Thursday, June 23, 2011
Mandance: Tarbaby at Undead Jazzfest
I spent the first couple hours of Undead Jazzfest 2011 channel-flipping. I took advantage of the staggered set times and jumped between venues to catch about 15 minutes of several different acts. I enjoyed watching Tyshawn Sorey deploy the gravity blast in his sparse, cryptic trio with Kris Davis and Ingrid Laubrock; hearing the often mercilessly abstract Nate Wooley play a straightforwardly beautiful solo with Harris Eisenstadt's Canada Day quintet; eavesdropping on Marc Ribot's ragged and poignant unaccompanied set. But then Tarbaby started playing and there was no need to think about OPTIONS, the blessing and the curse of the Jazzfest experience (whether Winter or Undead). I put the remote down.
I had heard this collective—pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis (who sounded incredible alongside Peter Brötzmann at Vision Festival XVI) and drummer Nasheet Waits (for my money, one of the greatest living jazz drummers), augmented with various guests such as alto hero Oliver Lake, who fronted the group last night—on its 2010 sophomore album, The End of Fear. I'll admit to having initially been baffled by Tarbaby's conceptual/satirical slant (the record features a lot of overdubbed voices, speaking on the topic of jazz convention—and by extension, race— and creating a strange push-and-pull with the music); in short, it's the kind of record with a good deal of fuss and context, which tends to turn me off. As so often happens, I set the album aside intending to give it a second chance, but that chance never came about.
I can see now that no matter how good the record was, it wasn't going to prepare me for the shock (I think that's a fair word) of seeing Tarbaby live. The combined power of these musicians was damn near scary: I felt like I was watching Led Zeppelin, where every player can detonate on their own, but together they were simply volcanic.
The first piece built slowly, with Evans worrying an impish high-register phrase while the rhythm section got its bearings. Lake strode to the mic and began zipping off his trademark turbo-avant-bebop lines, and the music swelled. The band was like a tiny creature drawing air into its lungs and doubling in size with each breath, until—by the middle of this initial number—it was a writhing, hulking beast.
I wish I could put before you the loudness and the weight these four gave off during the course of the set. It's that creeping feeling of "Wow, these players are obviously playing at about 1/10 their full strength right now—if they let it entirely off the leash, we're going to be in some serious trouble." And soon, we were, and it was glorious. This was classic inside-outside jazz, sliding in and out of swing time, always inviting the turbulence while courting the form. And all four players projecting such mightiness, just at the border of macho and yet imbued with so much soul and wit and graciousness. Postbop, I guess I'd call it, though a particularly boisterous and totally un-arty strain of it.
I remember Evans's whirlwind piano flourishes, delivered with classic showman's flair, thundering-herd-of-elephants solos from Waits, Revis's cathartic shout in the middle of what I think was the piece "Brews" (the band quickly fell in line, punctuating the end of every phrase with a collective vocal outburst). Energy-wise, the performance reminded me of any number of free-jazz blowouts I've witnessed, but the crucial difference was that there was a SHAPE and an architecture at play. The quartet worked with relatively brief pieces, a repertoire it knew cold—mostly originals, I believe, in addition to an awesome version of "Awake Nu" from Don Cherry's Where Is Brooklyn?—and as it pushed and pulled and pummeled and caressed these compositions, you felt a guiding logic underneath. A point to it all.
As recently as last week, Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus reiterated that "The future of jazz lies in bands." Tarbaby is definitely, definitely what he meant, and I really hope they get their due soon (someone please book them for a week at a club!) because they are every bit as impressive as TBP, the Bandwagon (of which Waits is also a member) or any of the other more high-profile collectives. That irreverent energy that left me cold on my initial brush with The End of Fear, as though the band were sharing a joke I didn't get, made perfect sense live; it translated as a rare camaraderie. Not the annoying in-jokeyness ("See what I did there?") that sometimes haunts outside-the-box jazz, but a very genuine sense of play—playing with fire really.
It's quite possible that Tarbaby is the most virile jazz band on earth. Again, that flirting with machoness, that cutting-contest mentality, but instead of just stringing solos together, these men were building something, sharing in their own gloves-off kind of way. What a joy to see Oliver Lake, a man who will turn 70 next year, romping around alongside three considerably younger players (their median age is about 40), and there being no sense of tedious reverence for the old guy. Everyone was scrapping together, trading blows. It's enough to make you sad that some older players don't test their mettle against younger generations, and the same goes with younger players who don't get in the ring with older ones. I've definitely written this before (I remember singling out the example of Darius Jones, who was brave enough to tap Cooper-Moore and Bob Moses for his Aum Fidelity debut), but it's such a crucial thing in jazz. It's risky, sure—for the old as much as the young—and not everyone is ready for it. But Oliver Lake is currently playing at an astonishingly high level. Make no mistake, he is a living master, and since he gigs in New York all the time—he'll be back at Undead on Sunday with his Organ Quartet—you are remiss if you don't go check him out. If at all possible, check him out with Tarbaby.
I hope someone makes a live record of this band, or better yet a live DVD. I'm frantically wanting to demonstrate to my friends who weren't at last night's show how great they are. I know I'm going to go back to The End of Fear with fresh ears, but when you get down to it, Tarbaby exists in an undocumentable realm. Regarding it on record is like playing with an action figure of a T-Rex. This is the kind of sweet, jovial thunder that you have to hear in nature.
P.S. Hypocritical as it may seem, here's a Tarbaby + Lake live clip that gives you a little taste of the wildness.
P.P.S. Here's Tarbaby's self-titled 2009 debut (which I haven't heard yet) on CD Baby.