Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Idea-Packed Big Band Improvisation from Michael Vlatkovich’s Ensemblio

Trombonist Michael Vlatkovich’s Ensemblio has an intriguingly original album, Autobiography of a Pronoun, out now: the concept is improvisational big band jazz. This isn’t the waves of tunefulness followed by controlled chaos that Butch Morris champions, nor is it slowly shifting Greg Tate-style long-tone improvisation. What fuels this is a good sense of humor and artful orchestration: there are times when the whole ten-piece ensemble is cooking, but more often than not it’s a series of subgroups exploring a particular idea, so when the entire band gets in on it, the upward dynamics pack more of a punch. Most of this music is defiantly atonal, alluding to but seldom hitting a catchy hook head-on, the sixth track’s hypnotically syncopated Ethiopiques being the most memorable melody here in the conventional sense of the word. The presence of both Harry Scorzo’s violin and Jonathan Golove’s cello along with Anders Swanson’s frequently bowed bass add sonics that range from austere to occasionally lush and sweeping. It pretty much goes without saying that those who need a catchy tune to sing along to, or a steady beat to follow, will need to look elsewhere. But for jazz fans with an ear for the unconventional, this can be as much fun as it obviously was for the band to record.

Sample song title: Leg Belly Neon Kill Climb Unaware Pride, the ten-minute opening track. Surrealism reigns, from the pensive third-stream string ensemble introduction, a clave theme with vivid murky/airy contrasts between violin and ambience behind it, wry microtonalisms from Vlatkovich and a tasty Twin Peaks-ian interlude with legato piano leading spacious bass accents. It ends on an ominously agitated note.

The second track is more overtly improvisational, like early ELO on acid, anchored by drummer Michael Burdon’s funky shuffle, with tense strings-versus-horns contrasts, a free interlude that weaves from comedic to apprehensive and a lively, dancing bass solo out. Like the first cut, it has a persistent sense of unease. A three-part suite titled JMZ follows: its first section a rather chilling, twilit conversation between the bass and Wayne Peet’s piano, the second a blues ballad in heavy disguise contrasting rumbling, tumbling rhythms with terse piano and trombone motifs and the final an unexpectedly comic, increasingly rhythmic interlude led by William Roper’s tuba.

A jaggedly swinging large-ensemble piece, the wry Explain Why I Can’t Drive Faster Than the Car in Front of Me builds tension right from the big, lush opening chart, through a jarringly dissonant trombone/violin passage, to Peet’s piano going agitatedly off the edge into biting bop. Brian Walsh’s clarinet holds the funky Queen Dynamo together as the violin swirls and dips acidically before passing off to Jeff Kaiser’s muted trumpet and the trombone. The final piece, Memories Hold My Hand, is a sad, stately, Russian-flavored baroque requiem driven by somber tuba/trombone harmonies over flickering percussion. Those are just the highlights: other elements that are no less interesting emerge with repeated listening. Kick back with this if you’re up for getting swept into what can be an intense, inspiring, entertaining ride.

Advertisements

March 12, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Steve Swell’s Nation of We Have a Method to Their Madness

Steve Swell’s Nation of We play free jazz for big band. Last night at Roulette they were as loud as the Ramones and just as funny if understandably somewhat more clever. The trombonist/composer’s modus operandi lately (especially on his dynamite new quintet cd 5000 Poems) has been to take a memorable theme and then deconstruct it piece by piece, often as a suite, a procedure that worked especially well with this group. There was only one brief break in the action and that didn’t seem to be intentional: they seemed gung-ho on running rampant all the way through, something akin to a mass-scale version of the nonstop madness of Jon Irabagon’s latest album but with a thousand more diversions.There was a brief, tersely cinematic overture to kick it off, everyone in the nineteen-piece juggernaut going their separate ways within a couple of minutes which kicked up a considerable racket, especially with the two drummers. Striking almost a boxer’s stance as he conducted the group, Swell punched the air and grabbed the first series of many deviously funny moments, the chosen band members each musically sticking out their tongues as the riff made its way around the room. It quickly grew to a chaotic, bustling urban soundscape, the ghost of Mingus punching the air just like Swell, invisible but vividly present.

Several sections where band members paired off, squared off or simply conversed were especially well-chosen. One passage where tenor player Sabir Mateen and cellist Daniel Levin held it down and served as the voice of reason while the rest of the crew went haywire was effectively suspenseful: were they going to succeed in pulling some melody out of everybody else’s muck? No. A call-and-response between the bass and Bob Stewart’s tuba was welcome comic relief, as was a squirrely argument between tenor and trombone which drew laughs from the exuberant crowd. Other sections pitted stark strings – Jason Hwang and Rosi Hertlein on violin alongside Levin – versus the brass or the rhythm section, sometimes melodically, sometimes rhythmically. The most memorable solo of the night was exactly that, one of the trumpets emerging all by himself out of diminishing chaos with a lithe, lyrical flight, the rest of the group jumping back in, oblivious. Swell took judicious yet joyously noisy solos during the two final, mammoth crescendos. After a long, circular, pizzicato interlude by Hwang, Swell glanced at his watch and, raising his hands as high as he could, pulled every last remaining decibel out of the group until there were no more to be had. With that, he took a leap, the group slammed out a series of deathblows and that finally destroyed what was left of the piece. It would have been nice to have been able to hear Swell’s band intros (and give credit here – from the back of the room, it was hard to see every face in the band and figure out just who all these cats were), but his voice was no match for the crowd’s standing ovation. One can only hope this was recorded (memo to the woman in the front row with the iphone: put your stuff up on youtube!).

Steve Swell’s Nation of We are back at Roulette tonight and tomorrow night at 8:30. He’s with his Serious Trio (Andrew Raffo Dewar and Garrison Fewell) at IBeam in Brooklyn on 9/11 at 10 and on 9/12 at DMG, 113 Monroe St. in Manhattan at 6 PM and then on 9/14 with his International Trio (Joachim Badenhorst and Ziv Ravitz) at the Douglass St. Music Collective in Gowanus at 8. Roulette is moving from their comfortable SoHo digs to Third and Atlantic Avenues in Brooklyn sometime in 2011, ostensibly to a 600-seat theatre space which they hope to renovate with help from their crowd. If they do there what they do here, they deserve it.

September 9, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment