing the charts and acting as the cordial MC who introduced each of the five tunes, culled from across McLaughlin's long career—rehearsal time was short, and so it was important to assess the performances for what they were: a tribute to a guitarist who has altered the shape of music, and whose legacy remains alive and evolving. They were far from perfect, and some were more successful than others, but it was the spirit that was most important, as almost everyone who performed at the festival received an opportunity to weigh in with their own interpretations of McLaughlin material.

The set opened well, with Husband on keys, leading a group that included guitarist Tom Guarna, Neal Fountain on bass, Mark Mondesir on drums, and Arto Tuncboyacian on percussion, for a powerful version of "Friendship," from Johnny McLaughlin: Electric Guitarist (Columbia, 1979). As the group switched, Husband and Tuncboyaciyan then performed an ethereal, improvised duet where the percussionist sang and whispered to great effect, bringing down the pace and atmosphere, so that when the two were joined by guitarist Wayne Krantz, drummers Mark Mondesir and Lenny White, keyboardist Matt Slocum and bassist Neal Fountain for a Mahavishnu Mark II tune that ultimately provided more promise than delivery, it was still thrilling for the audience, many of whom were too young to have ever had the opportunity to hear this music live back in the day.

As the line-up switched yet again, Tuncboyaciyan suddenly appeared singing and blowing into a bottle, with the kind of irreverent humor that's so fundamental to his own music. The percussionist was then joined by guitarist Alex Machacek, drummer Jeff Sipe, bassist Matthew Garrison and Husband on keys for a version of "Fallen Angels," from The Heart of Things (Verve, 1997)—an album also featuring Garrison—which proved to be one of the better songs of the set, as Machacek approached the song with his own voice rather than trying to channel McLaughlin. The same could be said for Krantz when he joined the group—along with Ranjit Barot and Cliff Almond taking over the drum chairs—for a fiery version of "Jazz Jungle," from 1995's The Promise (Verve), his playing a combination of quirky personal idiosyncrasy and McLaughlin-esque heat.

From left: Jimmy Herring, Gary Husband and Matt Slocum perform "Dance of the Maya"

The set closer was, perhaps, the tune that had the potential to light the biggest fire—a version of Mahavishnu Orchestra Mark I's "Dance of the Maya," where Husband (on drums) channeled his inner Billy Cobham alongside pianist Slocum and bassist Richie Goods. Jimmy Herring had the challenging task of not just covering McLaughlin, but Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman as well; and while the performance was spirited, it was no small or easy task, as Herring navigated between the necessary chordal passages and the song's soaring melody. The group segued into "Resolution," the closer to Mahavishnu's megahit, Birds of Fire (Columbia, 1973), with Goods kicking in some overdrive and assuming Goodman's violin part. It didn't entirely work, but, equally, it didn't matter: what did, was the opportunity to be a part of an event that acknowledged McLaughlin's seminal influence, and the participants' clear love and respect. What the tribute suffered in lack of rehearsal time, it more than made up for in spirit and commitment.

Sumitra Nanjunjdan

Another unexpected and important aspect of the final day's performance was when Alex Machacek's wife, Sumitra Nanjunjdan, came onstage to express the appreciation that everyone was feeling for the work of two people instrumental in making the New Universe Music Festival happen, and become such a meaningful success for its first year: Souvik and Shweta Dutta. Souvik's vision for Abstract Logix—first an online fusion storefront, then a label, now a festival—has been consistent since inception, but it's been a remarkable journey to watch, as he's gained expertise as a label head, tour manager, festival programmer and much, much more. The opportunity to experience the festival from behind the scenes with an all-access pass only made it more remarkable to see just how smoothly everything went, with nary a hitch or hiccup. Nanjunjdan presented the couple—also expecting their first child in the spring of 2011—with a copy of their festival poster, signed by all but two of the participating artists.

From left: Souvik and Shweta Dutta

It's still too early to assess the ultimate success of the New Universe Music Festival—whether it was, for one thing, financially viable enough to allow it to continue—but equally, it takes time for most festivals to gain traction. Thanks to the hard work of Souvik and Shweta Dutta, as well as their administrative person, John Angelo—who could be seen doing everything from driving artists to moving furniture—the New Universe Music Festival has already begun gaining that traction as an event with a concept that both sets it apart from virtually every other festival, and possesses the potential to make a real mark on the international stage as a premiere festival for contemporary fusion music.

Visit Wayne Krantz, Lenny White, John McLaughlin and The New Universe Music Festival on the web.

Photo Credits

All Photos: John Kelman

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