Thursday, June 4, 2009

Two Duos - Grimes/Cyrille, Scheinman/Fulks

I saw two duos perform in NYC recently - Henry Grimes and Andrew Cyrille at the Bang on a Can Marathon in Battery Park City, and Jenny Scheinman and Robbie Fulks at Barbes in Park Slope. The only obvious links between the two were violin (Grimes and Scheinman both played one, Grimes doubling on his main instrument, bass) and Bill Frisell (Grimes and Cyrille followed him, