Live: Fred Hersch Digs In At The Village Vanguard

Fred Hersch Trio
Village Vanguard
Wednesday, September 12

Better than: Whatever “the same ol’, same ol'” means to you.

I wish some neuroscientist (perhaps edgy violinist-turned-Columbia University neurobiologist Dave Soldier?) would conduct a study on the musical transformation of pianist Fred Hersch. It’s easy to use words like “miraculous” to describe Hersch’s return to the jazz scene after several months in an AIDS-related coma in 2008; the term came up again just yesterday in Hersch’s radio interview with WNYC’s Leonard Lopate. As Hersch piloted his working trio at the Village Vanguard last night, however, what crystallized for me is that his revitalization is actually two-tiered. His full recovery is indeed remarkable (Hersch had to re-learn basic skills like walking and talking before he even touched a piano), but what’s equally fascinating is how his playing has changed—in some cases, for the better.

Years ago, the pianist rang me up at the magazine I used to work for to complain that I’d compared him to Bill Evans; he felt too many journalists had done the same thing. He backed off some when I reminded him of 1990’s Evanescence: A Tribute to Bill Evans, which until then had ranked high in his discography, but he was adamant about getting beyond the racial calculus that seemed built into the evaluation of a white (and gay) man whose bop sensibility was imbued with his early classical training in his native Cincinnati.

I wouldn’t remove Evans from a list of Hersch’s influences today (last night the trio grafted “Nardis” onto Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”), but it’s clearer now just how much his swing is his own. It’s evident in the feral way he digs into many of the tunes on his Alive At The Vanguard; he applies grit where once there was much more cursiveness and dazzle. I can imagine some of the new discs’ muscular brilliance being superficially described as “butch,” especially in comparison to his string of popular Nonesuch releases of the ’90s or the Walt Whitman song cycle Leaves Of Grass—though it’s worth noting that Hersch has been outspoken about the silliness of saddling music with meaningless descriptions like “gay.”

Last night the repertoire of mostly originals made comparisons between then and now even more stark. Hersch’s Latinate rhythms (“Havana”, “Mandevilla”) brought more rhythmic interplay with drivingly sensitive drummer Eric McPherson, his Monkishness (“Dream Of Monk,” “Skipping”) was more earthy and the pieces that exhibited classicism (“Sarabande,” “Boy”) found Hersch and bassist John Hébert splitting the difference between the old world lyricism and new world blues. The seamlessness of its inversions made the arrangement “Lonely Woman/Nardis” the highlight: He played Ornette Coleman’s melody in subtle meter against the rhythm-section’s stretched where’s-the-beat? vertiginousness, then slipped out of meter himself on the Bill Evans section, applying reharmonized multi-textures while Hébert and McPherson kept time.

One thing I noticed during Hersch’s radio interview with Lopate yesterday was the pianist’s tendency to overstate metaphors about “danger” when talking about the process of improvisation. That said, the concert proved that right now his playing is probably more intrepid than it has been at any time in his career. He has made a practice out of the advice he gave in a recent podcast to any young musician who feared making mistakes. “You’ve gotta get up and fall over a bunch and try things,” Hersch said. “And the irony, of course, is that when the music’s at its most dangerous and you pull it off, it sounds perfect.”

Random notebook dump: Anyone who thinks the jazz piano trio is dead, or that jazzers should move on from standards, should probably get a load of how attentive and enthusiastic the Vanguard’s audiences behave in the presence of both.

Set list:
Lonely Woman/Nardis
Dream Of Monk
You Don’t Know What Love is

Valentine (solo piano)


Live: Bob Mould Plunges Into His Riff-Heavy Past At Williamsburg Park

Bob Mould
Williamsburg Park
Friday, September 7

Better than: Having to send a search party for the silver lining.

“You’ve really done a lot with the place,” joked guitarist-songwriter Bob Mould to the crowd as he took a well-deserved breather in Williamsburg Park on Friday. He’d commandeered his newest power trio through half of a 90-minute concert before addressing the audience, and since the band had just put blisters on Copper Blue—the 1992 debut/breakthrough/career milestone from Mould’s second great band, Sugar—it seemed like a good time to remind folks that he’d been a neighborhood resident during that record’s formative stages. “Most of those songs were actually written right over there on Richardson,” he said, pointing inland from the makeshift outdoor space on the waterfront.

As might be expected of an alumnus of a band that once called a 26-minute album with 17 tracks Land Speed Record, Mould has covered lots of ground in the past 30 years. That LP was the work of Hüsker Dü, his first landmark group, a powerhouse unit that birthed a loud, ferocious brand of proto-grunge that never skimped on songcraft. Since then Mould’s career has been one of almost continuous forward motion and not a little shape-shifting—just one reason he chose to promote Silver Age, his new solo album, by front-loading his concerts with performances of Copper Blue in its entirety. Mould disbanded Sugar in 1996 and publicly swore off the hard-driving riffage that had become his signature shortly thereafter, opting instead for experiments with techno and a popular sideline as a DJ for the community of bearded, burly gays like himself (affectionately known as “bears”). While the self-imposed moratorium on shredding ended a few years ago, Silver Age‘s potency represents a renewed kinship with Sugar. Mould may be a 50-ish graybeard, but it’s telling that when he sings the album’s title track the words could be mistaken for “silver rage.”

The entire evening came down heavily on the retrospective side. I wish I’d timed Copper Blue; the speed and sinuousness of the thrashing between Mould and his rhythm section (Verbow bassist Jason Narducy; Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster) was deceptive. Though most pieces were taken at a considerably faster clips than on record, the performance wasn’t a trip back to the hardcore brevity of Hüsker Dü. Mould and Narducy clearly relished singing (read: wailing) as much as they did digging into the hooks of “Changes”, “Hoover Dam” and “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”, so the running time of the whole seemed to exceed the album’s 45 minutes. “The Slim” and “Slick” were the rare midtempo jaunts, while the solo break on “Man On The Moon” sent Mould’s guitar keening into its stratospheric registers.

Signs that Mould’s new age is indeed a way to reconnect with the spirit of his earlier triumphs arrived in the second half. After three songs from the new disc, he signaled the Hüskers part of the show with a gorgeous rendition of the loss-tinged ballad “Hardly Getting Over It” from 1986’s Candy Apple Grey. What struck me about the memories that came next—from the jams off Warehouse: Songs And Stories and New Day Rising (“Could You Be The One?” and “I Apologize”, respectively) to the two from Zen Arcade (“Chartered Trips” and the encore “Something I Learned Today,” sung with the Hold Steady’s excitable Craig Finn)—was that there wasn’t a discernible difference in the number of revelers of various ages singing along. And so much yelling and fist-pumping ensued during the closer, Flip Your Wig‘s “Makes No Sense At All,” that the song’s catalog of grievances seemed to take on anthemic proportions. It was a rousing cap to a big night of homecomings.

Critical bias: My inner jazz guy has no beef with career summations.

Random notebook dump: At Mouldian decibel levels, it’s a relief when the sound mix is actually lunch for your ears.

Set list:
The Way We Act
A Good Idea
Hoover Dam
The Slim
If I Can’t Change Your Mind
Fortune Teller
Man On The Moon
Star Machine
The Descent
Round the City Square
Hardly Getting Over It
Could You Be The One
I Apologize
Chartered Trips
Keep Believing

Something I Learned Today (feat. Craig Finn)
In A Free Land

Makes No Sense At All


Live: Revive Big Band And Pharoahe Monch Come Together At The Blue Note

Revive Big Band with Pharoahe Monch
Blue Note
Monday, August 27

Better than: Thinking about the GOP convention.

“Simon says, get the fuck up! Y’all heard me, get the FUCK up!!” Street versifier Pharoahe Monch has yelled those words countless times since “Simon Says” broke him big back at the turn of the millennium, but the most ironic thing about hearing them last night at the Blue Note wasn’t so much the context (hip-hopper at jazz club) as the constraints built into the endeavor. The seated crowd—signaling its adulation with arm waving as soon as Monch’s cameo with the Revive Big Band had begun three tunes earlier—would no doubt have been on their feet if the Blue Note’s floor plan allowed it. Instead, shouts from throughout the club subbed for freedom of movement.

It made me wonder if Monch, dressed in his now-signature USMC (that’s “US Marine Corps”) dress jacket, had ever gigged a joint where his orders couldn’t be followed to the letter. He provided a striking contrast to Revive leader Igmar Thomas, whose demands were being taken very seriously by the 17-piece outfit. Thomas wisely had the group do a bit more than vamp-til-ready behind Monch, but he kept the filigrees subtle; their volume never crowded the MC or his backing vocalist Mila Machinko. “My hood told me, ‘N-gga, keep it simple and plain,” the MC spit elsewhere, on the arrangement of “Black Hand Side.” The swirl around him might not have approached Tetris, but it easily surpassed a simple game of dominoes.

In that respect, Revive is carrying on the mission of the six-year old Revive Da Live production posse, whose objective presupposes the hip-hop familiarity of the next generation of jazz fans. Some years back on a talk show Ice-T actually joked that one way to grow old gracefully in hip-hop might be to do it in jazz clubs, to “kick that old flava.” The Revive Big Band’s sweet spot may be the muscular, sculpted funk of the evening opener, “It’s Time,” but its vision of the historic predates even Ice-T by a couple of decades, evident in the version of iconic arranger Oliver Nelson’s “Blues And The Abstract Truth.” The latter was a solo feature for Revive drummer Marcus Gilmore, but Thomas didn’t mention that Gilmore (who sight-read the chart) is actually the grandson of Roy Haynes, the skinsman on the historymaking Nelson album of the same name in 1961. (Confusingly enough, tune is from the 1964 sequel More Blues And The Abstract Truth, which doesn’t include Haynes.)

As tempting as it might be to think of the pre-Monch part of the set as warmup for the celebrity entrance, the second piece, the Thomas original “To Kinda Lounge Around,” solidified the aura of a world-class intergenerational orchestra rather than a backing band. A gorgeous twin alto and tenor announced its traversal of grooving interludes and solos, but it’s probably fitting that the head-stretchingest contributions came from veteran trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy and tenor saxist Marcus Strickland, two musicians well known on the jazz scene proper. Lacy changed up the kick-drum-driven attack mid-solo, playing against the rhythms with gusts that started out like a foghorn and ended up like a siren. Strickland injected postbop into the mix; his feature, in its contrast of smoothness and angles, channeled what George Clinton used to refer to as “once upon a time called right now.”

Critical bias: Jazz and hip-hop could make even more room for each other.

Overheard: “Is this heaven? Jazz of this quality only comes through the town we’re from at festivals.”

Set list:
It’s Time
To Kinda Lounge Around
Blues And The Abstract Truth
Monch intro
Black Hand Side
Still Standing
Simon Says


Live: Enfants Terribles Push And Pull At The Blue Note

Enfants Terribles with Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock and Joey Baron
Blue Note
Thursday, August 16

Better than: The terrible twos.

The word’s out in jazz about the cache of collectives with band names as opposed to ensembles named for or operated by a catalyst instrumentalist or leader. Last night, after following veteran altoist Lee Konitz onstage, the other members of the quartet Enfants Terribles tried valiantly to dispel the idea that the saxist—at 84, the eldest of the group’s elder statesmen—was running the show. The altoist himself started the gig at center stage, but seemed to think better of it after opening with a typically discursive run through “Solar”, the Chuck Wayne melody that Miles Davis’ estate holds the copyright on. Konitz then slid to the left of seated bassist (and next elder) Gary Peacock and stayed there, placing the band in a straight line that left viewers with no fixed focal point save for where each sound in the sax/guitar/bass/drum unit came from. Surveying that barren space at center stage reminded me of the stories I’d read about how the postpunk band Joy Division tried to carry on after frontman Ian Curtis’s death; none of the surviving members dared stand in the space he usually inhabited.

Though no longer in front, Konitz still seemed to be calling the shots. A different member opened each piece, but it was Konitz who looked across the stage at every break and either nodded in someone’s direction or said something like, “OK, you start one, Joey,” to drummer Joey Baron. For his part, Baron’s animated fills probably altered the music’s character the most. Everything was taken at the kind of slow-to-medium tempo that Konitz’s dry extemporaneousness made into a signature—somewhere between birthing the cool opposite Miles Davis and Gil Evans and fully absorbing the lessons of piano maverick Lennie Tristano—but the tension in the music was created by Baron’s change-ups and pulse injections. Guitarist Bill Frisell always sounds like water that can get choppy sometimes but never resists buoyancy, while Peacock soaks up the music in its entirety and shoots back sheer perfection, melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. It’s tempting to not rush anything when encountering Konitz’s stoic stance, but as the group broke down into subsets (guitar against sax or bass, drums opposite each), Peacock clearly began punching his notes and playing even more of them. Beginning with the pieces “Body & Soul” and “Stella By Starlight” (both on the group’s forthcoming live album on Half Note), the bassist’s contribution began to set up a push-pull onstage, rather assuredly affected by Baron’s energy.

If that suggests that the rhythm section was dominant, remember that Konitz’s method has long asked the entire band to contribute thematic lines while remaining sensitive to the whole. That’s the Tristano part of his background asserting itself, and it can easily blur the line between leader and accompanist. Last night, it probably bore the tastiest fruit on “Just Friends,” which kicked into a speedier tempo without losing the subtlety that had taken place beforehand. Unless you’re as deep a connoisseur of chords as the members of the band, it may take a minute or so to know what tune Enfant Terribles is beginning, but on “Just Friends” they presented it right out of the gate. Additives to its surprising e- and d-flat familiarity were handled by all, though it was Frisell and Konitz (the latter playing beautifully despite what seemed like reed troubles) who kept jumping in with remarkably crystalline statements. It was nobody’s band, but the rhythm section’s timekeeping kept the music surging forward.

Critical bias: I dig when avant-gardism doesn’t call attention to itself.

Overheard: “We’ll have to see if the architect can blend Japanese austerity with sort of Turkish all-over-the-place. I’d prefer the Turkish direction, and quite frankly, I don’t think it’s gonna be possible for my father to have both.”

Set list:
Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Body & Soul
Stella By Starlight
I Can’t Get Started
Just Friends
I’ll Remember April


Live: Janka Nabay And The Bubu Gang Heat Up Ginny’s Supper Club

Janka Nabay and the Bubu Gang
Ginny’s Supper Club (at Red Rooster)
Tuesday, August 7

Better than: Being an extra in a spy thriller.

Clearly, I’m a bit more of a diva than Sierra Leonean singer-songwriter Ahmed Janka Nabay. The setting for his record release party last night could barely have been more swank, but for all the comforts offered by the downstairs room in Harlem hot boîte Red Rooster, live music presentation is obviously not a priority. That the scene felt like the set of a ’60s spy thriller only enhanced the sense at first that Nabay and his band Bubu Gang were somewhat incidental; the real action might have been the exchange of a flash drive with serious global implications going down in the crowd, with the Gang’s driving dance rhythms serving as its cover. But last night, instead of whining (like me) about the dreadful sound, or lamenting (me again) the fact that Ginny’s has almost no decent sightlines to the stage unless you score the table where David Byrne (Nabay’s Luaka Bop executive producer) was sitting much of the time, the singer and his party band went to work winning folks over.

Turns out that was easier than it looked. Nabay asked the sound engineer for volume at one point, and though the sound got a bit better about midway through the hour-plus performance, that’s not what eventually pulled the crowd into his orbit. It was the insistence of rhythms that reach well beyond the four-on-the-floor base of percussionist Jonathan Leland’s drum programming, a substructure of Western familiarity undercut by the Sierra Leone-specific accents made evident by various little percussion instruments and the textures of Michael Gallope’s keyboards. About a decade or so ago Nabay figured out how to modernize bubu, the indigenous religious music of his country’s Temne people, back when Sierra Leone’s civil war left little time to think about much more than conflict. That push to envision a future when the road ahead seemed gravely uncertain is mirrored in his life since leaving his homeland. Stories of Nabay logging time working in Pennsylvania fried-chicken joints are legion, but it is the act of eventually putting together a band of indie Brooklynites and teaching them to play his music convincingly enough to garner releases on a Matador subsidiary and now Luaka Bop that speak to Nabay’s outsized charisma.

The night’s other surprise was the way the Nabay Gang worked the crowd up without the presence of a dancefloor. Nabay’s baritone is a reedy hiccup that’s more plain-spoken than riveting, and one would have to understand Temne or Arabic to distinguish the subject matter of, say, “Ro-Lungi (Airport City)”—the song about bubu’s current globetrotting with a hypnotic guitar counter-rhythm by Douglas Shaw—from that of “Eh Mane Ah (Take This Advice)”, which talks about population control. (“O my people… we’re having too many children.”) Nabay’s fellow Sierra Leonean expat Pupa Bajah, of Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew, raised the energy even higher by grabbing a mic and spitting his signature rapidfire freestyle, a rousing contrast to Nabay’s plaintive chants. The interplay between two homies who probably know more than their fair share about excelling against all odds was stunning.

Critical bias: It’d be cool if folks chose music more often when given the choice between music and style.

Overheard: “The leather on these couches is so soft it’s like someone skinned a baby something.”

Set list:
Eh Congo
Kill Me With Bongo
Tay Su Tan-Tan
Eh Mane Ah
En Yay Sah
Top Soul Bah
Eh Mufan


Live: Shabazz Palaces Bring A Party To Fort Greene Park

Shabazz Palaces w/THEESatisfaction
Fort Greene Park
Tuesday, July 24

Better than: An evening lazin’ in the park.

As a longtime resident of Fort Greene, I’ve gotten used to changes. (Insert standard gentrification gripe here.) They don’t tend to come without warning, though, so when I stepped away from the hanging-in-the-grass vibe in Fort Greene Park yesterday between sets by THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to come back in the middle of an everybody-on-your-feet throwdown. Wish I could tell y’all how it went from one to the other. The only certainty is that In the ten-minute space I used to pedal (furiously, I might add) home to my own bathroom, Shabazz Palaces managed to get all these folks who seemed to be chillin’ on blankets at girl duo THEESatisfaction’s stoned soul picnic not only standing, but pushed right up against the stage.

They stayed that way, for obvious reasons. I think somewhere in there a metaphor exists for how Ishmael Butler, the MC-lyricist half of Shabazz Palaces, transformed himself from the groove-juice sipping Butterfly of Digable Planets to his current electro-charged alter-ego Palaceer Lazaro. Having vacated an apartment right near Fort Greene Park around the time Digable called it quits back in 1996, Butler has been putting things together from Seattle—where he was a basketball star in high school—ever since. Folks like to point out that his parents were boho/Marxist/whatever when that actually meant something, and though his music reflects that as much now as it did in the ’90s, it’d probably be a mistake to look at Lazaro as anything more than a persona Butler is damn good at fleshing out.

It goes beyond the fastidious chaos of his beats, which last night threw echo and a catalog of dueling vocal effects against rat-a-tat rhythms and boomy sub-basement bass, or his titles, which notoriously give listeners much to chew on. (He didn’t seem to be working from a set list, but I’m almost certain that “An Echo From The Hosts That Profess Infinitum” followed the love song “A Treatease Dedicated To The Avian Airess From North East Nubis (1000 Questions, 1 Answer).”) Butler has always been smart, confident and humane, but perhaps not as unabashedly confrontational as he is on something like “Yeah You”, baptizing a hater with “you corny, nigga” and “you weak, nigga!” In all the press last year that accompanied Black Up (Sub Pop), the Palaces’ debut, very few pointed out the title’s play on the minstrelsy-era custom of “blacking up,” in which whites often caricatured blacks by applying dark makeup. Such an inscrutable reference invites the kind of misunderstanding Butler probably wouldn’t clear up if asked to (the music “is what it is” is his standard reply), but the toughness in both music and lyrics is worthy of a rapper who’s been around the world and now wears a salt-and-pepper goatee.

The beauty of the band’s live act is how Butler and percussionist/hypeman Tendai Maraire handle the barrage of elemental sound with an economy of means. Standing behind congas and a hi-hat, Maraire undercuts the techie effects with thumb-piano episodes and rhythms that would work just as well as the heartbeat of a Santeria or Nyabinghi ceremony. I was tempted to be dismissive of the vibe at one point, when the crowd up front started swaying in that hazy way that says “drum circle,” but actually it’s a neat trick to get music this claustrophobic to feel airy and breathe. Butler may be a wordsmith par excellence, but he showed his understanding of the hierarchy of the hip-hop performance on “Swerve… The Reeping Of All That Is Worthwhile (Noir Not Withstanding)”, the piece that brought the girls in THEESatisfaction back on to reprise their role on the album. “If you talk about it, it’s the show,” went the lyric. “But if you move about it, it’s a go.”

Critical bias: I can be suspicious of samplers as opposed to live instruments.

Random notebook dump: As some ominous dark clouds rolled by overhead near shows end, it almost looked as if the promoters had hired a wind machine. It was actually kinda cool.


Live: Orchestre Poly-Rythmo Give A Master Class In Percussion At Central Park

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo w/SMOD
Central Park SummerStage
Sunday, July 22

Better than: Air conditioning in a heat wave.

There’s a shopping list of fine pop bands from throughout the African continent listed on one page of drumming major John Miller Chernoff’s esteemed 1979 ethnographic study African Rhythm and African Sensibility. He names several acts that have now been recognized in the West for quite some time, but somehow Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo—whose full name at that time translated as the “Poly-Rhythmic Orchestra of Cotonou,” after its home city in the small West African nation—is the sole group described with an adjective: “marvelous.” The mention didn’t do them much good at the time (Poly-Rythmo would disband within a decade, reeling from personnel losses as well as the independent nation’s ’80s lurch toward dictatorship), but as advance notice of the band that hit Central Park SummerStage yesterday, it might be seen as a message of assurance reaching across generations.

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo is as much a world-class band now, in reconstituted form (four members in the Central Park troupe were cofounders), as they were then, when hitmaking made them the pride of their nation and a draw in neighboring Nigeria, Ghana and the Congo. (Those countries, it bears repeating, had no shortage of renowned superstars.) An emphasis on excellent musicianship may have always outstripped their personal identity, though; they named themselves “poly-rythmo” not merely because their grooves are polyrthymic, but rather, because they were adept at a diaspora’s worth of styles from Afrobeat to Cuban and Congolese rumba. What distinguished their ’70s discs—compilations of which generated the interest for the reunited band’s first European tour in 2007—was a sizable adherence to the fuzzed-out psychedelia of the period, the play of bloozy James Brownian funk guitar against sun-parched horn charts.

The psychedelics may be downplayed on Cotonou Club, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s gorgeous 2011 album, but the Central Park set proved that one would need to be beholden to a kind of one-dimensionality Poly-Rythmo has always sidestepped in order to hold that against them. (And besides, you’d have been a minority amid the fleet-footed crowd, onboard seemingly from the moment vocalist Cosme Anago launched into “Ne te fâche pas.”) The band clearly knows where its roots are; it began and ended the show with a percussion processional that cast each member as a ritualistic priest, a nod to the primordial vodou rhythms indigenous to Benin. In between it was all urban, and, to these ears, subtly Caribbean. Rumba of the Central African variety gave way to Latinate funk, which then cleared the way for a rousing Africanized version of Haitian compas. The entire band could easily give a master class in the propulsive interweave of percussion: Hand-drummer Celestin Honfo and trap-drummer Roland Mélomé were doing the heaviest lifting, while the singers and hornplayers doubled on myriad “little instruments” from cowbell and indigenous castenets up to shekere.

By the time Poly-Rythmo had 1) gotten comfy with a clavé rhythm that could’ve booked safe passage from Havana to Miami, and 2) consistently unfurled bass, guitar and keyboard lines that exhibited raucousness despite fluid edges, it was obvious that the familiarity had disarmed the crowd to some degree. Though cofounding lead singer Vincent Ahehehinnou was both engaging and apologetic in his limited English, it wasn’t until later that I realized he hadn’t tried to disclose what the song lyrics (sung in Fon, Yoruba and French) meant. Tellingly, that didn’t keep him from getting the crowd to sing along on more than one occasion. Given the intensity in the audience, it felt like they could have gotten away with just about anything.

Critical bias: I’m still pulling for Afropop to be the next big thing… again.

Random notebook dump: Caught only the closing song of SMOD, the opening act, but dug the way the Malian MC and acoustic guitar trio (guitarist is Amadou & Mariam’s son Samoli Bagayoko) spiked a dancehall-ready finale with the lilt of Chic’s “Good Times”.

Set list:
Ne te fâche pas
Chéri Coco
Belle Afrique
Ma vie
Gbeti Madjro
Ou c’est lui ou c’est moi

Hwe Twe Houn


Live: Trio 3 And Jason Moran Come Together At Birdland

Trio 3 featuring Jason Moran
Thursday, July 19

Better than: Bidness as usual.

In theory, last night’s gig by a piano-augmented version of Trio 3 had its share of conventions. For starters, Oliver Lake stood out front on the bandstand at Birdland with an alto saxophone, the presumptive lead voice in a quartet, a hornplayer pushed by a rhythm section. The immaculate cut of his suit (convention number two) focused the audience’s attention as surely as the mic tricks he employed at climactic intervals to alter his tone’s dynamics. (Incidentally, he was the only musician onstage who chose business attire.) As Lake slowly waved the alto from the left to right across the mic, approximating the sound of that car you’ve spied in the rearview that passes you and then disappears in the distance, it hit home that the St. Louis-bred veteran, 69, is of that generation that turned the solo saxophone recital into an art. He also cofounded the famously rhythm-sectionless World Saxophone Quartet, an ensemble of reedists quite comfortable keeping its own time.

Last night’s music, however, went a quite a ways toward explaining why Trio 3 is a collective rather than a dance between a leader and accompanists. The other core members, drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman, have made tons of history backing up everyone from Art Blakey and John Coltrane (Workman) to David Murray and Cecil Taylor (Cyrille), but they’ve also led their own celebrated groups for several decades. The ensemble was expanded by peripatetic piano star Jason Moran, who at 37 hadn’t been born when either member of Trio 3 began leading groups. For several years now Trio 3 has enlisted Geri Allen for piano duties, but I’m told that this week’s engagement with Moran, which runs through Saturday, is the run-up to a recording session next week for the German indie Intakt.

