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Undead Jazz Festival: Day 4, June 26, 2011

Daniel Lehner By

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Undead Jazz Festival
New York, New York
June 23-26, 2011
The last night of the Undead Jazz Festival, which had paraded its way from the chic, well-lit streets of the West Village down into the depths of restored Brooklyn habitations, gave its final hurrah with the most ambitious night yet: three venues, four stages, 17 acts and the most diverse cast of players yet. The bigger names were bigger, the smaller names were smaller and the sub-genres were even more obscured. Progressive string ensembles were stone's throws away from aggressive free jazz duos. Tuba-led reggae bands rubbed elbows with Jewish garage rock. If the Sunday night audience was weary after three days of sonic adventure, Search and Restore frankly didn't give a damn.

Bizingas

Small groups fronted by two horns have a lot to consider, including timbre, range, blend and facility. Although trumpet and trombone are far from unusual fare separately, together within the context of Bizingas' unique, brash and eclectic writing, the two-brass sound conjured up strains of Balkan music and New Orleans street bands with a touch of second-wave ska. Over the bass-less rhythm section of guitarist Jonathan Goldberger and drummer Ches Smith, Bizingas molded and kneaded its powerful brass sounds with the raw aesthetics of art rock to create a new sound entirely.

The quartet's performance flowed effortlessly, even when its choice of sonic palette and group duties were less than obvious. Different members shifted from support mode to melody mode at different times; the bass lines were sometimes provided by Goldberger's low-slung power chords, but occasionally by Drye's tuba-style oom-pah. Occasionally, the rhythm was given to the trombone and drums while the trumpet and guitar etched out a melody, and sometimes there was no defined time at all, as Goldberger's warbling guitar tones provided a watery surface over which the horns could skate. Smith got his opportunities to stretch out beyond his job as pulse maker, creating frenetic drum trickles and auxiliary noises on the vibraslap.

Drye and Knuffke excelled in creating a fire by using the friction of their individual styles. Knuffke's sound was fluid and flowed with a serpentine logic; Drye's sound was more pointillist and eclectic, using a bag of effects ranging from arrow-tipped ultra-staccato notes to fuzzy plunger tones. With the trombone playing slightly higher than usual and the trumpet playing slightly lower, Knuffke and Drye were able to find places where they fit together, whether it was ricocheting counterpoint or warm but unexpectedly angular horn lines. Bizingas embodied a lot of what's going on in modern jazz: a deconstructed quartet of talented musicians brought together by innovation and merry prankster energy.


The Claudia Quintet

The numeral nomenclature tacked onto the end of John Hollenbeck's project has a layered meaning. The name Claudia Quintet emulates both small group jazz ensembles (such as the Miles Davis Quintet) and contemporary classical ensembles (like the Kronos Quartet). Hollenbeck's ensemble is the flagship group in the "new music meets modern jazz" idiom, synthesizing intricate and spectral lines of musical dialogue with both harmonic and free improvisation. Saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, accordionist Ted Reichman, bassist Drew Gress and vibraphonist Matt Moran all came together to leave an indelible mark at Public Assembly in Brooklyn.

The first thing those new to The Claudia Quintet would have realized, from its festival performance, is that its instrumentation was not chosen simply because it sounds cool. The combination of accordion/bass/vibes/clarinet/drums created a sound that was at once earthly and other times otherworldly. This was especially true of Speed and Reichman's interplay; the accordion's free reed aerophone mixed with the clarinet's plaintive timbre, creating a glittery array of sound. On "Be Happy," Moran, Speed and Reichman creating a singular, starry note field for Gress to churn out a stuttering, sinister bass solo, losing themselves individually in the process. Hollenbeck acted the part of a musician's drummer, not only creating irregular pulses and head-nodding beats, but also creating swampy, jagged effects on toys and occasionally even singing, to add to the color palette.

Hollenbeck's writing managed to be both sophisticated and intense. The quintet set up columns of sound seemingly too big and complex for a group that size to navigate. The Claudia Quintet varied each member's participation, with certain musicians dropping out to create duos, trios and quartets. Moran played a fleet solo over Reichman's slightly demented church organ tone, while Speed played a harmonically twisted solo that darted in and out of Moran and Reichman's pulsating accompaniment. The current jazz scene needs The Claudia Quintet; whereas a lot of groups are emphasizing jazz's fun and dangerous aspects, The Claudia Quintet represents the beauty and beautiful complexity that this music offers.


Congs for Brums

The unusual name of Ches Smith's solo project comes from an accidental misspelling of "Songs for Drums" and it's a very fitting description. Though Smith's performance seemed to consist of long, multi-sectioned mash-ups between drums and synthesizers, each idea was an earworm, something that got into the system and stayed awhile. The second solo drum performance of the festival could not have differentiated itself any more from Matt Wilson set the previous night. Wilson's show was crafted like an evening out, something that would come with program notes. Smith's show was more underground and sporadic, like a yearlong series of bootleg tapes being sewn together.

Smith spent most of his night playing double-duty, either setting up heavy dance-punk synth beats or stirring up wild drum set patterns. The melodies he would concoct were mostly atonal and angular, like Alban Berg had been given a synthesizer and drum machine. He occasionally used metal tubes and other pitched and semi-pitched instruments to bridge the gap between the set and the synth. As much as he was intent on creating massive amounts of material, Smith was sensitive to space, letting his walls of sound reverberate and simmer.

Smith proved a unique drummer in his technical facility, even in the way he hit his drums, giving his snares and toms a certain whip-like crack that put a little more weight onto everything. The drumming accompanying the synth lines was deliberately out of lockstep; Smith soloed with a restless energy that often times utilized a free approach to meter. He preferred to create a new setup for nearly every composition, altering his drum set with an assortment of mallets and metal percussion. Congs for Brums had a lot in common with mad audio scientists and lo-fi basement dwellers, and if this festival reached any of these sound chefs outside the jazz world, Smith's concept would have been much appreciated.


Josh Roseman's Joshua Three

One of trombonist Josh Roseman's many musical incarnations is that of the late-night soul proprietor, the kind of musician that caters to the wee-hours-of-the-morning type crate diggers who hunger for rare grooves and deep production aspects. If a box of records intended for a late night groove series broadcast became self aware and formed a quintet, it would sound like Joshua Three. Roseman's band took the organ trio concept (with organist Peter Apfelbaum and drummer Joe Russo) and expanded it, adding keyboardist Erik Deutsch and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, this time on guitar.

Joshua Three was not a groove-based band content with setting up some funk or soul riff and jamming for 10 minutes. Roseman took the typical dub reggae and organ soul sounds and twisted them to his liking. Some of the concoctions contained a dash of alt-rock guitar patterns from Hasselbring, a little something left over from Roseman's years in Boston during the '90s. The twin keyboard setup allowed for a lot of possibilities, with Deutsch warping keyboard sounds in tandem to Apfelbaum's roots reggae organ tones. Russo's pocket was deep, but it did not hinder him from getting in on some of the group's manic energy. The whole band operated well together, linking up not only in time and harmony, but also in texture, deftly preparing smoky soul pulses and quietly triumphant gospel chord motion.

Roseman's trombone playing was as eclectic and off-the-cuff as his ensemble. In the lingua franca of reggae music, he was well-versed in the modalities of Jamaican trombone heroes like Don Drummond and Rico Rodriguez, but beyond the echoes of Trojan Records past, his penchant for the avant-garde and experience with musicians like Lester Bowie and Dave Douglas shone through. His lines and melodies during improvisations were based on familiar, soulful material but organized in such a way that they could only be played by him. If it was a long, linear stretch, it started and stopped in unexpected places, moving in a slippery and ungraspable fashion. If it was more soulful and vocalistic, it was sometimes in a different key entirely. Joshua Three was one of what seems like half-a-dozen of Roseman's working ensembles, but was a good indicator of his overall intention: get your ass off the floor while still screwing with your brain.


Closing Thoughts

Search and Restore is asking the questions that nobody else is asking. Instead of eyeing bigger and more prestigious things, the Undead Jazz Festival is asking, "How do we get more intimate?" and "How do we introduce more artists?" With the hope that its unorthodox way of operating has sustainable monetary planning, the Undead Jazz Festival seems to be growing inwards instead of outwards, tunneling underground into the roots and foraging for the unearthed gems of the jazz and improvised music world, instead of reaching for the highest, shiniest fruit on the tree. In its second year, the festival has already made a major borough switch, expanded by about 20 artists, and seems more committed than ever to breaking boundaries. While there are some kinks to be worked out (too much noise bleeding from the two Public Assembly stages, and a hopefully resolved issue with artist compensation, to list two), the Undead Jazz festival has made its mark with a subterranean approach. For those hoping that things will look up for jazz and improvised music, Search and Restore calmly states, "Look down."


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