Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Couple Bars’ Worth of Sunday’s Bang on a Can Marathon

This year’s Bang on a Can Marathon promised to be one of the best ever, in terms of sheer talent if not ambience. Lately this sprawling festival has lacked the freewheeling, anarchic spirit of earlier years, but the performers on the bill just get better and better. The deck is typically stacked with the biggest name acts playing later, this year’s being a criminally good list of performers: Ars Nova Copenhagen playing one composer after another, pipa innovator Wu Man, Missy Mazzoli’s haunting ensemble Victoire, the astonishing string quartet Brooklyn Rider, Tortoise and of course the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But the afternoon’s acts were just as good. To those who might rail against the boomy acoustics and sterile ambience of the World Financial Center Winter Garden, it’s at least a lot easier to negotiate than some of the other spaces BOAC has used.

Cognoscenti who were there at the opening bell raved about Andy Akiho’s psychedelic piece, Alloy, played by the Foundry Steel Pan Ensemble. BOAC co-founder Michael Gordon’s Trance, played by the jazz orchestra SIGNAL, went on for almost an hour. Some said for too long, but to these ears the tension of the band in lockstep with a series of looped vocal fragments and drum machine served well to illustrate a struggle for freedom. They went up, then down, running the same phrase much as the loop they kept in step with, finally crescendoing as the loop faded and disappeared, the band adding a sense of triumph while maintaining the tense, metronomic feel of the first 45 minutes or so. It was very redemptive: man vs. machine, man finally winning out.

Guitar quartet DITHER, augmented by seven ringers on a mix of Fenders and Gibsons did one of Eric km Clark’s deprivation pieces, each guitarist given earplugs and headphones so as to deliberately throw off their timing (doesn’t work: we’re used to bad monitor mixes, being unable to hear a thing onstage, feeling for the drums and playing what’s in our fingers!). Echoes swirling around underneath the big skylight, the effect was akin to a church organ piece, maybe something especially weird from the Jehan Alain songbook with a lot of echo. It ended cold with a single guitarist tossing off a playfully tongue-in-cheek, random metal phrase.

The Todd Reynolds Quartet followed with Meredith Monk’s lone string quartet, Stringsongs, in four bracingly captivating sections. The first, Cliff Light was a hypnotically polyrhythmic, astringent dance, introducing a stillness at the end that carried over to the second part, Tendrils, austere and plaintive but growing warmer and prettier, brief phrases flowing in and out of the arrangement, often repeating. Part three, Obsidian was more dawn than darkness; Phantom Strings, the final segment was practically a live loop, its circular motifs growing more insistent and percussive, the group seizing every dynamic inch the score would allow them.

The daylight hours’ highlight was, of course, Bill Frisell. The preeminent jazz guitarist of our time turned in a characteristically thoughtful, deliberately paced, absolutely brilliantly constructed series of three solo pieces, the first one of his typical western themes spiced with harmonics and drenched in reverb, a welcoming, friendly, comfortable way to ease into what would quickly become more difficult terrain. The clouds came in quickly with his second instrumental, eerie and minimalistically noir. Finally, Frisell hit his distortion pedal and upped the ante, bending and twisting the notes, adding glissandos and hitting his loop pedal in places where he’d found one that would resonate beneath the methodically Gilmouresque menace. One of those loops made a sturdy underpinning for a brief segue into a bright, optimistic, latin-tinged theme that quickly morphed into a common 4-chord soul motif and it was then that Frisell pulled out a little shimmery vibrato to wind it up on a warmly optimistic note.

One of the maddening things about Bang on a Can is that somebody like Frisell will give you chills, and then the next act will leave you scowling and wondering why anyone on earth thinks they belong onstage. This time the culprits were Your Bad Self playing a trio of Ted Hearne compositions, the first a straight-up noir rock ballad in 6/8, the singer setting off a crazy, screaming crescendo on the second verse that lingered after they’d brought it down again. Too bad the best he could do was scream, because he was off-key and positively lame on the next two numbers, a fractured, frantic musette with a jazzy trumpet fanfare and a moodier tune. This is what happens when classically trained people who don’t know rock but think they do anyway try to incorporate it in their music. Or maybe they do, but they don’t know soul from affectation, at least when it comes to vocals. At least the band was good. After that, the UK’s Smith Quartet launched into a Kevin Volans piece with which they’re supposedly associated – too bad, because it didn’t leave a mark. Then it was time to go uptown. But all that was a small price to pay for a free set by Frisell, not to mention the early afternoon’s program.

Only one complaint: where were the kids? Most of the crowd was older than the performers. New music is for young people! Maybe because we don’t have money, we don’t get invited these days? For those missing out on the evening’s festivities, Feast of Music was there to provide some insight.

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June 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments