Monday, July 18, 2011
The unruly engine: Odean Pope at Iridum
I caught Odean Pope and his septet at Iridium last night, and it was one of the loudest sets of live jazz I've ever heard. This was an incredibly forceful band, one that seemed to punch holes through the air when all players aligned for the ensemble passages. (It didn't hurt that the featured guests were saxist James Carter and drummer Billy Hart.) I had heard Pope's latest record, Odean's List, some months back but I hadn't refreshed before the show and thus didn't really have the sound in mind. It was pretty brutal, a turbocharged postbop display. In recollecting the show, I think of Charles Tolliver's recent big-band music. This outfit of Pope's is a much smaller band, obviously, but like the Tolliver orchestra, it focuses on a dizzyingly exact blare, notes perfectly stacked to yield maximum sheen and volume. It's jazz as attack music, the polar opposite of pensive.
This jazz steamroller was definitely an awesome thing to behold. The set included some deeply old-school jazz machoness, often originating from the two guest stars. This was my first time hearing James Carter live, and though I had a sense from records that he was a bit of a beast, I didn't really get just how beastly he actually was. You can't witness this man play and not think of a bull, or some other snorting, writhing creature—or, for that matter, some elemental force. He basically uses his horn as an implement via which to rend sound; that's the only word that seems to do his approach justice. What his saxophones (tenor and baritone) emit is a stream of aggravated air, as though the molecules were so terrified of his lungpower that they just come sputtering and stampeding out. Some notes ring clear and loud; others are trampled in the crush, and they squeak and yelp as they expire. He may be the closest performer I've ever seen live to someone like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, one of these true world-destroying sax behemoths.
At times Carter simply drowned the band out—it's pretty much impossible to listen to anyone else when he's soloing—but Pope set up some cool cage matches for him, including a lengthy duet with Hart near the end of the set, during which the esteemed drummer took on a kind of schoolyard toughness. It was a friendly square-off, but clearly a take-no-prisoners one: Each player was unmistakably trying to knock the other off his horse. If I had my choice I'd rather hear Hart in a more cooperative context, but this was an exciting alternative.
Carter also dueted with Pope at one point, both players steaming and barreling along simultaneously. It was an impressive fireworks display, but for me, it paled a bit alongside the highlight of the evening. The latter came early in the set. I didn't catch the name of the tune, but the head was to-die-for, a lush, Mingus-y ballad. Interestingly, unlike on the rest of the pieces, all the solos here were totally unaccompanied; the band would play a brief theme statement, and then drop out entirely, leaving the featured player to monologue.
The first few of these breaks were by Pope himself, and they were just glorious. I was not terribly familiar with Pope going into the show. I knew he was a veteran Philly tenor player whose work sort of straddled the avant-garde and the hard-swinging. Maybe in my mind I had aligned him with someone like the late, great Fred Anderson. Anyway, I didn't have a sense of his actual sound, though, and it was a thing of poetry: During these unaccompanied breaks, he combined startling boppy fluidity with wonderful little blemishes—a squeaked note, a spell of noisy overblowing. Neither element took over, so that you never felt like he was pushing beyond what a distinguished player "ought" to do in a jazz-club setting like Iridium, but he was riding that boundary in a very subtly daring way. He tipped his hand slightly, as if to say, "I could get seriously out if I wanted to," but his statements were compact. He also gave generous solo space to pianist George Burton and bassist Lee Smith. He seemed to consider himself just another player in the ensemble.
No disrespect to Carter & Co., but I wouldn't have been too upset if Pope were the only soloist of the night: The gruff, gritty imperfection of his sound brought a crucial sense of struggle to the proceedings, like an unruly engine in a sleek, flawless sedan.
So I'm officially curious about Odean Pope. What are the essential records? I definitely want to dig into his work with Max Roach, as well as his Moers and CIMP sessions. What about the Saxophone Choir or the recent Porter CDs? This stuff is all more or less unfamiliar to me, so I'd welcome any recommendations. Go here (as I'm about to) for a typically informed Bagatellen discussion of the Pope discography.