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

Legendary Jazz Ensemble ICP Orchestra Wrap Up Their US Tour

This album makes a good segue with Marc Ribot’s Saturday night concert. Dutch jazz pianist Misha Mengelberg and his ten-piece band ICP Orchestra (Instant Composers Pool) are legendary in European jazz circles and respected outside the continent for their mix of lavish arrangements and devious improvisation. They’re currently on US tour (see remaining dates below); their latest cd, simply titled ICP Orchestra (since superseded by a new vinyl album!), is a cinematic, noir-tinged concert recording from 2009. These folks date from the 1960s (Mengelberg was composing ten years before then), and as expected, there’s plenty of absurdism, irony and humor in their work. As is obvious from the first track here: a brief, klezmerish song with vocals, the band waiting impatiently to spin off their axis.

Which they do quickly on the second track, led by violinist Mary Oliver’s nightmare cadenzas establishing the noir ambience which returns again and again here, through a thoughtful Thomas Heberer quartertone trumpet solo over a steady detective beat. Then it walks and screams and falls apart in a series of cacaphonic, unrelated conversations that rise to a din, and then out cold. It’s paradigmatic for what’s to come, with saxophonist Michael Moore’s Sumptious, shifting from a richly melodic, distantly ominous late 50s theme to rubato, uneasy atmospherics. The next cut contrasts Oliver’s shrieky excursions with judicious, apprehensive piano from Mengelberg, followed by a radically deconstructed take of Herbie Nichols’ Busy Beaver, Oliver leading the charge out of the morass with a lusciously memorable crescendo.

The horror reaches breaking point with the sixth track, Mitrab, an improvisation that quickly rises to terror, sax shrieking out of a chilly, starlit piano intro, individual voices falling away, less horrified as it winds down. The Lepaerd, a jaunty swing tune, builds nonchalantly to a chase scene, falls away and then rises with the whole orchestra blazing. They follow it with the funniest track here, a low, rustling, conspiratorial tone poem, except that everyone seems to be the end of their own individual phone conversations. At the end, they walk out of the room, leaving the violin still fully engaged and completely unperturbed. They close with an altered swing blues by bassist Ernst Glerum and then a clever, amusing version of Ellington’s Sonnet in Search of a Moor (from the classic 1957 Suite Thunder) where the bass gets all the melody lines and the solos. Throughout the set, there are inspired moments from the whole group, including Han Bennink on drums, Tristan Housinger on cello, Wolter Wierbos on trombone and Tobias Delius on tenor sax. Remaining US tourdates are:

April 7 – Austin / Epistrophy Arts

April 8 – Houston / Nameless Sound

April 9 – Des Moines / Caspe Terrace

April 10 – Chicago / Hungry Brain

April 11 – Chicago / Cultural Center

April 12 – Seattle / Earshot Jazz

April 6, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment