Improvising a Film Noir
Karl Berger’s Improvisers Orchestra’s performance Thursday night at El Taller Latinoamericano was a Halloween show of sorts, a feast of lush, slowly crescendoing, apprehensive sonics punctuated by bracing cameos from some of New York’s most engaging improvisers. Since 1972, when Berger fouunded the Creative Music Foundation upstate, pretty much everyone who’s anyone in jazz improvisation has had some assocation with him. This tantalizingly brief performance, by their standards anyway (clocking in at just under an hour) was typical in terms of consistent magic and intuitive interplay. LIke the Sam Rivers Trio reunion album recently reviewed here, it was amazing how cohesive and seemingly through-composed the performance seemed despite the group having only batted around some ideas for maybe an hour beforehand. It was a film noir for the ears.
In their own unselfconscious way, this ensemble is one of the world’s most exciting in any style of music, when they’re on – which they almost invariably are. Lately, the Stone has been their New York home, so it was good to see them in somewhat less confining surroundings (with 20 members, that doesn’t leave much room for a crowd at the Avenue C space). If you’ve ever wondered where improvisational conductors like Greg Tate and Butch Morris got their inspiration, look no further than Berger, who had plenty of fun methodically pulling solos, and motifs, and an endless series of crescendos out of the orchestra. As it peaked, this show could have been the Gil Evans Orchestra jamming out something from the legendary 1962 Individualism album. or a late 50s John Barry score in a particularly harrowing moment.
The theme of this show was tense, close harmonies, deftly balanced between highs and lows, reeds and strings. Berger smartly employed Hollis Headrick’s bongos, echoing ominously throughout the room, to amp up the suspense factor. Intense drummer/percussionist John Pietaro utilized the vibraphone set up at the back of his kick drum for extra melodic bite, while drummer Lou Grassi took command of swing interludes and blustery cymbal ambience. Bassist Lisa Dowling played the entirety of the show with a bow, an apt decision since it kept her minimalist menace audible even as the music rose to epic heights. Tenor saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and vocalist/poet Ingrid Sertso took charge of continuity between segments; strange as it may seem to rely on spontaneous spoken word to maintain a groove, Sertso pulled it off with a surreal nonchalance. “Murder is murder is murder,” she intoned softly at one point.
A flurry of teeth-gnashing, tremolo-picked mandolin, a gracefully sepulchral downward swoop from Sama Nagano’s violin, a richly plaintive soprano sax interlude from Catherine Sikora, frenetically aghast slashes from the baritone saxophone, haunting Ken Ya Kawaguchi shakuhachi and alternately tuneful and droll trumpet from Thomas Heberer all followed in turn over the wary ambience behind them. Berger finally wound up the set by introducing a relatively obscure Ellington theme with his melodica, which the ensemble was quick to pick up, yet held back from completely embracing, lending it the same rich unease that had permeated the first forty-five minutes of the show. As large-scale improvisation goes, it’s hard to think of anything as gripping and altogether fascinating to watch as this was. Berger and the rest of the crew will be at Shapeshifter Lab in Gowanus sometimes in November; watch this space. And the Creative Music Foundation has an archive of performances dating from the 70s, featuring artists like Rivers and Morris, which they plan to share with the public at some future date.