Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

CD Review: Steve Swell’s Slammin’ the Infinite – 5000 Poems

This is definitely a team effort, which is what you always want with a band but particularly with a cast of free jazz luminaries like these guys. The fun of this album is akin to improv theatre: everybody has an assigned role, the choicest moments being when the blend – or clash – of personalities results in something combustible or funny. Most, but not all, of the ideas they expand on here are thematic rather than melodic or even rhythmic – in an odd way, it’s a very conversational album, if the conversation itself gets pretty crazy in places. Bandleader/trombonist Steve Swell is the man in the tower – he tells the train when it’s time to go or to hang in the station for awhile. Drummer Klaus Kugel is the gathering storm, always about to rain thunder down on the listener and getting every ounce of suspense out of it since he virtually never does. Bassist Matthew Heyner does the lighting – he’s the guy down the tunnel with the flashlight, which is usually off since the atmospherics he puts into play here are pretty dark. Pianist John Blum gets less time in the spotlight than anyone else here – ironically, he seems to be having the most fun. Reed player Sabir Mateen, alternating between alto and tenor sax, clarinet and alto clarinet, and flute serves as Swell’s sparring partner when he’s not jumping all over the place to keep himself warm and ready for the next volley of notes.

The most coherent cut here, the third track has the bass running a modified latin groove, trombone creating a suspenseful noir mood over a scurrying rhythm section. Mateen eventually shows up and Swell won’t make room for him so he bashes in the door – and then Blum gets involved. And it’s back to the noir. Every now and then, there will be a lull as the band figures out what they’re going to do next, which can be humorous but also very effective as a suspense device: on the album’s opening track, listening to Blum stumble around in the dark, not having the faintest idea of where he is or what to do there, and then finally join in with the drums with a nonchalant robustness, perfectly illustrates the kind of unexpected magic this crew can deliver.

The second track has Heyner hinting at a pensive Middle Eastern mode, fluttery flute contrasting vividly with intense, percussive piano. Kugel absolutely owns the fourth cut, practically fifteen minutes of ominous rumble beneath the squall of the horns. The last number features what might be the quietest section of a drum solo ever recorded, Mateen’s solo following with similar laid-back warmth. The recording enhances the murky vividness of many of these performances – it sounds like it was recorded with a central room mic or two, the piano sometimes a strikingly disembodied, out-of-leftfield presence. It’s out now on Not Two Records.

May 29, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment