Wayne Shorter, Roscoe Mitchell & Oliver Lake


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The Wayne Shorter Quartet
The Town Hall
February 9, 2011

When observing Wayne Shorter on the stage, he's immediately remarkable for possessing an eccentric body language. In his childlike way (particularly the exploratory, enquiring nature of the as-yet-unformed), Shorter reveals his inner self, always responding to his surroundings in an intuitive fashion. So, it was clear that, at the outset of this performance, he wasn't settled, comfortable or happy with his tools. He had a problem with his soprano saxophone mouthpiece and reed, so curtly downed the horn, switching back to his tenor. This dissatisfaction ended, forming part of Shorter's musical strategy, influencing the course of the improvisation.

Usually, within this quartet setting, Shorter might stick with a single horn (most often his tenor) for the best part of an hour, before turning to an alternative. But, for the opening stretch of this gig, he was regularly swapping between the two, playing a few phrases before alternating. Eventually, he seemed happy with the soprano, but the rapid changeovers remained in place. Later on, Brian Blade had a problem with his snare drum, which once again influenced the music, as his three colleagues were forced into a trio run. This is so unlike the world of rock and pop: such a high profile gig, and the musicians were fiddling around with their malfunctioning instruments. Where were the roadies?!

It's always magnetizing to observe Shorter's internal workings, revealed so plainly in his demeanor. He was openly hesitant, as he anticipated a suitable entry point, to join the patterns being constructed by Blade, pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci. This lineup has been together for just over a decade, and their immeasurable rapport has become famed within this music as the ultimate example of stable improvising instability. In other words, they dedicate themselves to surprising each other, night after night. The game plan is often similar, yet the details change. The format is to play what sounds like a seamless improvisational piece, for at least an hour, without pause. Even if different compositions appear, segueing into each other, it all still sounds like a single impro-suite. On this night, Shorter stood slightly apart, responding to the rhythmic unity of the other three players. He was embellishing, stitching and weaving around their constructions with the freedom of the loner. This outsider approach led to Shorter making sharp bursts of sound, rippling statements that would suddenly cease for a spell of contemplation.

Once Shorter settled down in his surroundings, it became easier for the audience to immerse itself. There seems to be something about this venue which courts inattention from its punters. The rows seemed too full of cameramen, loud talkers and folks fiddling with their illuminated devices. Because the band adopts a certain casual relaxedness, this might be taken the wrong way by the audience: as a sign that fidgeting is allowed. The quartet's music demands great concentration, their explorations loaded with atmosphere, space and tentative pauses. Because this is a society function, much like a night at the opera, folks felt the need to make themselves heard more than is usually needed, as if to make their personal communication with Shorter. Normally, I advocate verbal audience interjections, up to a reasonable point, to take jazz back to its raunchy whorehouse past. But this wasn't really the kind of music for that: this was music that demanded complete silence, for once.

For an artist who is now one of the greatest living creators of jazz, Shorter takes an astounding series of chances. He's never complacent. He's always searching for new ways to state his thoughts. Because of this experimental approach, the quartet opened itself up to occasional failure. The last time that I witnessed them, before this gig, was at the 2010 Jazz Middelheim festival in Belgium—the best set I've experienced from this lineup. The first time that I saw them play was near the beginning of their journey, in Birmingham, England. On that occasion, they were strangely meandering.

On this night, there were a few interludes of drifting, but then the players would sink their hooks into a new line of thought. The band appears to have become more aggressive in recent years, eager to shape hard riffs and winkle out repetitive cycles, latching onto an insistent melody. One moment was completely surprising, as Blade suddenly flipped, hammering out a monster hip-hop beat, sticks raised skywards with rampant purposefulness. Shorter responded straight away, delivering some of his funkiest playing in a long while, his soprano sounding like it was springing right out of a Weather Report session. This is just one example of how this combo can operate within such extremes of contemplation and pugilism. The main set lasted around 75 minutes, and then the foursome returned for an encore that was nearly 30 minutes long, sometimes coming to a near halt before finding a fresh momentum. This wasn't the quartet on absolute prime form, but it was still a fairly engaging public therapy session from a band that's not afraid to analyze its constituent parts in public.

Roscoe Mitchell
February 17, 2010

In a much smaller, more alternative venue, an equally august reed man celebrated his 70th birthday with a two-part performance. Even so, Roscoe Mitchell's formal attire brought the air of Carnegie Hall down to Canal Street. The first part of the evening featured a duo with this Chicagoan and the West Coast electronicist David Wessel, both of them sporting debonair suits 'n' ties. Even though this party was somewhat tardy (Mitchell's actual birth date was just over five months before the concert) there was still a palpable sense of occasion in a house filled with more than its usual quota of innovative musicians as audience members. Of course, the players on the actual stage were also securely positioned at the vanguard of jazz and experimental music.

Mitchell rarely performs in NYC. The last time, at The Kitchen, he was in a more cerebral, new music frame, so this was a rare chance to hear him in a more outwardly jazzy setting. Not that his quartet was set to make music that was anything like Mitchell's music with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. Or even similar to much of his usual solo work.

