It was the Plague Year, and musicians denied the ability to tour and play in front of a live audience quickly began to pivot to virtual concerts. As early as April performances from musician's homes started (including one large series that was titled Live From Our Living Rooms). By August some conventional performance venues had gotten into the act, including the Village Vanguard and Smalls Jazz Club in New York City. But this ShapeShifter Lab concert felt like a real event: four experienced improvisers getting together in a room to create music spontaneously, just like in the Before Times. The players were masked and socially distanced, as the current public health guidelines demanded. There was only the most minimal live audience: just a few staff to open the venue and film the event.
But there was plenty of electricity, running through the instruments and between the musicians. Odd to play six feet apart and masked, certainly, but not enough to dampen the joy of playing live music together for the first time in months. They played two sets, each about 50 minutes long, and the album version presents the music with very little editing. The first set began with gentle interweaving guitars (Alex Skolnick on electric, Tim Motzer on acoustic-electric) joined initially by Percy Jones' fretless bass and cymbal washes from drummer Kenny Grohowski.
Before long they locked into a groove and Skolnick took his first solo, a keening melodic excursion. As the set went on there was also space for an abstract soundscape with sampled news voices, scraping guitar noises, and Motzer's bowed guitar; a big Skolnick solo with overdrive and harmonizer (and his trademark speed); and Motzer's solid-body guitar solo (switching from the acoustic-electric he favored most of the time) with wild whammy effects. Above all else there was a great sense of flow, which included dynamic contrast. At full force this band is formidable, but they could whisper too.
The second set added some new sonic wrinkles: Motzer's rare acoustic guitar solo (he usually employs electronic processing, even when playing an acoustic-electric instrument), as well as a bit of slide; Jones got a couple of striking solo spots; at one point Grohowski played his drum kit with his hands; and Skolnick contributed both looping and full-on guitar hero solos. It was an altogether fearless, rich night of music making, with all of the magic fully evident in this live document.
PAKT is made up of fretless bass guitarist Percy Jones, guitarists Alex Skolnick and Tim Motzer, and drummer Kenny Grohowski. They are all very experienced players. Skolnick is best known as the lead guitarist in the thrash metal band The New Testament Of Funk; he went on to freelance work, playing jazz with his Alex Skolnick Trio, and experimenting with World Music. Motzer has a long background in free improvisation as well, including the bands Bandit 65 (with fellow guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel) and Orion Tango, plus many other recorded collaborations for his 1k Recordings label. Welsh bassist Jones ( a long time New York resident) is known for his tenure in the jazz fusion group Brand X, collaborations with Suzanne Vega, as well as extensive studio work (especially with Brian Eno). Grohowski's recent associations include Imperial Triumphant, John Zorn, Brand X, Felix Pastorius & the Hipster Assassins.
"PAKT recalls the fearless attitude and daring approach that originally defined progressive music: where the magic of the moment always triumphed over preconception. Templates be damned ... this music blazes its own path! This is truly exquisite fare, serving as a reminder to aficionados of what initially drew them to this most creative, visionary of genres."
Contact Mark Sullivan at All About Jazz.
Freelance journalist & musician. I love improvisation & live electronics, in jazz and experimental music of all sorts.
Disc One: Emergence; Over Strange Land; The Mystery; Nigh Crossing; Brothers of Energy.
Disc Two: Perserverance; The Sacred Ladder; Drifts and Alignments; Night Crossings; The Great Spirit;
Departure Sanctuary; Cosmic Fire.
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