To his credit, Moran was particularly diverting while aiding the group in crashing conventions. He’s a player who builds on the eclectic expressionism of his late mentor Jaki Byard, so he can coat the proceedings in clusters as well as apply sensitive pointillism. The set opener, “Lake’s Jump,” found the band launching an off-kilter take on a characteristic jazz stomp, while the second piece, “Amreen,” began in balladic fashion before its boppish intervals were pushed by Lake’s sprints and a gorgeous solo by Workman. It was possible to hear each member of the band take Lake’s entreaties in a different rhythmic direction—Cyrille in a trenchant dialogue between cymbal and snare, Workman in prismatic runs both plucked and bowed—while the center held firm.

It’d be tempting to posit Moran’s youth as a catalyst for the evening’s forays into danceability, especially since he brought in the most unabashedly funky piece of the night, “Refraction 2”. One thing that undermines that logic, however, is the fact that Lake superimposed Breaking Glass, his own gripping blues monologue/poem, over Moran’s new-jack groove. An allegory about recycling that recounted how its Zora Neale Hurston-era protagonist came by his work ethic, it simultaneously took the colors in Moran’s accompaniment way back in time while holding a torch for futurism. The other piece with a pulse (as well as a tinier poem), Cyrille’s “High Priest,” revealed a more gospelized approach to soul-searching that may have been chronologically less contemporary, but had no trouble keeping the house rocking. Of course, with Lake spitting abstractionist fire all over it, the pulse turned out to be the most conventional thing in earshot.

Critical bias: There should be much more collaborating between jazz’s various youth movements and its vets.

Random notebook dump: Who knew “High Priest” was written for firebreathing saxist (and former Cyrille sideman) David S. Ware’s fashion sense? Cyrille: “Look at his shoes, look at his clothes and the apogee of his superpose.”

Set list:
Lake’s Jump
Cycle 3
All Decks
High Priest
Just Nine


Live: Cassandra Wilson Paints A Stunning Picture At The Blue Note

Cassandra Wilson
The Blue Note
Thursday, June 28

Better than: Imagining the funk of 40,000 years…

Last year The Guardian put together a list of 50 key events in the history of jazz music, and Cassandra Wilson managed to nab slot No. 46 for “rediscovering the blues” on her Blue Note debut Blue Light ‘Til Dawn. That was just shy of 20 years ago, and even though I’m not sure that event would have made my top 50, hearing Wilson’s band last night offered persuasive evidence that the record was still the defining milestone in her career.

For starters, guitarist Brandon Ross, one of the shepherds of Wilson’s conversion from what one might call M-Base jazz-funk neophyte to Delta-bred Earth Mother, was onstage with her again, serving as one half of the twin-guitar rusticity that has pretty much defined her touring bands since that album’s release. Ross is the kind of improviser who can rock hard while avoiding the heroic inflections that have come to define rock. He was matched by Wilson’s frequent music director Marvin Sewell, whose mix of slides and spacey bent notes has the blues side covered and then some.

Wilson’s new disc, Another Country, is her first at a new label, and she’s clearly not try’na fix what ain’t broke. Instead, she fastidiously tweaks the sound around her umber contralto ever so slightly; it was somewhat surprising two years ago to hear the addition of pianist Jonathan Batiste on 2010’s Silver Pony, her final Blue Note disc. But last night’s sonic foil for the guitarists was perhaps more in line, though slyly so, with the rootsy needs of a queen of the millennial Delta to whom Norah Jones owes a big debt of gratitude for figuring out how to make jazz pop. Swiss harmonica phenom Grégoire Maret got nearly as much solo space as Wilson herself, and yet, he was channeling Stevie Wonder as much as, say, Junior Wells or Sonny Terry. (The set-opening instrumental, sans Wilson, was a version of “The Secret Life Of Plants.”)

The emphasis on chromaticism suits an ensemble that fuses styles so effortlessly. For the arrangement of “The Man I Love,” for instance, the band chugged along at a groovy, midtempo clip anchored by a liquid bass vamp and hand-drumming until the bridge, which slowed things down and spread them out into a virtual no-meter swing that Wilson’s voice swam through. There was a pocket and then, miraculously, no pocket, a faux-mystery that kinda mirrored Wilson’s subsequent joke to the audience about television: “Actually, they have real-life TV on TV now, right?” she queried. “But the question is, ‘Is it real?'”

That may be the formula for how Wilson’s arrangements create drama. Her voice fills up so much space that the band can begin every piece minimally; drummer John Davis needed little more than rimshots and a hi-hat to propel the music at one point, at another, it was simply hands beating on snare. Oddly enough, however, once these rhythm-scapes are in place Wilson’s jazz chops assert prominence. The guitars swell, the cymbals kick in, and you don’t hang on Wilson’s every word so much as wait, suspensefully, for her to exhale. Her voice is both husky and velvety, so its scat syllables, already formidable, take shapes that are astonishing in their seeming originality. It’s not unlike the rainbow palette she describes demotically on “Red Guitar,” the new album’s best original, where the lyrics find her bathing in “blue water,” lying on “white linen,” drinking “black coffee” and walking in “green gardens.” (She strapped on a rouge ax for emphasis.) And when the band dispenses with minimalism by infusing a blues stalwart like “St. James Infirmary” with a healthy dose of N’awlins cissy strut, somewhere inside the mix it’s possible to imagine hollers from every corner of the African diaspora, ancient, present and future.

Critical bias: I’m a pushover for women named “Cassandra,” which is my younger sister’s name.

Set list:
The Secret Life of Plants
Saddle Up My Pony
The Man I Love
The Chosen
Another Country
Red Guitar
St. James Infirmary


Live: Balkan Beat Box Party In The Park

Balkan Beat Box
Celebrate Brooklyn! at the Prospect Park Bandshell
Saturday, June 16

Better than: Having to fight for the right to party.

Balkan Beat Box have made nearly a handful of fine records, but they’re no match for the power of the party band’s live show. It’s probably a measure of how fusions become more formidable when the blending is less clear, much like when your inner foodie manages to turn a seemingly all-over-the-place shopping list into a gourmet meal. “Take a taste of where I’m from,” Yemenite Israeli MC Tomer Yosef said at the onset of the band’s magnificent show in Prospect Park on Saturday night, probably acutely aware that everything from the accompanying scratch rhythms to his deep set eyes and dark complexion make where he’s from a question-mark at first glance. (He later sang about being profiled as a terrorist on a flight.)

The band is simultaneously from Israel and everywhere (in that order), which breaks down to an imaginary-ville suggested by the music, in which Gypsy brass-bands and dub have long since defied their geographical origins. It’s a sound with a New York backstory that might someday form a chapter in a book similar to author Will Hermes’ recent Love Goes To Buildings On Fire, an unraveling of how cofounding saxist Ori Kaplan made his way through the city’s klezmer and avant-garde jazz scenes before hooking up with drummer-producer Tamir Muskat on the fringes of the Gypsy punk community, spearheaded by the band Gogol Bordello. (Both have at times worked closely with Bordello’s Eugene Hutz.) Yosef came onboard when the two expat instrumentalists realized they needed a frontman, and his background in comedy and radio back in the home country (where he and Muskat are now resettled) goes a long way toward explaining where his charisma comes from.

At several junctures of the show, the rush of Muskat’s rhythms was so fluid that it was impossible to tell what styles his sticks and laptop were syncopating, except to the degree that they had something to do with either the Caribbean, martial patterns or the Middle East. Balkan Beat Box has clearly made luring crowds into their uncategorizable space an obsession; several pieces after the opener, on a drum-and-bass-driven song called “Porno Clown” (from Give, their new album), Yosef again beckoned the crowd: “Come people come, take a taste of where I’m from… come people come, let me give you some.”

If the new disc seems to pull back some from the horn-centered polyphony of the band’s earliest records, onstage Kaplan’s presence is undiminished. It’s not just that they still play fleet-footed globalist instrumentals like “Balcumbia” and “Kabulectro,” but that second reedist Peter Hess helps Kaplan bathe the newer dance grooves in an echoey, spiraling version of what one might call the Bulgarian wedding-band wheeze—a sound that would command listeners to jump around even if they weren’t following the movements of Yosef. The singer’s default flow seems to be Jamaican toaster, though his rasp is adept at belly-dance microtones (“My Baby”) and straightforward rock. As bassist Beno Hendler and guitarist Ron Bunker punched their way through rock-steady reggae, rockabilly tremolos (“Urge To Be Violent”) and a rousing new piece that saw the whole band in a raucously linear rage against the machine (“Political Fuck”), the horns kept up their insistence, linking their resilient new world to the brave old one.

Critical bias: Alternate band name: “Balkan Dub Box”.

Random notebook dump: From what I heard of the tail-end of the Chilean band Chico Trujillo’s punky set of new-jack cumbia, this was an evening folks won’t soon forget.

Set list:
Taste of Where I’m From
Part of the Glory
Enemy in Economy
Suki Muki
Porno Clown
Bulgarian Chicks
Move It
Digital Monkey
Dancing With The Moon
My Baby
Ramallah/Tel Aviv
Urge To Be Violent
Political Fuck
Joro Boro
Look Like You
No Man’s Land