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Undead Jazz Festival: Day 1, June 23, 2011

Daniel Lehner By

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Undead Jazz Festival
New York, New York
June 23-26, 2011

If 2010's Undead Jazz Festival were the first installment in a series of zombie films, then the first day of the 2011 season was a sequel picking up where our protagonists (or anti-heroes, depending on how you look at it) left off. Before the festival moved down to Brooklyn, it had some unfinished business in Greenwich Village's Kenny's Castaways, Sullivan Hall and Le Poisson Rouge. Organizers Adam Schatz and Brice Rosenbloom, leaders of their undead army, re-convened in familiar territory to further their modus operandi of shattering jazz expectations and relentlessly introducing new artists. Once the gleeful creative destruction was finished, Schatz and Rosenbloom raised their fingers and pointed in the direction of Gowanus, Brooklyn, where the army would raise hell at The Bell House on Friday night.

All zombie movie metaphors aside, the festival had very legitimate reasons for shifting its attention toward Brooklyn. The aforementioned borough has become the home of unrelenting creativity over the years. In addition to being the residence of many a young, new jazz artist, Brooklyn also houses breeding grounds for this music to grow and prosper, such as Josh Roseman's 58 North 6th St. studio, and genre-bending venues like Southpaw and Zebulon. The West Village has been, and most likely will always be, a home to jazz both new and old, but at this point it may be too steeped in the old guard way of operating to reinvigorate an art form that needs a drastic boost. Considering the current flock of young, intellectual, artistically-minded people residing in and moving to Brooklyn, the Undead Jazz Festival may yet be able to latch on to what it needs most: a younger audience. The Search and Restore organization may yet be able to drive down the average age of jazz goers by latching on to the youth of Brooklyn and feeding off their energy (okay, so maybe that wasn't the end of the zombie movie metaphors).


Chapter Index
  1. Satoko Fujii's ma-do
  2. Harris Eisenstadt's Canada Day
  3. Paradoxical Frog
  4. Tarbaby
  5. Andrew D'Angelo Big Band
  6. Dave King's Trucking Company


Satoko Fujii's ma-do

Whereas some jazz artists emphasize "the space between the notes" as a time/phrasing idea, Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii's band was one that emphasized the space between the actual sounds themselves. Joined by husband Natsuki Tamura on trumpet, Norikatsu Koreyasu on bass and Akira Horikoshi on drums, the four musicians emphasized extended technique not just as a means of pushing "legitimate" sounds outward, but as an artistic expression in and of itself. The band kicked off their set with a weeping, scratchy bowed bass intro by Koreyasu that turned slightly classical before joining Fujii's left hand in a relentless rhythmic tattoo. Not to let the concept die so quickly, Tamura, in a remarkable imitation of the bass, came in with a breathy, creaky trumpet intro that flowed into melodicism. Fujii's soloing was a noteworthy combination of lines and bombastic clusters. While the soloing was mostly atonal, the colors she employed were bright, finding clarity in arranging sequences of single notes in little tribal groups before setting them to war with Cecil Taylor-like crashes of rhythmic intensity.

Fujii's band was a true group of storytellers. They achieved their clarity by setting up defined sections and a dichotomy between composition and pure freedom. The band would move into slightly disassociated regions of hip-hop/modern groove music and then break down into freer styles before bringing it back again. Sometimes the two forces would happen simultaneously, at which point Fujii would sew the differences together with ominous left hand pulses. The quartet united around specific rhythms, the kind of thematic development that gave Tamura's sonically and harmonically adventurous melodies and Horikoshi's vibrant, drum-and-bass style beats a place to come back to. The band was also not afraid to get violent and sometimes exceedingly mournful with their sounds, integrating tones like the beating of Fujii's piano strings with a drum stick. However, what kept the intrigue of the band was their unity. The places they took their music may be cruel and unrelenting, but they all went there together.



Harris Eisenstadt's Canada Day

Drummer/composer Harris Eisenstadt's Canada Day is one of those great songwriting bands, the type of outfit that played endlessly fascinating melodies with intricate part-writing. The group employs Chris Dingman on vibraphone, an instrument that doesn't seem to have enough presence at festivals like these, as well as trumpeter Nate Wooley, saxophonist Matt Bauder and bassist Eivind Opsvik. The band managed to create profundity out of effortlessness: nothing was overly virtuosic, nothing was completely inaccessible, but everything was worth listening to.

Canada Day played a two-part piece entitled "The Ombudsman," which, according to Eisenstadt, is a trusted intermediary between two opposing factions. While the group obviously wasn't musically litigating against each other (quite the contrary, Eisenstadt and Opsvik had an airtight lock between them), the compositions set up defined dialogues amongst the group, sometimes split between trumpet/sax and bass/vibes/drums moving in interlocking rhythms. The first part moved along with a quiet confidence, Dingman's laconic and carefully crafted accompaniment playing no more than he needed to and Opsvik's rich, swaggering bass line lending its support. Opsvik started off the second part with a self-dialogue, rhythmically alternating between high and low notes. The horns, which had previously been used to add support, came out in front with an inviting melody. Eisenstadt's pieces had a folk-like quality to it, encouraging the band to solo and extrapolate from a limited use of chords.

Canada Day's horns were a great dichotomy. Nate Wooley's solos were brash without losing control, often moving into furious screeching and fluttering. Even within the context of being melodic, Wooley soloed with a restless time-feel and an ambitious harmonic sense. Bauder was a great counterweight for the group. His solos always pursued thematic melodies at the expense of fast runs (which he indulged in also), complete with a beautiful, vocal tenor tone that complimented his solo concept.



Paradoxical Frog

The trio between saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, pianist Kris Davis and drummer Tyshawn Sorey was one of those very rare bands that can make you re-evaluate what music is and where it can go. Paradoxical Frog was both tamed and feral, both thoroughly composed and improvised, both microscopic and larger than life. The trio started off with one note, shared between Davis, Laubrock and Sorey on melodica, moving slowly and deliberately stirring up occasional intrigue with secondary notes. The trio moved into melodic territory in sympathetic vibration, Laubrock's vocal sputters and little cells of melodies reacting with Davis's low register and Sorey's reverberating cymbal tones. The beginning part of the set was a commentary on space and sound; everything from the upper register of Davis's piano, the whispers of Laubrock's tenor and the startling melodic nature of Sorey's cymbal creaks echoed and swirled in tandem. When it finally made it's way to more aggressive territory, it was a whole different story. Laubrock's warlike screeches soared above Davis's thunderous plunks while Sorey exploded with lightning fast toms and rim-tapping paradiddles in an obscured meter.

The band's frighteningly original sound concept was nearly impossible to pin down, but most likely came from the diverse approaches the band holds and given the democratic nature of the trio, all the combined influences are shared by each trio member. The group's sense of classical invention most likely came through the classically trained Davis. She encompassed each new section with the parental support of her low notes and left-right hand volleys, however Laubrock also played many laconic and searching melodies. Laubrock most likely engendered the presence of free and aggressive avant-garde jazz, but all members of the trio indulged Davis's kinetic, spidery lines and Sorey's rumbles, contributing to the forward charge. Sorey, in all probability, contributed more than a few attributes to the trio, such as a meditative story-like minimalism, indeterminacy and rhythmic ambiguity. Sorey's enthusiasm for the works of thinkers like John Cage seemed to bring about the band's quiet, natural atmosphere, tossing cymbals and sticks and letting them fall where they may. His rhythmic concept was his way of creating melodies on a secondary plane of existence, each implied meter or rhythmic mode a melody in and of itself.

However, no amount of analysis can perfectly summate the mystery and wonder the trio was able to accomplish. When Laubrock used her mouthpiece to gurgle into a cup of water, it seemed amusing at first, until the compositional atmosphere took hold with Sorey accompanying the sounds using wood flute and blowing through a cymbal hole, captivating the audience with sonic capability. There's no amount of listening that could have determined just how the band inserted grooving, complex modern jazz within the context of quiet pensiveness. There's no way of truly knowing how Davis sews together the trio's compositions with a patient composure or how Laubrock mediates melodicism and wolf-like aggression or how Sorey restlessly invents new colors. In the end, the band's name is appropriate, a quandary that endlessly fascinates.



Tarbaby

Free jazz is an unmistakable part of what is happening with jazz right now and when looked at retroactively, is not too much younger than bebop itself. The collective between pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis, drummer Nasheet Waits and World Saxophone Quartet founder Oliver Lake was a group that emphasized the spirit and sound of freedom, mashing up and extrapolating from all realms of creative music in the last fifty or so years.

Much of the music was fronted and commandeered by Lake's impassioned alto sound. He soared with Ornette-like melodies, steeped in blues and jazz tradition, but took the opportunity at every step to switch into hard-edged, avant-garde mode. The band's dynamic was ever-shifting and frenetic, a kind of abandon that was not reckless, but rather mostly without reck. Tarbaby was clearly having fun in their seriousness; one composition was punctuated by a collective shout from whichever band members weren't soloing. Revis was of a fiery disposition, hammering all parts of his bass to an almost shocking degree, but given his ample technique and experience, never came off as animalistic. Waits carried and navigated much of the band's free-form shifts and it was a worthwhile ride each time. When the drummer got into something, whether it was a heavy swing or a breakbeat, he went full tilt with no hesitation. Evans' approach to this kind of freedom was the most intriguing. His lush chords and gospel inflection stayed with him most of the time, injecting the music with an unusual brightness and determination amidst the storm.

