Tuesday, September 22, 2009

In Bloom: Monder/McHenry at Cornelia Street Café

[Photo: Laal Shams]

If all goes as planned, I will hear Sunn O))) live tonight at Brooklyn Masonic Temple. It will no doubt be a guitar/amp communion, and I'm definitely looking forward. Heading over to a duo set by tenor saxist Bill McHenry and guitarist Ben Monder last night at Cornelia Street Café, I didn't realize I was in for a prelude of similarly glorious semi-abstracted dronesmithery, but as it turned out, Messrs. Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson may have a hard time living up to what I beheld this evening.

If I was surprised by McHenry and Monder's set, it's a fair bet that the musicians were as well. Mere seconds before they began, I saw Monder turn to McHenry and ask, "So what are we doing?" What they did was a freely improvised 45-minute set - divided into four or so longish pieces and a brief coda - and it was a killer. You really don't hear spontaneous musicmaking of this coherence and grace very often.

From the start, the music had a prayerful quality. The first piece felt palpably humid, with Monder gradually constructing this hazy sort of drone, abetted by his volume pedal and a bevy of effects, employed tastefully. He held the pick in his mouth and coaxed the notes, shaking the body of his instrument to draw them out. McHenry drifted slowly alongside him, blowing meditative tones and seeming utterly committed to an aesthetic of melting, of hovering ooze. It was hot in the room. The players' faces were slick with sweat early on, and you felt that in the music - static and singing and luminous, hanging in the air.

From there, the pieces blur together in my mind. I know that Monder at one point (or two?) slowly worked up an ominous cloud of distortion, a harsh, scary shape on the horizon of the music. McHenry stepped forward on the stage and dug in. The music was completely abstract, but in a very physical way. The musicians were wrestling with the sounds, and there was deep tension in the music. You honestly didn't know where it was going to go, and neither did the players.

Monder began one improvisation solo, with a few minutes of jagged sci-fi riffage. Brusque, hard-edged - like cyborg fusion (anyone who's heard 2005's mighty Oceana knows that he's completely at home with robojazz). McHenry entered tentatively and then stopped. It was easy to sympathize. The tempo Monder had suggested was just too brisk, his syncopations too thorny, for any horn to find its way in. So Monder backed off and McHenry came back, and together they began another steely, hovering prayer. It was music that wasn't about anything at all, but it was so unpretentious, so listenable. No bullshit difficult-for-the-sake-of-difficult sounds, no ostentatious experimentalism. What it was, was a humbly free music - created totally in the moment but without that self-congratulatory or "What I'm doing is the most unprecedented thing ever" vibe that you get from bad experimental improv.

There were moments later that hinted at starry-eyed jazz balladry, even at twangy Metheny- or Frisell-ism, but the music wasn't jazz, anymore than it was, say, post-rock. It was just an atmospheric feat, one of those sets where you're marveling at the concentration of the players as much as the music. And at the heart of it all was this hovering drone, this glacial "om" sort of thing, with McHenry painting artful squiggles over top. It never got all that loud, but you could feel it oozing into the room and into the mind. I took off my glasses for a lot of it, and the blobby shapes I saw seemed more complementary to what I was hearing than the clear lines I'm used to. The set had that special kind of diffusion and amorphousness and yet it didn't overstay its welcome. I know Sunn O))) will get at that smokelike, room-filling ambience - how could they not, with all those amps and those taffy-stretched riffs? - but will they get there so unfussily, so organically? I've got to say, these two jazzers in street clothes just might beat the cowled avant-metalists at their own atmospheric game.

P.S. Haven't heard the new-ish Monder/McHenry duo CD, Bloom - and I didn't even know it existed till just now, since the musicians did not hawk it whatsoever from the stage or, as far as I know, sell it at the gig - but I nonetheless have a very strong feeling that a better ambient CD will not be released this year.

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