“Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses, and we’ll club their heads in,” Laurie Anderson mused last night toward the end of a rapturous series of trio improvisations with bassist Christian McBride and cellist Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall. She was being sarcastic, of course, As a point of context, she’d brought up Naomi Klein’s book Shock Doctrine, where at the end the author contemplates what might happen if rightwing American bellicosity abroad was launched here. Anderson suggested that the incessant tweets and fake news emanating from that lunatic fringe in the Oval Office could be a harbinger.
Like so many New Yorkers, Anderson was profoundly affected by 9/11, and accurately connected the sense of horror and being blindsided then to the state of the city today. That unease pervaded much of the trio’s hour onstage, balanced by a defiant, surprisingly kinetic joie de vivre. She was obviously the bandleader, and her collaborators were practically jumping out of their shoes to revel in a surreal, richly textural, frequently eerie ambience that gave them a series of launching pads for daunting if terse and purposeful displays of extended technique.
Ominous chromatic piano riff and grey-sky organ from Anderson anchored the centerpiece of her political commentary, strongly evoking a Bat For Lashes hit from the late zeros. The trio’s backdrop for a voiceover of a Lou Reed poem was just as troubling and troubled, rising from starry, elegaic ambience to fluttery horror and then phantasmagorically pulsing, microtonal upward drifts.
Balancing that relentless angst was the coy tale of Anderson’s successful run for middle school student council. As she told it, she’d written to Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, seeking advice, received a detailed letter in response, took his counsel to heart (kiss up to everyone, he said, more or less), and then won. And then sent him a triumphant thank-you note. Kennedy responded with a dozen roses. When the story made the local paper in Anderson’s Illinois hometown, “Kennedy had won the heart of every woman,” of voting age and otherwise, she told the crowd. They wound up the evening when Anderson hit her pitch pedal, took her vocals down a couple of octaves for a wry deep-space atmosphere: “We like stars because we can’t crush them,” her man-in-the-moon character informed the crowd.
The rest of the set was all instrumental. At one point, McBride responded to a sprightly volley of pizzicato from Anderson with a bittersweet twelve-note rock riff that would have been the envy of any artsy British band from the 70s. It was the night’s single most gorgeous moment. And he never reprised it. Otherwise, he spent most of the evening playing with a bow, parsing minutely inflected high harmonics and even some wryly creeping low-register glissandos when he wasn’t delivering steady, often circular minimalist riffage below the mist.
Anderson, bolstered by light effects via a couple of laptops, introduced monentary, flickering themes with plucky pizzicato phrases, keeningly ethereal microtonal cloudbanks and a couple of menacingly galloping interludes. Caught in the eye of the ice storm, Kodheli had the hardest job of anyone onstage and deftly found a middle ground. Often that meant taking the others’ roles, whether delivering stark staccato harmonic slashes way up the fingerboard, or providing sinewy basslines when McBride pounced and bubbled far beyond his axe’s customary range. The audience roared their approval with a series of standing ovations: clearly, we’ve reached the point where improvised music has the potential to draw a large audience if perhaps not a mass one. The time has come when places like Jazz at Lincoln Center should be booking creative musicians like Steve Swell and Wadada Leo Smith – and lowering ticket prices to where the average New Yorker can afford to see them.
Long before the Squirrel Nut Zippers were a gleam in anybody’s eye, or there was such a band as the Flying Neutrinos – remember them? – Paris Combo were swinging the hell out of a sound that was part 20s, part 30s and part 80s, at least when they started. Since then, they’ve maintained a devoted fan base on their side of the pond, but they make it over here too infrequently. Their French lyrics are sardonic, playful and funny; likewise, their music has a lot more edge and bite than your typical goodtimey swing band, which makes sense considering that they got their start when punk rock was still current. These irrepressible, ever-more-eclectic Parisians are making a rare New York stop at City Winery on Feb 21 at 8 PM; $22 admission is available, meaning that you can stand somewhere within shouting distance of the bar and not feel stressed about buying expensive drinks.
Paris Combo’s latest album Tako Tsubo – a Japanese term for the very real cardiological effects of heartbreak – is streaming at youtube. The opening number, Bonne Nouvelle (Good News) is a real stunner, part tarantella rock, part Romany swing. Frontwoman/accordionist Belle du Berry understates the narrative’s ominous undercurrent: it’s about playing with fire, more or less.
Pianist David Lewis opens Je Suis Partie (I’m Out of Here) with an uneasy minor-key glimmer, du Berry channeling moody angst as the band leaps into a bouncy groove from bassist Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac and drummer François Jeannin. Then Lewis supplies balmy trumpet over guitarist Potzi’s breezy, cosmopolitan swing shuffle in the album’s title track, with a droll, tongue-in-cheek hip-hop interlude.
Anemiques Maracas is one of the album’s funniest numbers, part Morricone soundtrack spoof, part yuppie satire. Profil does double duty as balmy, vampy retro 60s ye-ye pop and snide commentary on internet dating. Notre Vie Comme un Western (Our Life As a Western) opens as a surprisingly uneasy waltz and then takes on a cynical bolero-tinged atmosphere, Europeans equally mesmerized and mystified by American cultural imperialism.
Part Django swing, part tongue-in-cheek spy theme, D’Heidi has a wide-eyed sarcasm that recalls the group’s Dutch 80s/90s contemporaries Gruppo Sportivo. The slashing wordplay of Specimen comes across as a French counterpart to New York murder ballad duo Charming Disaster. Just title of Mon Anatomie Cherche un Ami – part Doors, part Chicha Libre – takes that cleverness to to the next level,
Vaille Que Vaille (Somehow) follows a pretty savage faux-Spanish waltz sway: it’s an oldschool existentialist cautionary tale. The faux-reggae Cuir Interieur (Leather Seats) is just plain hilarious: if the Tubes had been good French speakere, they might have sounded something like this. The album winds up with Orageuse (Stormy), which is funny because it’s hardly that – it’s a balmy before-the-rain scenario, at best. Every time you listen to this, you discover something new and amusing, which might well be poking fun at you too. Count this as one of the best albums to come over the transom here in the past several months.
The Avalon Jazz Band’s new album Je Suis Swing – streaming at their music page – was made for swing dancing, first and foremost. It’s irresistibly charming, and cheery, and fun. The Franco-New York group mine a century’s worth of bouncy continental jazz sounds, from Romany guitar shuffles, to Belgian musette and classic chanson. The group’s musicianship is first-rate and fast; even if they didn’t have the winsome presence of singer Tatiana Eve-Marie out in front of the band, they’d still be a lot of fun to listen to. They’re playing this Feb 15 at 8 PM at Guadalupe Inn at the corner of Knickerbocker and Johnson Aves. in Bushwick; cover is $8. Take the L to Morgan Ave.
The album kicks off with the Djangoesque shuffle Menilmontant, Tatiana channeling the song’s wistfulness in a delivery that’s airy and sunny but just as crisp. Guitarist Olli Soikkeli’s spiraling, spiky Romany leads fly above the muted chords of fellow six-stringer Vinny Raniolo, augmented by violinist Adrien Chevalier and accordionist Albert Behar while bassist Brandi Disterheft supplies the groove.
Coquette gives clarinetist Evan Arntzen a chance to for some droll tradeoffs with Chevarlier; Tatiana sings in English. She switches back to French for the brisk title track and its period-perfect 1920s vernacular; after a jaunty Arntzen solo, one of the guys takes a turn on the mic for a verse in French, guessing that it’s Chevalier.
La Complainte de la Butte has a bittersweet, waltzling lilt fueled by Behar’s turbulent chords; Chevalier kicks in a dancing solo. Tatiana goes back to English for their version of the jazz standard I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, recast as Romany swing with a blithe alto sax solo followed by more fiery ones by Arntzen and Chevarlier. Stompin at Decca is a vehicle for precision and raw adrenaline alike from Soikkeli and Chevalier. Darling Je Vous Aime Beaucoup, with its droll code-switching, sounds like a more over-top take on something by Charles Trenet from the 40s. C’est Si Bon outdoes pretty much every other version in the chipperness department; the waltzing instrumental Songe D’Automne makes a somber contrast until the band hits the turnaround and then swings the hell out of it.
Tatiana makes the labyrinthine volleys of lyrics to Le Soleil et la Lune sound easy as the band shifts between blithe and moody. They Djangify Sweet Sue, with some coy call-and-response between Tatiana and the band; their version of Rosetta a little later is much the same. Ironically, the album’s best song is the matter-of-fact, melancholy, pastorally-tinged Seule Ce Soir (Alone Tonight).
Their version of J’ai Ta Main (Holding Your Hand) is a study in dark/light contrasts.They reinvent Clair de Lune as a balmy but wary slowdance number with Arntzen’s nuanced clarinet balanced by Soikkeli’s highwire guitar work and Chevalier’s pensively soaring violin. The album winds up with Qu’est-ce Qu’on Attend (What Are We Waiting For?), a high-class party anthem. If you might be wondering how Avalon Jazz Band stuff a grand total of sixteen tracks onto the album, it’s because only a few of them top the three-minute mark. Quick, get back out there on the floor!
In terms of majestic sweep, cinematic scope and clever outside-the-box humor, it’s hard to think of a more interesting group in big band jazz than the Erica Seguine/Shannon Baker Jazz Orchestra. They’re playing Brooklyn’s home of big band jazz, Shapeshifter Lab on Feb 22 at 9 PM. Another excellent ensemble, violinist Meg Okura‘s Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble, opens the night at 8. Cover here is usually in the $10-15 range and has yet to be determined by the venue, at least according to their concert calendar.
The most recent (full disclosure: only) time this blog was in the house at one of the jazz orchestra’s shows was on a muggy night in September of 2015 at Shrine up in Harlem. Since that was a long time ago, it’s reasonable to expect their set to be somewhat different. While it’s overly reductionistic to characterize Baker’s work as marked by tectonically shifts and Seguine’s by picturesque narratives and sardonic, sometimes dark humor, those qualities factor heavily into their respective writing. Here’s what happened at that show many months ago.
An uneasily steady, insistent piano melody gave way to lustrous atmospherics with wordless womens’ voices sailing overhead. As the piece went on, it shifted further toward the macabre: Darcy James Argue seems to be a big influence on this one. A trumpet fluttered and finally flared as the enigmatic lustre grew and the rhythmic drive rose, then the piece finally went down an echoey rabbit hole into fullscale terror as the piano anvilled sardonically through the mist.
The next number on the bill began by building a stately, steady, similarly enigmatic atmosphere that went in just as much of an ominous direction as the first, an apprehensively bending tenor sax solo over grimly massed sustain from the orchestra; then they pounced along, sax going full steam, over a beat that was practically ska. They ended it quietly and suddenly with more of that insistent piano riffage.
A stormy brass-and-vocalese intro kicked off the tune after that, but then the band pulled back quickly in favor of a hypnotic, resonantly pedaled piano melody, vocalese hovering overhead. A cascading piano melody over moody modal changes kicked off the next lush series of waves, up to a mighty crescendo, a surreal drums-and-vocals interlude, a stuck car horn-like passage, a bit of a pause and then a return to calm moodiness. Looking back, this was a pretty dark set!
From there the group took a slow, relentless series of upward climbs in the next piece, punctuated by a fluttering and eventually wailing tenor sax solo, then a slowly strolling, saturnine lustre that made a long launching pad for a trombone solo that eventually fell away mournfully. The carnivalesque, latin-tinged theme that followed had to be a Seguine composition: nobody writes like her, and this was a blazing good time spiced with wry, evil cartoon trombone, a pirate’s-boot strut, twisted nickelodeon piano and more than one peek-a-boo ending. And that was just the first set.
Considering how much time has passed since this show, it’s hard to picture just who, out of a handful of familiar faces, was in the group, other than Baker on reeds and Seguine conducting out in front of the group with a confident grace. The ubiquitous Ben Kono on alto sax, probably, and Scott Reeves on valve trombone, maybe. Seguine and Baker’s compositions are so much fun to play that they always get top-tier talent for their infrequent gigs: if big band jazz is your thing, miss this one and be sorry later.
Alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon is the rare bandleader who’s been able to keep a group together not only for months but years. In this increasingly challenging climate, that’s a major achievement. More than anything, Zenon’s new album Tipica – streaming at NPR – documents a hard-working band at the pinnacle of jazz technique and composition, a bunch of thoroughly road-tested tunes played by a band with intuitive chemistry. Zenon’s tunes literally leap from the page, impactfully and often poignantly. Variations on circular piano riffs are a recurrent trope. Although Zenon draws on his Nuyorican heritage as well as sounds from across the Americas, it would be shortsighted to pigeonhole his work as latin jazz. Tuneful postbop may be a much broader category, but that description encompasses the many, many flavors of his music. With his quartet – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – he’ll be airing out those numbers at the band’s upcoming stand at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM starting on Valentine’s Day and running through the 19th of the month. Cover is $30 which includes a drink.
The album opens with Academia, drawing on Zenón’s work raising the next generation of jazz greats at New England Conservatory. A tensely circling piano riff, Zenon’s lithely dancing, exuberant lines and Cole’s subtle snowflake cymbal accents kick it off. There’s some judiciously multitracked, interwoven sax as it hits a jaunty crescendo; Perdomo’s drive from enigmatic back toward the dancing main theme is typical of how he builds momentum. The ending is way too fun, and too funny, to give away, especially since the band reprises it elsewhere here.
The ballad after that, Cantor sends a shout-out to Zenón’s buddy Guillermo Klein, expanding from Perdomo’s tight clusters to balmy and rippling, with a Zenon solo that finally bursts in to flame. With Perdomo’s subtle humor, neoromantic glimmer and blues, Ciclo makes a great segue; the passage where Glawischnig shadows the bandleader is a recurrent meme with this band in concert.
The album’s title track begins with Perdomo running an altered salsa riff, then Zenon wryly syncopates it, Perdomo bringing hints of vintage swing to his signature lyricism, Cole circling the perimeter with a solo as he pans the speakers. Sangre de Mi Sangre is next, a tenderly pulsing ballad inspired by the composer’s four-year-old daughter, with a whispering, tiptoeing Glawischnig solo.
Zenon recycles a Glawischnig solo from the 2009 tune Calle Calma as a central theme in Corteza, the sax bobbing and weaving with a richly cantabile feel: this really is a song without words. Likewise, Entre Las Raíces – “Between the Roots” – is assembled around a Perdomo solo from Street View: Biker, from the pianist’s Awareness album. A wryly scurrying group improvisation opens it; Zenon echoes both Albert Ayler and Joe Maneri in the kind of vein that the title implies. Zenon likens Cole’s intricate work on the album’s closing diptych of sorts, Las Ramas (The Branches) to a drum etude. One quibble with this track: let’s leave whistling on albums to the likes of Paul Simon, huh?
It would have been fun to see Surface to Air at Barbes last night. The trio – guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, who rarely plays acoustic, alongside bassist Jonti Siman and tabla player Rohin Khemani – also doesn’t play out much either. Their sparse, warmly tuneful, hypnotically intriguing album is available as a name-your-price download from Bandcamp.
The opening track is aptly titled Simple: built on an elegantly catchy rainy-day minor-key theme played with meticulous touch by Goldberger, it centers around a kinetic tabla rhythm. Heysatan is even more spare, Goldberger’s gentle, purposeful, catchy tune again centered around the rhythm section’s steady anchor. Siman’s similarly easygoing bass intro is a clever fake: as the briskly saturnine, Palestinian-tinged theme unwinds, it sounds like an acoustic sketch for a David Lynch soundtrack set in the most war-torn territory in Gaza. Siman’s drone anchors a suspenseful interlude that Goldberger spins and spirals out of with hints of Django Reinhardt.
The slow, somber Odalisque is sort of a bolero counterpart to a Trio Joubran-style Middle Eastern dirge. Matanzas is Goldberger’s platform for using a catchy, melancholy flamenco-inflected theme to set up a swoopy, morose bass solo. With its steady sway, Arcana follows a steadily crescendoing folk noir tangent that brightens as it goes along.
The Sleep in Your Eyes opens with a dusky, sepulchral improvisation, builds to a spare, galloping pulse and then recedes back to spacious, pensive solo guitar. The final track is the ballad Waltz for Celia, the closest thing to postbop here, spiced with the occasional levantine or south Asian riff over rather ominous low-end percussion, with a gracefully uneasy bass solo.
Is this Middle Eastern music? Sure. Indian music? Rhythmically, yes. Jazz? Why not? Download this delicious disc and decide for yourself. Thanks to Barbes for booking this fantastic band, who otherwise would have flown under the radar here. Goldberger is in constant demand in New York as a sideman and plays with a ton of groups, notably violinist Dana Lyn’s psychedelic, ecologically themed Mother Octopus outfit.
Last night at Drom Dave Fiuczynski’s Kif played one of the most exhilarating and sophisticated shows of the past several months in this city. Fiuczynski might be the best guitarist in the world: he is without the doubt the most individualistic. His musical language is completely his own. If it had words instead of notes, it would be part Hindi, part French, part Arabic and part Korean, with some Chinese and plenty of English too. His double-necked, microtonally fretted guitar enables him to play in microtonal scales without bending notes, as well as in the standard western scale. His 2012 album Planet Microjam is one of this century’s half-dozen most innovative and arguably best releases. His latest microtonal project, Flam! Blam! Pan-Asian MicroJam may not have the subtlest title, but the music continues Fiuczynski’s epic quest to find the most magical places in between the notes, drawing from just about every musical tradition around the globe.
This was a trio show. Fiuczynski opened with the Simpson’s Theme, which he proceeded to spin through a trippy prism of scales that exist only on Planet Microjam, along the way firing off energetic Indian sitar riffage, some wildly bent phrases typical of Korean gaegeum music, and even a flurry or two of rapidfire postbop American jazz. Fiuczynski’s songs are slinkier than they are funky, and his low-key rhythm section kept a serpentine groove going throughout the set with the occasional rise to a four-on-the-floor pulse when the bandleader would hit a peak with a burning series of distorted rock chords. Throughout the set, the drummer stayed pretty chill while the bass player occasionally flavored a song with woozy textures via a wah and an octave pedal, in a subdued P-Funk vein. He also contributed one of the night’s most straight-up numbers, which the bandleader took further out toward Indian raga territory and then spiced with Asian phrasing, into territory that only Fiuczynski knows well.
After opening with the twisted tv theme, they sliced and diced a Russian klezmer melody into offcenter tonalities, with the occasional unexpected leap back toward the original minor key. Opening act Jonathan Scales joined the band during one of the later numbers and played vividly ringing Asian licks against Fiuczynski’s austere, uneasy microtonal chords and otherworldly, Messiaenic ambience. Throughout these epic themes, with their innumerable dynamic shifts, the atmosphere shifted artfully from austere and starlit to raw, stomping triumph. The best song of the night might have been Mood Ring Bacchanal, with its leap from resonant, allusively bent Asian phrasing to a tongue-in-cheek, emphatic oldschool disco interlude. The night’s last song blended wah-wah sitar licks, Orientalisms and slow spacerock with echoes of roots reggae.
Fiuczynski is a legend on the jamband circuit and will no doubt be making the rounds of summer festivals this year. Watch this space for future NYC dates.
Pianist/organist/conductor Miho Hazama writes big, blustery, fearlessly energetic big band jazz themes. Her music is cosmopolitan in every sense of the word: sophisticated, individualistic and innovative. There’s no one in the world who sounds like her. She loves dynamics – despite the heft of her compositions, half the time only half of her band, or even smaller subsets of the group, are playing. She loves bright, catchy hooks, and her material is obviously a ton of fun to play: a good percentage of New York’s top big band jazz talent comprise her epic large ensemble M-Unit. They have a gig at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Jan 25, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is pricy, $30, but this group is worth it. It’s good to see such an interesting band getting a chance to play to a more or less captive audience.
It was a lot of fun to catch the group playing one of the series of midday shows at another midtown spot, at St. Peter’s Church on the east side, back in August. Coventional wisdom is that musicians don’t really wake up til the sun goes down, but the group was a the top of their game despite the relatively early hour. Their first number, Mr. O opened with momentary pageantry from the strings, then quickly gave way to a clustering piano theme beefed up by the ensemble, then down to a bustling, bouncing alto sax solo over the rhythm section. Hazama’s chart gave the group a chance to have fun throwing big, bright splashes of color against the sonic canvas, piano adding a solo that rose to breathless, towering heights. A yakuza gangster undercurrent added devious suspense.
They followed with an enigmatic piano theme over a syncopated clave beat, vibraphone carrying the melody over a lustrous backdrop with hints of both Russian Romanticism and cheery 70s Philly soul, hitting another suspensefully rippling piano-and-rhythm-section interlude before the piece rose again. Like her colleagues Darcy James Argue and John Hollenbeck, Hazama loves unorthox pairings of instruments: this one featured bass clarinet in tandem with violin.
The string quartet opened the number after that, then backed as a moody flugelhorn solo quickly turned into a clever Rodgers and Hart quote. As the strings rose toward the end, a sense of melancholy and longing developed, increasing as the music dipped to the strings and piano. That’s typical of how counterintitively Hazama works.
Maybe predictably, Hazama’s earliest composition on the bill followed the set’s most trad, swinging trajectory. The most ambitious was the title track to her lavishly brilliant 2012 debut album Journey to Journey, anchored by a tensely circling piano riff while individual voices shifted in innumerable directions, an uneasily dancing alto sax solo in the center of it all. The group dipped to a charming, balletesque exchange of pizzicato strings, then rose to a vintage 70s soul riff and an explosive outro.
There was plenty of other material on the program, but that’s where the recorder ran out of juice. And it was hard to hear the band intros to keep track of who was playing what in the boomy church basement space. That won’t be a problem in the plush sonics at Lincoln Center.
Any fan of western swing knows how cool a steel guitar can sound playing jazz. The great C&W pedal steel player Buddy Emmons knew something about that: back in the 70s, he recorded steel versions of famous Charlie Parker tunes. In that same vein, steel guitarist Mike Neer has just put out an even more deliciously warped, downright creepy, dare we say paradigm-shifting album of Thelonious Monk covers for lapsteel, wryly titled Steelonious and streaming at the band’s webpage. Neer’s playing the album release show on Jan 25 at 8 PM at Barbes. If you like Monk, steel, and/or darkly cinematic sounds in general, you’d be crazy to miss this.
The album opens with a tongue-in-cheek slide down the frets into a surf stomp, and the band is off into their tight version of Epistrophy, a devious mix of western swing, honkytonk and the Ventures. Neer is amped up with plenty of reverb and just a tad of natural distortion for extra bite. By contrast, he plays Bemsha Swing through a watery chorus effect against the low-key pulse of bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Diego Voglino as pianist Matt King stays in the background.