This evening seemed like the presager of spring, the climate suddenly much milder outside, after weeks of piled-high snow and harsh winds. Also, Roulette's air conditioning was turned off, due to the expected quiet stretches in the music. This space, packed densely with sweaty bodies, began to take on a sauna ambiance. Mitchell began with the faintest exhalations, blowing through his soprano saxophone with barely a note registering. Just the wind. Then, he was making tentative fingerings, issuing frail flutterings, stray phrases and trailing suggestions. Was that the return of the air conditioning? No. When Wessel started caressing his soundboard, he was dispersing his electro-acoustic matter around Roulette's multi-speaker system. His low rumbles were almost subliminal at first, confined to a single speaker. Then, as he gathered his forces, it became more apparent that this was Wessel, and not the distant movements of the building or the street outside.

Wessel plays Slabs, which is a somewhat home-made-looking pad, linked to the Max/MSP digital program. We're used to seeing most folks employing similar gear that's angled more towards percussion usage. Wessel's equipment might appear minimalist and primitive, but it's extra-sensitive, allowing heightened triggering sensitivity.

Mitchell continued his skeletal spiral-shaping, calculatedly thin against the deep resonance of the electronics. Wessel's material mostly sounded as though is was grown out of instruments that we already knew, but re-shaped and pulled into unfamiliar coverings. There were drum skin descendants, Thai or Laotian reed sounds and maybe even the real-time capturing of Mitchell himself, fingerings magnified monstrously. Paradoxically, Wessel's ostensible role as a foundation-building low-tone specialist came to be the dominant, most impressive element of this first set, with Mitchell almost acting as a decorative accompanist. It was the second set where the saxophonist really rose to prominence, leading a jazz quartet into the maelstrom of improvised catharsis.

The evening's musical contrasts were inspired. Mitchell's quartet was more old-school in orientation, with pianist Dave Burrell, bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Tani Tabbal. Ultimately, they ended up giving a demonstration of classic free jazz. This is still avant-garde in nature, despite revolving around a sonic vocabulary that's now been creating its powerful vortex for around 50 years. The band offered something fresh for NYC denizens. Burrell and Tabbal aren't often sighted here, although Grimes is ubiquitous on the scene. Even so, his bass and violin contributions formed a pivotal point, beautifully amplified, with a rich, fulsome sound. Grimes was heard at his best on this particular night. Indeed, Mitchell was granted a formidable surround for his own stirring solos, as Burrell and Tabbal were both primed for a coiled release of pent-up energies. The pianist was gushing involved runs of percussive aggressiveness, while the drummer was blending subtle cymbal shimmers with frequent hard tattoos, brutal yet sensitively delivered. Mitchell himself was resting between solos, then erupting in a ceaseless flow of invention.

Mitchell never edged into blurting, always choosing to maintain a warm, organic tone. The quartet took five or ten minutes to begin their journey in earnest, but following this initial exploratory drift, they entered into a long sequence of almost traditionally-alternating solos, as if they were playing within bebop rules, with free jazz sounds. The glowing audience reaction at the end was a response to the music, but it was also acknowledging the entire career and achievements of Mitchell, in his 70th year on the planet. Yes, it was Carnegie Hall applause, transposed to Manhattan's first home of experimental music, deep in the old loft scene's former heart.

The Oliver Lake Organ Quartet
February 19, 2011

Of course, Roulette won't be in Manhattan for much longer. Unless plans go horribly awry, this will be the venue's last season before relocating to its new 1928-vintage Art Deco Concert Hall in Brooklyn. Just like the Issue Project Room, Roulette is making a bold move into larger, older, quainter premises.

Roulette has a unique character. It sometimes seems slightly skewed when a band that is fundamentally jazzy performs here. Alto saxophonist Oliver Lake managed to transform the clean, white, loft-like room into a hot jazz cellar, particularly as his Organ Quartet utilized strong elements of 1960s groove music in its very lineup and approach—not without frequent incursions towards roiling freedom, though, particularly when the soloing veers off into extreme areas. This was a potent combination: free improvisation fury with a rolling groove undertow. Lake's regular organ sideman, Jared Gold, is a familiar presence, but drummer McClenty Hunter and trumpeter Freddie Hendrix aren't sighted so often. We shall now be up on the watchtower for them.

Gold's foot-pedals look like they're homemade, exposed in their workings and added to a portable organ-synth model. Sonically, he certainly doesn't suffer for not humping around a genuine Hammond B3. Despite having one of his instrument's felt pads fly off into the ether, Lake managed to maintain his fluid, graceful momentum. Whilst he disappeared for a speedy repair session, the other three players capitalized on an opportunity to show off their own prowess. Even besides this, there were frequent spitting, incendiary solos from Hendrix, who was shooting molten sizzles with great rapidity and directional accuracy. I'm not sure whether Lake was deliberately using The Room of Rest's door as the biggest mute in the history of jazz, but he was playing along beside Hunter's drum solo, audible during his stick-thunder pauses. It's a concept that could be developed further, with band members being periodically banished to adjoining rooms. John Cage would have chuckled.

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