Monday, January 12, 2009

Visions (many) of jazz

Most of the weekend I was in the West Village, listening to jazz. When I reflect on the sheer amount of killer players I got to hear this weekend, all within like a ten-block radius, I start to realize how much I tend to take for granted living in New York.

Friday's engagement was Bill Frisell, Ron Carter (left) and Paul Motian at the Blue Note. This one was prompted by my good pal (since kindergarten) Kyle, who's visiting from KC. I wouldn't have thought to check it out but I'm very happy I did.

The set had an extremely casual, laid-back sort of vibe to it. Smiling and gracefulness all around--these men were clearly enjoying one another's company. I've never been a huge Frisell fan and this set didn't win me over, but I could appreciate the appeal. He's obviously a highly twangy player, to my ears a sort of hokey one, but I was enjoying the graciousness of his presence. Frisell was delighted to be playing opposite Carter, and my favorite parts of the set were when the guitarist just comped in a nice and easy way and let the bassist speak freely.

Carter was outstanding. I'd never seen him live before (nor had I seen Frisell). He surprised me with how busy and expressive he was. I'd always thought of Carter as an extremely subtle, unflashy player, but he set off plenty of fireworks during his solos. Keeping time, he was silky, laying low in a deep pocket. The band just had this casualness to it.

As with last time I saw him, Motian struck me as powerfully strange and unique. What I feel with Motian's ride cymbal pulse is that it is one of the less autopilot right-hand pulses I know. He literally seems to choose each note or phrase in the split second before he plays it, so his sense of time has this disjunction about it. Sometimes he waits so long, the beat has passed him by, but somehow there's a pillowy propulsion. With brushes, he is, as Kyle pointed out, a wisp--nearly undetectable for long passages.

This set did not slay me, but it was thoroughly unique. Loved one piece where Frisell and Carter traded call-and-response phrases throughout, and was struck (maybe not in the most positive way) by another which Frisell started out with ghostly looped harmonics. I am not on Frisell's page aesthetically, I don't think. I grew a bit weary of the twang, the up-front folkiness of his playing, but again I admired the interactivity and the easy flow of the set. There's definitely something to watching players who very clearly relish being onstage together.


Just a few blocks south, Winter Jazz Fest went down the following night. They've held this event at Knitting Factory (RIP) for a few years, but this year, they moved it to the West Village and spread it out among three venues: Sullivan Hall, Kenny's Castaways and (Le) Poisson Rouge. Great value, I'm telling you, and an enthusiastic crowd. Check out who I was able to see in one night:

*Jeff "Tain" Watts's Watts Project with Branford Marsalis (performing under the pseudonym Prometheus Jenkins)

Had just gotten done reading the fascinating chapter on Branford in Ben Ratliff's excellent The Jazz Ear, so I was very psyched and curious for this one. Four virtuosos I'd never heard live before, and really barely heard period: Tain, Branford, Terence Blanchard and Christian McBride. They took the stage a few minutes after midnight and just casually detonated, really. There was a hootin'-and-hollerin' vibe about this set: The whole thing felt like an inside joke between the players, in the most charming way possible. Marsalis was straight-up bullish. Tall, imposing, full of strident energy. Commanding is the only word. Tain was the Jolly Drum Giant, beaming and smacking away. I'd often heard him compared to Elvin Jones, but to me he was so much more bombastic. He didn't solo a whole lot, but his chops were always upfront; he couldn't resist messing devilishly with the beat. As with Frisell, I wasn't always on his aesthetic wavelength, but I was astonished by his technique and totally charmed by his happy presence. McBride slayed, manhandling the instrument and summoning effortless funk. His bass solos weren't like "bass solos"--there was nothing missing. He filled all the space. Blanchard was, simply, blaring. Nice mix of tunes: churning blues, steamy ballad, furious funk, one rollicking polka/bop thing. Set seemed to last forever, but I was thrilled to have seen these guys in such a small room.

*Dafnis Prieto Sextet

The biggest surprise of the evening by far. In the most positive sense, this music was absolutely disgusting. Turbocharged Latin-fusion firebomb, much? Searing. Completely showy and bombastic and unabashedly shredding. Nonstop excitement. I feel like pyrotechnics should have been going off all around the stage, accompanied by jugglers on unicyles, cheerleaders, athletic demonstrations. It was just all about movement and motion and fire and unabashed chopsmanship. Prieto (above) was nasty: Slamming all around the kit like an Afro-Cuban Billy Cobham. Tunes were gritty and ballsy and *hard*. Soloists (Dave Binney, Peter Apfelbaum, Ralph Alessi) all brought something unique. Unstoppable. The band is promoting a new CD, Taking the Soul for a Walk. Favorite tune by far was "En Las Ruinas De Su Infancia," which you can hear at that link. Brash, manly Latin explosion.

*Don Byron's Ivey-Divey Trio
Trio with Jason Moran and (first) Eric Harland and (later) Billy Hart. Byron stuck mostly to clarinet. I'm honestly not sure I've ever heard Don Byron's music before, weirdly. This was very expansive stuff, sometimes aimless-seeming. Wasn't hugely into Byron's somewhat shrill clarinet tone. Harland played the first tune, filling in for a late Billy Hart. When Hart jumped in, things got a lot more interesting. They did "Body and Soul," a very poignant, drawn-out version. Hart was miraculous on brushes. I remember his very hip agility. Like Carter, he got flashy and nasty when he needed to, but cruised along when that was called for. The set gradually closed in and focused and ended with a very strong one-two punch: First a gorgeous Byron/Moran duo, a gospelish piece that came out of nowhere and stole my heart. Then what I think was Basie's "One O' Clock Jump." All in all a strange set; it felt unfocused at times, but I was nevertheless very psyched to hear these three idiosyncratic players exploring together.

*Sex Mob
What can you say about them? They do what they do. Boomy raunch. Is this stuff actually fun to play night after night, though?

*Jason Moran and the Bandwagon
Some Monk ("Crepuscule with Nellie"), some Andrew Hill ("Smokestack," complete with sample of the original recording), some pieces with Moran's wife, Alicia Hall, on operatic vox. The set didn't entirely click with me; moody, compellingly tense, very funky in places, but it didn't find a true stride. Of all the bands I saw, this was the one I thought suffered the most from the grab bag format of Winter Jazzfest. Set felt a little rushed, sound was boomy and indistinct. I would have rather heard them stretch out in a full-evening set. But these three touched on some very murky and turbulent groupthink that I enjoyed very much. Have long been a big Nasheet Waits fan and he was a marvel, hinting maybe at what it would've been like to dig Tony Williams. A fiery, idiosyncratic player. I haven't clicked fully w/ the Bandwagon in the past and I didn't really tonight either, but I know there's a lot there to love. I'm going to keep at it.


RVAjazz said...

I was in town Saturday night and was floored by how much music I saw in such a small geographic area in such little time. As an out-of-towner, I say treasure your time in New York!

BY said...

Really enjoyed reading what you had to say about Ron Carter and company. Give Sex Mob a chance. Ever hear Dime Grind Palace or Sex Mob Does Bond?

Phil Freeman said...

Dafnis Prieto is killer. I wrote about him a couple of years ago for Global Rhythm (RIP).