Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Jazz Improvisation at Its Most Adrenalizing and Interesting at Barbes

That two of New York’s best bass players made the trip to Park Slope to watch their four-string colleague Max Johnson improvise with saxophonist Matt Nelson and drummer Brian Chase last month speaks for itself. Opening for Balkan brass legends Slavic  Soul Party, the trio delivered everything that makes improvisation the highest musical art form, at least when everybody’s on their game. Suspenseful slow builds, boisterous conversations, viscerally breathtaking displays of extended technique, stories, ideas, good jokes: this set had it all. Johnson is bringing the potential for all that back to Barbes on Dec 12 at 8 PM with a new trio including Anna Webber on tenor sax and flute plus veteran Michael Sarin on drums.

The first guy to pull out all the stops at the November 6 gig was Nelson. Playing soprano sax, he  fired off what seemed to be twenty nonstop minutes of circular breathing. Part of what required that was endlessly circling variations on the kind of tightly clustering, cellular phrases he plays in Battle Trance. That was spectacular enough, but he raised the bar several notches, punctuating the river of sound with wildfire, Coltrane-like glissandos, paint-peeling duotone harmonics, shrieks and wails. At the end, he was about as winded as any horn player can be: to say that this was epic to witness is an understatement. Switching to tenor, he gave himself some opportunities to breathe for the rest of the set, but the intensity was pretty much unrelenting.

Johnson was also on a mission to air out his chops, whether bowing whispery, ghostly harmonics, churning out mesmeric, pitchblende rivers of chords on the two lowest strings, racewalking through swing and taking a couple of bouncy, funky detours for the closest thing to comic relief here. Meanwhile, Chase took charge of the dynamics: he was on sentry duty. Whenever it seemed that a lull might be imminent, he’d smack something and the rest of the trio would pick up on the signal. At one point, he pulled the bell of the hi-hat off the stand and gave it a solid whack: it turned out to be the cork on this champagne bottle. Flickering through his hardware and along the rims, wirewalking on the bell of his crash cymbal and driving the final nail through whatever peak presented itself, he engaged the audience as tersely and emphatically as he did his bandmates.

This month’s show has similar potential if completely different personalities. As an improviser, Webber is more of a tunesmith but isn’t afraid of noise. Sarin comes from a completely different era and idiom, but so does Chase, who’s had a money gig with an indie band for years. You can see for yourself what kind of quirk and charm and maybe new elements get invented on the 12th of the month at Barbes.

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December 6, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Perennially Vital, Poignant, Epic Grandeur From the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

In the history of jazz, is there a greater drummer/composer than John Hollenbeck?

Paul Motian wrote some great songs. And so has Tain Watts. Beyond that, it’s a short list. This past evening at the Poisson Rouge Hollenbeck and his long-running Large Ensemble validated his place on it with a lush, constantly shifting, uneasily enveloping set to celebrate the release of their latest album All Can Work.

As with the album, the centerpiece of the show was the title track, a dedication to his longtime collaborator, the late great Laurie Frink. Hollenbeck interpolated both brief, pithy phrases inspired by Frink’s trumpet etudes as well as excerpts from her similarly terse emails. Like Mozart but with infinitely more interesting rhythms, those phrases percolated and changed shape among subsets of the sixteen-piece ensemble as singer Theo Bleckmann’s voice loomed and eventually soared. “I will miss you all, and the music,” was the final mantra. The trumpet section, including but not limited to Tony Kadleck and Matt Holman, put their precision in the spotlight. This was a song, and a show about tunesmithing and narratives rather than displays of sizzling chops.

They’d opened with Elf, which takes its title and thematic grist from the Strayhorn piece that Ellington eventually appropriated for Isfahan. As the group’s tectonic sheets slowly built a lavish mosaic, alto saxophonist Anna Webber rose methodically to broodingly modal, Middle Eastern-tinged intensity while Hollenbeck did a somewhat more vigorous take on the kind of pointillism he likes to explore in the Claudia Quintet.

The night’s most lavishly shapeshifting number was Hollenbeck’s muscular arrangement of Kenny Wheeler’s Heyoke: among its several solos, a bittersweet couple of turns from tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and some deliciously deadpan piano voicings from vibraphonist Patricia Brennan stood out the most brightly. From Trees, inspired by a Mondrian triptych, rose out of a swirl of disembodied voices to emphatic variations on a series of rather stark riffs, down to a twisted, low-register corkscrew facsimile of boogie-woogie from pianist Matt Mitchell: it was the most unexpectedly stunning solo of the night.

Long Swing Dream, the one song to date that Hollenbeck has found in a dream, had a similar minmalism alternating between individual voices, Bleckmann providing an amusing bit of narration by reading Cary Grant commentary about LSD (Long Swing Dream, get it?). The final observation, “You can’t judge the day until the night,” became simply “You can’t judge,” which drew plenty of chuckles. Hollenbeck copped to never having tried the stuff – hey, there’s still time. You can’t judge the perception from the doors.

The final tune was Hollenbeck’s tongue-in-cheek, impressively swinging new arrangement of Kraftwerk’s motorik instrumental The Model. Again, Bleckmann got to entertain the crowd, this time simply by striking a pose or five as the group channeled a more subtle take on what German live techno crew the Jazzrausch Bigband might have done with it. Hollenbeck’s next gig is with the Claudia Quintet on March 24 at 8 PM at the Miller Theatre; tix as affordable as $20 are still available.

January 30, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment