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Sleepthief at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, September 7, 2010

Nick Millevoi By

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Sleepthief
Ars Nova Workshop at the Philadelphia Art Alliance
Philadelphia, PA
September 7, 2010

The Philadelphia Art Alliance has been one of Ars Nova Workshop's most utilized venues for the past couple of seasons. The room is one of ANW's more formal spaces, featuring hardwood floors and a grand piano on the top floor of a Rittenhouse Square mansion. Despite the interruption of a staircase in the middle of the room, it still manages to provide an intimate setting with good sound throughout. Sleepthief's September 7 show was the first Art Alliance concert of a season that will feature many more to come.

Sleepthief, a free jazz trio of saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, pianist Liam Noble, and drummer Tom Rainey, plays dense improvisations that gracefully shift through sections of knotty melodies and textural rhythms. Most of their performance was divided into neat units that were based upon either a melodic motif stated and repeated by saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, or upon a brief solo by one of the three. Once a section began, it would evolve and run its course to be immediately followed by a new idea.

Laubrock's tenor playing was alternately breathy and melodic, and forceful and aggressive as she often played fast lines that ascended into loud, screaming, post-Aylerian territory. Her soprano playing was equally powerful, capable of achieving high, bell-like sounds and sometimes playing a call and response between both registers of the horn. Noble's playing was energetic and his contrapuntal cluster-based figures were a perfect foil to Laubrock's line-based playing. Several times through the set he reached inside the piano, plucking and scraping strings to add percussive textures. Rainey's pulse-driven feel acted to propel the group. His boom-y kick drum encompassed the low-end and he often played repetitive pulse structures that gave the rest of the music something to push and pull against. Rainey played dynamically and creatively, using piles of drum sticks and a plastic bag at different points through the set in order to create unique textures.

The band's set consisted of four pieces. The opening piece was the longest and most far-reaching of the night, and it progressed through many units. It began sparsely with Laubrock on tenor playing soft, short lines over a repetitive piano pattern and light cymbal work. During a later section, kicked of by a short, contrapuntal solo by Noble, Rainey played a groove that sounded like a train rumbling at high speed, unrestrained but still controlled, while Laubrock played loud squeaks at squawks at the high end of her soprano sax.

The subsequent pieces were more compact and cohesive, though they still had a broad scope. The second piece began with a knotty tom groove and dissonant piano clusters over which Laubrock played soloistic call and response between the high and low ends of her soprano. It progressed into a stop/start repetitive rhythmic unit where Laubrock and Noble played dreamy arpeggiated clusters.

The climax of the night was the third piece, which started quietly and texturally with long, tenor notes over a bed of plucked piano strings and short, quiet tom rolls. This crescendo-ed and then decrescendo-ed into a ballad-like section before reaching the final drive, where an atmospheric and textural unit led into an aggressive assault, the loudest part of the night. Rainey landed his crashes over Noble's clusters and Laubrock's long, ascending tenor lines wailed into her upper register before the piece came to a screaming halt.

The band ended the night with a medium-energy improvisation on an eighth note pulse. This served as something of a coda to what came before, and the set ended with the sound of a scraped piano string as Laubrock's breath faded from her final note.

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