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Search and Restore Benefit: A Round Robin of Duo Improvisations

Daniel Lehner By

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There's an old conundrum about a man with an axe. He broke the head chopping at a particularly stubborn branch and replaced it. Months later, he broke the handle and replaced that. The question goes: Does he have the same axe? It's a philosophical question that deals with how parts interrelate with a whole. Now imagine that each axe head/handle gets stronger and more unique with the new part that accompanies it.
Such was the logic of Search and Restore's Benefit Concert at Le Poisson Rouge. The night progressed in a round robin style of duo improvisations. One musician (in this case, alto saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo started a solo improvisation lasting 5 minutes. Another musician (in this case, legendary avant-garde bassist Henry Grimes) would then join him for 5 minutes of duo improvisation. After those five minutes, D'Angelo left the stage and saxophonist Zim Ngqawana joined Grimes and so on and so forth for two hours. A delightfully inventive concept, it proved to have lasting power beyond the initial novelty; even after two hours of continuous improvisation, the tag-team style regained its interest well into the night.
As with many free improvisation exhibitions, the first few pairings were explorations of sound and concept. D'Angelo's laconic but intentioned alto playing meeting Grimes' heady bass playing took its time finding its way, but flourished into a manic duel of each instruments' extended technique. The show continued it's sparse, exploratory texture as it cycled through Grimes, Ngqawana and guitarist Brandon Ross. When Ross was paired with pianist Jason Lindner, a pronounced melodic dialogue emerged between the two instruments, as Lindner's hand muted piano danced with Ross's nuanced plucking. Bassist Tim Lefebvre brought the melodic content into a funky but intelligent realm.
Like any good showing of modern jazz, the night was not only limited to traditional instrumentation. DJ Logic, armed with a laptop and drum machine, deftly matched Lefebvre's funky set up. Trumpet player Ralph Alessi managed to both counterbalance Logic's drum grooves and then proceed to dig right in. Vocalist Theo Bleckmann showed off the range of his imagination as he "wah"-ed and "how"-ed like a trombone with Alessi and then proceeded to howl out colorful multiphonics with trumpeter Avishai Cohen. Cohen was certainly no slouch in the versatility department either: his textural duet with Bleckmann was immediately followed by a hard swinging duet with bassist Christian McBride. McBride, who would have seemed to be the straight-ahead outlier at such a modern exhibition, coalesced brilliantly with drummer Matt Wilson, veering from his previous swinging into a hard groove.

What makes such a sporadic, inventive concept such as this unique is that it can't derail; it can only bend as far out as it wants to be. Armed with a laptop and a crate of records, Hal Willner mixed R&B LP's for Wilson and mashed together Sonny Bono and a frank 70's PSA style audio description of genitalia for valve and slide trumpeter Steve Bernstein, which the leader of Sex Mob was only happy to oblige him for. Bernstein's pairing with drummer Mark Guiliana still contained all the screams and shakes of his previous set, but brought the affair back to a steady rhythmic pace.

Each duet offered the musicians to show their improvisational prowess in short periods of time. Within 10 minutes total, bassist Ben Allison had the opportunity to deconstruct both his rhythmic and melodic sensibilities, the former with Giuliana and the latter in a beautiful, recording worthy duet with alto saxophonist David Binney. Binney's melodicism carried over gently into a duet with Andy Milne, whose pointillist but rich piano playing matched well with bassist Reid Anderson. The duet between Anderson and drummer Dan Weiss was a refreshing contrast to Allison and Giuliana; Anderson preferred a round, bottom heavy bass sound a la his work in the Bad Plus and Weiss preferred a subdued, mostly bare-hand powered percussion style drumming. Weiss's tabla inspired drumming was a good match for Don Byron, whose clarinet sound is as rooted in jazz tradition as it is in klezmer and world music influences.

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