The rest of the album is a mix of iconic material and deeper cuts. In deference to the composer’s purist taste, King’s piano keeps things purposeful and bluesy, with the occasional hint of New Orleans. Neer’s take of Round Midnight echoes the Hawaiian sounds he played for so long, first with the Haoles and then the Moonlighters. In its own twisted way, this simmering quasi-bolero is closer to the spirit of the original than most straight-up jazz versions. It’s easy to imagine Beninghove’s Hangmen doing something as noir as this with it.
Likewise, In Walked Bud gets reinvented with all sorts of slinky bossa nova tinges, Tom Beckham’s echoey, bluesy vibraphone over lingering organ. If Neer’s version is historically accurate, Bud Powell wasn’t just crazy – this cat was scary!
Bye-Ya has more of a western swing feel, partially due to Neer’s droll, warpy tones. I Mean You positions Neer as bad cop against purist, good cop King. Putting organ on Off Minor was a genius move – what a creepy song! Voglino’s surf drums provide an almost gleeful contrast. In the same vein, the band does Ugly Beauty as a waltzing, noir organ theme, Neer’s menacing solo echoing Charlie Rouse’s sax on the original before veering back toward Bill Monroe territory.
It’s amazing how good a country ballad Ask Me Now makes; same deal with how well Blue Monk translates to proto-honkytonk. Straight No Chaser is so distinctive that there’s not a lot that can be done with it other than playing it pretty much as written, and the band keep their cards pretty close to the vest. But their starlit waltz version of Reflections is anything but trad: it’s sort of their Theme From a Summer Place. It’s awfully early in the year, and much as it might be cheating to pick a cover album, this is the frontrunner for best release of 2017 so far.
Last night at the Fridman Gallery in Soho, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar opened the night solo with a series of sweepingly concise, panoramic phrases that came across more as a call to arms than to prayer. Or maybe just a calm, resolute series of wake-up calls. In between, he left some of the most pregnant pauses hanging in the air anywhere in this city. Maybe the effects of a Pauline Oliveros retrospective here the previous night lingered as well. In between notes, the hushed, high harmonies of the ventilation system – a ninth interval, if you were there to hear it – became part of the music, along with the occasional random footfall from an adjacent room. The effect was as suspenseful and cinematic as anything Bernard Herrmann ever wrote. There would be a lot of deep listening this evening, matched by the depth of the music onstage.
As ElSaffar went on, the images on this vast canvas became more distinct, the occasional moody, graceful riff appearing amid the desolation. A series of slow, matter-of-fact crescendos gave way to a brief series of doppler effects – a calm before a storm, or planes hovering high over the fields and plains of northern Iraq? While ElSaffar is best known for his ornate and often harrowing blend of jazz and Middle Eastern sounds from that country to Syria, if there was any specific genre he brought to mind, it was austere 19th century blues.
Tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen and drummer Tomas Fujiwara joined him for the second half of the show, a series of interconnected themes and variations that echoed ElSaffar’s mighty, turbulent 2015 large-ensemble Crisis suite. Trumpeter Peter Evans, the sonic curator for this ongoing series of shows at the gallery, is known for his extended technique, pushing the limits of what his instrument can do. ElSaffar’s own ability to conjure images, from a diesel engine at peak RPM, to sepulchral microtones and keening, overtone-fueled polytonalities, proved every bit as daunting and inspiring.
Fujiwara grounded the music with majesty and gravitas on his toms, delivering a coy doppler of his own from the bell of his ride cymbal outwards, later riding the rims with a moody, mutedly syncopated suspense. ElSaffar and Mathisen locked harmonies, whether in the western scale or outside of it as the music finally rose into magically Middle Eastern microtones. The themes were sturdy, and emphatic, and hardly at ease. A stately, regal movement gave way to a troubled fanfare, a march and variations that more than hinted at sarcasm, then a wary, practically furtive passage that made for a gently resonant crescendo before the horns finally took the music toward the region where the Chicago-born trumpeter has found his greatest inspiration over the past fifteen years or so. There will be a “best concerts of 2017” page at the end of the year here, if we’re all still here, and this will be on it.