April 27, 2009
Last sighted on these shores in the autumn of 2006, the success of the Convergence Quartet 's inaugural meeting has now borne the fruit of a further tour for cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, drummer Harris Eisenstadt, and the up-and-coming English pairing of pianist Alexander Hawkins and bassist Dominic Lash.
Since the band's first concert, Bynum has moved ever further from the Braxton penumbra to become an active and prolific leader stateside, while Eisenstadt balances bounteous collaborations with leadership dates like the dazzling Guewel (Clean Feed, 2008). Hawkins and Lash have become increasingly sought after, appearing in Evan Parker's quartet and multifarious improvising collectives. In addition, Hawkins has toured with his own adventurous sextet, and Lash has made his debut on the New York scene. The quartet's Live in Oxford (FMR, 2007), a memento of the last tour, now looks like it will be joined by a studio album (a recording date is scheduled for the end of this nine date tour).
The quartet's third stop brought them to north London's Vortex in fashionable Dalston, where they held forth for two sets totaling some 80 minutes. Like last time, each member of the quartet supplied charts, making for a broad range of compositions that meshed lyrical fragments, free improvisation, contemporary classical and jazz. This time, the quartet stretched the music even further, including a selection of little played free jazz classics (perhaps at the behest of Hawkins who's own ensemble often plays works by Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith and Sun Ra).
Opening the first set by resurrecting British drummer Tony Oxley's forty-year-old "Crossing" seemed a clear statement of intent: they were aligned firmly with the free jazz tradition on both sides of the Atlantic. Knotty unisons and breakneck dashes sandwiched freer episodes like Lash's juddering arco solo and an exuberant piano trio, with Hawkins' fingers dancing crabwise up the keyboard before turning more agitated and dissonant. Written sections emerged blinking into the daylight before becoming once again subsumed into fierce thickets of group improvisation. All four band members, though, found ample space within the quartet's shared aesthetic, which was built upon attentive listening and quick witted response.
In spite of his avant-garde credentials, Bynum had a fine way with melodies, coolly uncovered from the unlikeliest sources. He prefaced his own "Iris" with a solo cornet tour-de-force sculpted from multiphonic growls and measured silence, before launching on a controlled ascent into an astonishing, bat-bothering squeak. Dispensing with his mute, Bynum used his score at one point to modify his sound. Then, using a long sustained note, he nonchalantly changed to another mute, paused to empty out some accumulated moisture, and, without breaking the flow, introduced an involved piano/cornet unison over a fragmented rhythm.
Hawkins was the main organizer, making the announcements and introducing the band. Like Bynum, he's a stealthy composer; his work doesn't give itself up on the first listen. In his "Baobabs," the lovely theme was barely hinted at in the textural interplay pinging around the band. Like any self-respecting modern pianist, Hawkins was as happy under the bonnet as on the keys, his facility readily blurring the divide between inside and outside. (His avant-barrelhouse piano solo to close out "Iris" demonstrated his capacity to get wilder and wilder before a sudden conclusion halted his assault.) But when the moment demanded, he was all poise and sensitivity, as in his reverential reading of the late Leroy Jenkins' beautiful "Albert Ayler (his life was too short)".
Although Lash reveled in extended technique—following in an illustrious lineage from Barry Guy through Simon Fell—he also shared his forbearers' aptitude for more straightforward propulsion. On Eisenstadt's multi-sectioned "Next Convergence," he deconstructed a relaxed riff to pizzicato scrabbling before adopting a limber walk behind the jazzy piano. As an instrumental voice, Lash could be breathtaking, evidenced by his wonderfully vocalized arco sweeps in duet with Bynum's cornet on Hawkins' "Song Dance Blues". Lash's own "Representations 12" was spacey with flurries of notes, involving laptop guided navigation through varying permutations of compositional modules. In spite of the focus on the electronic signposting, the piece also offered opportunities for the musicians to cue up interactions themselves, with both Bynum and Eisenstadt initiating sections.
Eisenstadt was quietly masterful, effortlessly floating around his kit while demonstrating an assured textural acumen. He also incorporated this aesthetic into his rhythmic approach, making the music flow like a river, never appearing the same way twice. His compositional sensibility informed his selection of timbre, so whether rubbing his sticks against each other on the drum head, casually flicking the edges of his cymbals, or striking the skins with just his hands for a dampened sound, it always sounded right.
For the final piece Hawkins called a tune by the late South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza (or perhaps Lucky Ranku, Hawkins wasn't sure which), which saw Eisenstadt gobbling up the rhythms (unsurprising given his deep love of African percussion) and Bynum dancing on flugelhorn, bestowing a Latin flavor on the rich harmonies before taking it further out. It made for a fun ending to a fascinating concert that satisfied both the head and heart. This second convergence should not be the last.