Saturday, November 12, 2011

Go see Bill McHenry

Bill McHenry is playing at the Village Vanguard tonight and tomorrow with Orrin Evans, Eric Revis and Andrew Cyrille. Having caught a set last night, I strongly recommend that you go.

I've been following McHenry for a few years. I think it was 2006 when I first heard him live, playing at the Vanguard with the same band on his ’07 record, Roses: Ben Monder on guitar, Reid Anderson on bass and Paul Motian on drums. (McHenry's new record, Ghosts of the Sun, features the same personnel, and I'm pretty sure it comes from the same sessions as Roses.) In ’09, I caught McHenry in a very different context—a freeform duo with Monder, which you can hear on the album Bloom.

The band he's playing with this week is extraordinary. You've got pianist Evans and bassist Revis—both hailing from Tarbaby, who blew my mind at this year's Undead Jazzfest—and Cyrille, longtime Cecil Taylor collaborator and all-around jazz-drumming badass, behind the kit. I guess what struck me overall is this group's versatility, its refusal to align itself with any particular jazz faction. The band has no "angle," no spin, no gimmick; its M.O. is simply to commit fully to whatever tune McHenry calls, to get deep into it, to execute. The set was beautifully constructed: It opened with a stirring free-time piece, and I also remember a midtempo swinger, a funky soul-jazz stroll, an easygoing ballad. There was no channel-changing vibe at play though; it was just smart pacing.

"La Fuerza," a piece from Ghosts of the Sun, sticks out in particular. McHenry led the band through its floating theme—which for me paints a picture of a proud matador (as the title suggests, it's definitely got that Spanish flavor)—and then stepped aside to give Evans and later Revis some space. Each player built up from a misty cloud to a shuddering, super-physical climax. When those storms died down, Cyrille began an unaccompanied solo, constructed of little taps and clicks. Revis joined in, striking the wood frame of his bass; McHenry, sitting off to the side, started pressing down the keys of his horn, getting a percussive effect, and for a few minutes, the Vanguard stage became a makeshift drum circle.

Here and throughout the set, McHenry seemed delighted by the invention of his bandmates. After his solos, he'd retire to the bench at stage right and sit and listen, looking like a wide-eyed boy. There was a lot to hear. Evans was simply excellent: tasteful, minimal, bluesy at times, but breaking also into seismic, full-keyboard runs, episodes of zoned-out minimalism or full-on classical-styled romance. As he was when I heard him with Peter Brötzmann at this year's Vision Festival, Revis was both tough and songful, using his brief solo spots to advance the music rather than trot out technique. And Cyrille was a model of understated gravity; he swung and propelled with airy funkiness, the pulse sliding and gliding, and you felt no less buoyed by his out-of-meter colorations, which gave off a deep feeling of careful intent.

As so many have written, McHenry has this one-in-a-million tone, gauzy yet robust. It just sounds so classic, well-aged, the sonic equivalent of his tenor's tarnished gold finish. He sings through the horn with no agenda, assured rather than chopsy, no show-offiness. But like Evans, he has these sudden devilish impulses; he might let out a series of brief screeches, or a booming foghorn sound, or get caught up in a tic of fingering, a little OCD figure that he repeats and repeats.

This is that rare brand of jazz that has no name. No one seems to know where it came from. (Is is the Motian-Frisell-Lovano band, maybe?) It's the kind of jazz where the classic and the experimental bleed together and seem as one. Neither aspect feels perfunctory and both are heightened by exposure to the other; you listen harder to the "straight-ahead" swinging, sense more form in the open-ended blowing. It is not a noncommittal middle ground. It is an aesthetic of making calm, mature peace with the full spectrum of available materials. It does not draw attention to its own breadth and range. It is about using each strategy and sitting with it, making it genuine, so that it's not putting on a different hat for every tune, so that it all feels gracious and above board and non-intellectualized, non-"clever." Hear this band and you're not hearing a style of jazz; you're hearing players who take themselves out of the way of the music and just let the songs in, discovering on the spot what they want to sound like.


*NPR graciously streamed Wednesday's 9pm set by this band. Check it out in archived form here.

*As a P.S., here's a 2003 All About Jazz profile I wrote on Andrew Cyrille. I have fond memories of interviewing him; aside from his patience and thoughtfulness, I recall that he was the one who put me in touch with the late, great Walt Dickerson.

*As a P.P.S., I should note that I sent a few live-Tweet dispatches from this show, as well as from a performance by the great Texan black-metal band Absu, which I also caught last night, via the Time Out New York Music Twitter page. I'm still getting the hang of this practice, but I encourage you to follow our channel to check out further on-the-spot concert impressions from me and my esteemed colleagues.


Steve said...

I saw the late set last night and your review is right on. I'm also a Tarbaby fan so this was a dream lineup for me. The tunes I remember were La Fuerza, Old Folks, Honeysuckle Rose, the soul-jazz type thing (Evans really dug into this one) and a free piece to end. Just fantastic. All improvisers are supposed to be "in-the-moment" but McHenry seems really, really committed to that idea, and it makes him fascinating to watch.

Danny Figueredo said...

"Gauzy yet robust," is a very apt description of his sound, I think. I wish he would do another Sub-Standard record with Ben Street, Ethan Iverson, and Jeff Williams.