Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Paradigm-Shifting Mashup of Mesmerizing Haitian Drumming and Jazz on Ches Smith’s New Album

Every nation from the Caribbean and points further south with a diasporic African population has a vibrant tradition of communal drumming. Of all those countries, it’s arguably Haiti which has the most otherworldly, shamanic style. Some might debate that: Ras Michael and whichever Sons of Negus are still with us, and no doubt some Spanish Harlem salseros, just for starters. While there’s been a vital Haitian jazz and traditional music scene in New York for decades, we have drummer Ches Smith to thank for helping bring those hypnotically booming sounds to a wider audience.

Smith has a fascinating new album, Path of Seven Colors streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a logical follow-up to his similarly magical 2015 record We All Break (which is included as a twofer along with the new one). What’s new is that he’s expanded the original quartet – which also includes pianist Matt Mitchell plus tanbou drummers Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz. Haitian singer Sirene Dantor Rene, alto sax brujo Miguel Zenón, bassist Nick Dunston and third tanbou master Fanfan Jean-Guy Rene complete an inspired, innovative lineup.

While the group’s game plan is to break new ground, make no mistake, this music is meant to summon the spirits. Beyond the improvisation, this is a very collective effort, Smith bringing in the instrumental parts, Brevil contributing both original and traditional songs. They open the album with an understatedly joyous call-and-response over Mitchell’s hypnotically rhythmic drive in Woule Pou Mwen. Zenon adds balletesque flutter and exuberant wails in Here’s the Light, Rene and Brevil engaging in a punchy call-and-response that goes straight back to Africa as the drums do the same on the low end. The subtle shifts in syncopation behind Mitchell’s brightly cascading solo are artful: Dizzy Gillespie may have started all this a long time ago, but this is a brand-new variant.

Rene’s shivery, brittle vibrato contrasts with the calm of the guys in the band in Leaves Arrive, a diptych. The first part is a seemingly festive invocation, Zenon working increasingly electrifying variations on the cheery central riff as Mitchell’s dark, circling chords and Smith’s cymbals crash underneath. Likewise, Zenon’s spirals and graceful, precise articulation take centerstage over hypnotic, hard-hitting teamwork in Women of Iron, Mitchell taking giant steps to meet the spirits as the song peaks out.

The album’s big epic is Lord of Healing, Mitchell building warmly glistening nocturnal ambience as Dunston hovers sepulchrally on the fringe. A long ceremonial call-and-response gives way to a rapidfire Mitchell solo while the bass and drums run the vocal riff, then subtly go doublespeed while Zenon bounces and chooses his spots. The band punctuate the briskly undulating drum circle, piano and sax eventually pushing the beat toward a swaying coda.

With Raw Urbane, Smith works the pattern backwards. The drums get an incantatory triplet rhythm going below Mitchell’s animated ripples and chromatic runs. With Zenon’s solo bobbing and scampering, it’s the closest thing here to straight-up postbop, until the triumphant chorus of vocals kicks in.

The ghostly insistence of the piano-and-bass intro to the album’s title track is unexpectedly stunning; the looping, loping groove (sounds like an implied halfspeed triplet thing) is also very cool. Zenon shifts around like the late, great Marvelous Marvin Hagler as Mitchell crushes in tandem with the drums, then it’s the saxophonist’s turn. It’s the real piece de resistance on the record.

They close with The Vulgar Cycle, Rene and Brevil taking turns over a briskly galloping groove, Mitchell sprinting through a nimble series of cascades before Zenon takes over with a steely, rapidfire focus.

The piano has seldom been employed as a percussion instrument as much as it is on the 2015 album, which is considerably darker. Mitchell (and the band’s) resolve to play everything live without a loop pedal is all the more impressive considering the amount of relentless, icepick pedalpoint and how many drum breaks there are. Its many highlights include a trance-inducing chorus straight out of Moroccan gnawa music. There’s also a tantalizing, McCoy Tyner-ish crescendo where the band really make you wait for the expected drum solo; hints of salsa and Cuban son montuno; and a cuisinarted folk tune which turns from blithe to sinister when interrupted or syncopated, Mitchell’s eerie modal solo coming as a big surprise.

June 11, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Electrifying, Entertaining, Amusing Magnum Opus From Multi-Reedwoman Anna Webber

Damn, this is a funny record. Multi-reedwoman Anna Webber‘s mammoth new double album Idiom – streaming at Bandcamp – is her most ambitious yet. She’s no stranger to large-ensemble work, most memorably with her Webber/Morris Big Band album from a couple of years ago. The loosely connecting thread here is extended technique, something Webber has plenty of and uses liberally but not gratuitously. The jokes are relentless and irresistible. Webber gets extra props for having the nerve – and the optimism – to put out another big band record at a time when big band performances in New York have been criminalized. Hopefully for no longer than it takes for a Cuomo impeachment!

There’s also an opening disc, Webber joined by her long-running Simple Trio. The first number is a creepy, circling flute and piano theme and variations, with sudden dynamic and rhythmic shifts. It’s closer to Terry Riley than jazz. Drummer John Hollenbeck adds flickering color to the steady sway, pianist Matt Mitchell setting off a lake of ripples from the lows upward. Furtiveness becomes spritely, then the hypnotic spiral returns.

The second of these Idiom pieces has even more of an air of mystery in the beginning, its spaciously wispy minimalism growing more herky-jerky, up to a clever piano-sax conversation over Hollenbeck’s funky drive. Forgotten Best is a great track, beginning as a very allusive, rhythmically resistant take on hauntingly majestic Civil Rights Coltrane, then hitting a triumphant, quasi-anthemic drive. The trio follow with a coyly comedic, hypnotically circular, flute-driven march.

Webber subtly employs her pitch pedal for sax duotones and microtones in the third of the Idiom series over Hollenbeck’s straight-ahead funk and Mitchell’s surgical staccato, then clusters wildly over the pianist’s various vortices. The drummer’s persistent gremlin at the door signals a shivery shift.

The twelve-piece large ensemble play an epic, largely improvisational seven-track suite on the second disc. Emphatic swats over a murmuring background, with a wryly funny low/high exchange, pervade the opening movement. One assume that’s the bandleader’s distant squall that sets off a racewalking pace. Sounds like somebody’s using a EWI for those Marshall Allen-style blips and squiggles.

An airy, increasingly suspenseful interlude introduces movement two, Webber back on flute, fluttering in tandem with Yuma Uesaka’s clarinet over the tiptoeing Frankenstein of the rhythm section – Nick Dunston on bass and Satoshi Takeishi on drums. A swinging fugue follows, the rest of the horns – Nathaniel Morgan on alto sax, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, David Byrd-Marrow on horn and Jacob Garchik on trombone joined by the string trio of violinist Erica Dicker, violist Joanna Mattrey and cellist Mariel Roberts. Webber’s mealy-mouthed meandering, picked off by the trombone, is another deviously amusing moment.

O’Farrill punctures the mist of the second interlude and then wafts optimistically, a goofy faux-takadimi duel between horn and trumpet finally disappearing into a chuffing shuffle; ersatz qawwali has seldom been so amusing. Everybody gets to make a Casper the Friendly Ghost episode out of the fourth movement. Movement five slowly coalesces out of looming mystery, O’Farrill playfully nudging everybody up, Webber’s acidic multiphonics over a slinky quasi-tropical syncopation and an ending that’s predictably ridiculous.

The group rise out of the ether a final time to impersonate a gamelan for awhile the string section leading the ramshackle parade this time. It’s as if Webber is daring us to go out and have half as much fun as she did making this album.

May 29, 2021 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment