Wednesday, August 19, 2009

CThreePO: Fieldwork summons robojazz fury at the Stone

The Stone was sweltering tonight. I attended Fieldwork's late set and the heat and the music aligned to induce a very heavenly sort of delirium. Fieldwork is a band without a leader, still a rare thing in jazz. The members--saxist Steve Lehman, pianist Vijay Iyer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, the latter of whom curates the Stone this month--are all well known for fronting various projects and generally being on forefront of contemporary-jazz bad-ass-ness. Together what they are is a machine.

All three musicians compose for the group, but I wasn't able to discern any particular diversity in writing style during tonight's set. (I plan to go back to the band's latest disc, Door, to see if that assertion really holds water.) The trio played about five longish pieces, all in the eight-minute range, and the style was very consistent. Let's call it robojazz, or something. Fieldwork specializes in vamps, of a sort, namely the most dizzyingly complex sort you've ever heard, played largely in straight (i.e., nonswung) time. It's the jazz equivalent of math rock, and it's a mode that maestro Tim Berne has excelled in for years. Check out Berne's bands Hardcell and Science Friction and then listen to Fieldwork and you'll see what I mean: Both feature a kind of asymmetrical funk grid sketched by lockstep piano and drums, with tart, intricate sax lines laid over top. (I don't want the Berne comparison to seem too reductive, since Fieldwork definitely carves out its own space within this territory. Its approach to vamping comes off as generally more oblique, with the three instruments orbiting each other in ultrasubtle ways, like parts in an elaborate mobile.) For me, jazz like this is like chocolate and peanut butter: I get the proggy rhythmic tendencies I so dearly adore in rock, and I get the daredevil improv and inspired looseness I love in jazz.

As much as Fieldwork foregrounds its collectivity on paper, it was hard not to feel that tonight's show was Tyshawn Sorey's show. Sorey has taken great pains--in the liner notes to his great 2007 release That/Not and in commentary related to his new disc, Koan--to emphasize his disinterest in flaunting his world-class chops on his records as a leader. And indeed, on the aforementioned sessions, he backs up that rhetoric completely. These are outstandingly restrained albums, to an almost ascetic degree. Sorey's playing in Fieldwork is another story entirely

A lot of jazz musicians you talk to will describe performances as "burnin'" or "killin'." I guess the metal equivalent would be something like "shredding" or "face-melting." Whatever your preferred terminology for this phenomenon of utter musical density and proficiency and decimation, it would apply in a major, major way to what this drummer was up to tonight. You know those percussionists who reproduce drum 'n' bass electronica live, and how it's kind of cool but also kind of a pointless gimmick? Sorey takes that level of ungodly coordination and proceeds to chop and screw it. He sounds like the world's smartest, most passionate, most paradoxically anarchic computer.

A hulking young man. He starts slow and throws his whole body into it, grimacing as he nails a cymbal crash. It's all about the stutter, the suggestion of ultimate fragmented funk, rising into some unbelievably swift cyborg rhythm, like the turbo-speed apotheosis of a paradiddle. Cracking the snare, muted with (tonight) a wallet or a piece of paper. Hi-hat snapped taut for maximum crispness. Just impossible levels of groove, making it so that you have to move, like you're shaking off a bee that's stinging you. Sicker and sicker and sicker. The guy doesn't relent. And then there are the digressions: transferring the pattern to the bell-less ride, pulling up short on the high tom, rolling his way back over to the hi-hat for a breath-stealing choke. Basically what we're talking about is the airy buoyance of Tony Williams combined with the deadeye precision of Neil Peart, and neither aesthetic gets short-shrifted.

So yes, Fieldwork a collective, but it's damn near impossible to take your eyes and ears off Tyshawn once he gets going. Iyer's playing in the group is deep and mysterious. He's vamping but with notes chosen for maximum drift and eeriness. The combination of his dreamy chord haze and the tautness of his rhythmic grids is exceedingly odd. He plays a lot like a bassist in Fieldwork, trancing out on the robojazz ostinatos, sometimes insanely long so that you can't for the life of you figure out if they're repeating exactly or where the one is or what the hell is going on. All you know is that Iyer is in control and that eventually he and Sorey will stop without warning on a dime and you'll be shocked just like you were when the piece before ended exactly the same way. (This is another prime Tim Berne trick.)

Lehman's contribution tonight seemed like the slightest. That had a lot to do with the fact that it was hard to hear him. Sorey was punishingly loud at times and didn't seem to want to concede much in that department. But the saxist knows that he has a lot of work to do to pierce through the grid the other two lay down, and he slices in and out with torrid, punchy lines. A very edgy sound. At one point, he busted out some shredded-throat-sounding multiphonics, which made for a great contrast with the sleek futurism churning underneath. Lehman provides a crucial squiggly, mercurial texture, writhing over top of the solid steel.

There were moments of soft stillness, pieces of fruitful quiet. But like water in a draining bathtub, everything was always sort of tending toward that glorious pounding rigor, and every piece eventually did get to that point. By the third or fourth piece, there was a same-iness to the set, but honestly, I couldn't have cared less. The asymmetrical-robojazz vibe is like catnip for me, and I didn't want it to stop. If you've ever loved thorny yet propulsive fusion (Mahavishnu Orchestra), thorny yet propulsive electronica (good example escaping me--Autechre?), thorny yet propulsive classical (that one part everyone loves in "Rite of Spring"), thorny yet propulsive Balkan music (don't know enough to list a good example but I'm confident in my citation of the style), thorny yet propulsive prog (Yes), thorny yet propulsive math rock (Don Caballero)--any music where it's all about that holy confluence of brain and balls--you absolutely must behold the way this band aerates that aesthetic, makes it make sense with the cutting edge of postmillennial jazz.

Fieldwork represents the best kind of foregrounded virtuosity. There's heart and weirdness and unpredictability mixed in and however dazzling the music is, it isn't superficial. It really is that tight, that complex, that powerful and most importantly, that human.


Brian Roessler said...

Thanks for this review - I really got a sense of what it was like there tonight. Tyshawn Sorey is my favorite drummer these days, and you really got at many of the things I love in his playing. Boy do I ever wish I could have been in NY this month to check out all he's been doing at The Stone.

Brian Roessler

AccuJazz said...

What a great review! I love Tyshawn and Fieldwork for all the reasons you laid out. It's nice to read an earnest, emotional appreciation of live jazz rather than the common critical nitpicking, or regurgitation of cliched music journalism metaphors.

Jason Crane said...

Wow. Now THIS is a review. Nicely done.

Shamless plug: Vijay Iyer will be on The Jazz Session on Oct. 8 to talk about his new trio record, Historicity, which debuts that week.

Jason Crane
The Jazz Session

Ricardo Gallo said...

I was there, I am glad I didn't miss it. This review captures a lot of what was being projected through the music. The writing comes from such a strong emotional reaction, especially towards the end. For readers who might not have heard this trio, I would only say that robojazz might seem appropriate to the material, but the way they perform this material is not robotic, it's the opposite, organic, fluid, natural.

michael said...

Great review! Wanted to go, couldn't make it, now deeply regret it. I'd found Fieldwork through a love of Vijay's music so I'm usually listening to the piano, but after reading this I went back and specifically listened to what Sorey is playing, and good lord, he's amazing. Thanks much for pointing out something worthy of deeper listening.

And I'll definitely check out the Tim Berne recommendation!

michael said...

Oh, and "thorny yet propulsive electronica" is Squarepusher all over.