Tarbaby's concept of freedom and optimism amidst chaos was singular, but they weren't limited in their genre capabilities. They traversed knotty angular blues heads, soulful hard-bop sensibilities and intricate tone poems. What made Tarbaby unique was their approach. At their quietest, they were very serious but never reaching the level of somber. When they were loud, they were the loudest they can be, riling up Thursday's audience into no-holds-barred head banging.



Andrew D'Angelo Big Band

Andrew D'Angelo is one of the current jazz scene's romantic warriors, an iconoclastic and unabashedly emotional alto player. His sound concept, both in tone quality, soloing and writing, is so raw and unfettered that to try to expand that concept into a big band seems like a dangerous endeavor. This was, indeed, the case at Sullivan Hall and the dangerous element made it worth it; D'Angelo's multiplied himself by about twelve times and the result was a spectacle to behold.

The ensemble had some surprisingly sophisticated big band writing. The arrangement of "Meg Nem Sa" exhibited a strong knowledge of writing for horn sections, something typically reserved for more traditional big bands. Much of the sax writing emphasized its brightness and on "Free Wily" the brass was given angular, asymmetrical lines that paid off. There were several occasions in which writing every horn in unison was the perfect choice for that particular composition. The part-writing, however, was the extent of the band's traditionalism. Some of the band's music could be considered "progressive metal big band music," made possible by Dan Weiss's drumming, Reid Anderson's electric bass and the heavily distorted guitar of Ben Monder. Some of the music was hard rocking with a little less ferocity. One tune had a "spy groove" attached to it, in which Monder's guitar washed the band in a 60's fuzz. Occasionally the music utilized the large number of musicians in unusual ways, matching up horns from different sections to create a mass conversation.

Like any great big band, some of the best and most intriguing musicians on the New York scene were given opportunities to solo. Kirk Knuffke kicked off the set with a crystal clear tone and articulate, relaxed melody. The other two trumpeters got their chances as well, Jacob Wick's solo bursting with elaborate upward-moving lines and John Carlson soloing with woolly sheets of notes that never cracked. Jacob Garchik was tasked with matching heavy metal intensity and did so with a conceptual utility belt of pentatonics, bebop runs and horn blasts. Trombonist Brian Drye soloed with a swinging but appropriately avant-garde solo and Ryan Snow channeled a bit of Fred Wesley with a heavy dose of downtown style on D'Angelo's "Big Butt," an unabashedly funky JB's-on-acid jam. Alto player Jeremy Udden soloed with a strong linear sense, while tenor player Bill McHenry soloed with sweeping melodies. Baritone saxophonist and bass clarinetist Josh Sinton soloed with a sort of reckless abandon that compelled him to jump off the stage and onto the bar in Sullivan Hall. In a more poignant moment, violist Nicole Federici was featured on a somber but resilient "Felicia D'Angelo," a healing song dedicated to a friend with cancer, proving again that even the most iconoclastic musicians can show their heart and support.



Dave King's Trucking Company

The Bad Plus is known for the breadth of their musical knowledge and one large portion of that is rock and pop music. Drummer Dave King's group was his working view of rock 'n' roll music as it relates to jazz. Talented, diverse and like-minded musicians, including saxophonists Brandon Wozniak and Chris Speed, bassist Adam Linz and guitarist (and bassist in Happy Apple) Erik Fratzke, joined him. King identified the band has having a specifically Minnesotan quality, a testament to the down home nature of the ensemble.

Most of the songs approached rock music in one way or the other. Some emphasized a four-on-the-floor style garage rock in which King channeled bits and pieces of The Who's Keith Moon. Some were of a hip indie rock cast, the composition "You Can't Say Poem in Concrete" pulsating with bright electric guitar and non-functional bass lines that moved into dance-rock territory. "Church Clothes With a Wallet Chain," like the title suggests, had an old school R&B groove with a hymn-like melody underscored by Linz's gentle guitar accompaniment, and a soulful solo. One composition sounded distinctly Rush-influenced, marked by a deep synth-bass sound under a spacey melody and occasional meter shifts. In whatever he was approaching, King played each rock tune sincerely and with the same type of precision and sincerity that jazz musicians spend on standards.

Not everything was rock oriented, though. "Dolly Jo and Ben Jay" had an almost Thelonious Monk-like melody, with Speed and Wozniak spilling out bop lines and swirling post-bop ideas. However, Fratzke's solo was a twisted, unexpected take on bebop based music. Thus, even when approaching more traditional jazz, his cadre of musicians put their own spin on it. It's interesting to think of where the Bad Plus has spread their influence over the last few years. Keeping in mind that while pianist and Bad Plus' Ethan Iverson was playing with Ben Riley and Buster Williams at Smalls Jazz Club just the previous day, Dave King followed up in New York with a potent and lyrical integration of rock music in modern jazz.


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