Lucid Culture


Karl Berger’s Improvisers Orchestra Bring Their Lush Sounds to Brooklyn

Karl Berger has been a pioneer in large-scale jazz improvisation longer than just about anybody, which explains why his Improvisers Orchestra swings as hard, and interestingly, and often hauntingly as they do. We take them for granted. And we shouldn’t, since their show earlier this week at Shapeshifter Lab personified Bryan Beninghove’s infamous “jazz power play,” i.e. more musicians onstage than in the audience. Even so, the concert was a jazz power play without any subtext. Berger is an elegant and economical pianist, which informs how he conducts. Unlike his colleagues Butch Morris – who tends to follow the traditional small-group approach of taking a meticulously composed piece of music and throwing it to the wolves – or Greg Tate, who favors a more nebulous, slowly shapeshifting style – Berger reaches deep into his bag of riffs and sends them through the orchestra, sometimes wafting, sometimes reeling, sometimes both.

Like the best big bands, this crew use the entirety of their dynamic range. The ensemble weren’t often all playing at once, making those lush crescendos all the more towering and intense. From the piano, Berger initatiated a rather plaintive conversation with guest violist Jason Hwang, then went up in front of the group to conduct the remainder of the show. This time out there were many pairs of voices featured. Sometimes the effect was contrast, as when Yatsuno Katsuki’s richly sustained euphonium traded off with Sana Nagano‘s pointillistic violin agitations, or when singer Mossa Bildner‘s crystalline but wary vocalese sailed over the bass saxophone’s ominous rumble. Other times, the device created a richly interwoven effect, throughout animated exchanges between Sylvain Leroux and his fellow flutist, or bass clarinetist Michael Lytle joining the baritone saxophonist in a slithery duet.

Berger leaned heavily on trumpeter Thomas Heberer for crescendos, to often spine-tingling effect, with long, rapidfire, clustering cadenzas. The single most surprising, and utterly surreal, moment of the night was when guitarist Harvey Valdes fired off a noisy surf-rock solo, playing through a watery mix of chorus and reverb effects as the ensemble swept and dove behind him.

It’s not easy to tell when one piece ends and another begins with this cast – not that there needs to be any kind of definitive beginning or end to what they do. Counting pauses, there seemed to be either two long segments…or maybe the first was cut up into two parts. Either way, both built to lush, swinging swells with the phantasmagorical sweep of the Gil Evans Orchestra and the rough-and-tumble bustle of the Mingus bands. The camaraderie and warmth of the repartee between the orchestra and conductor – and among the orchestra itself – was visceral, and visible: wry smiles and friendly jousting abounded.


December 7, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

October 22, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment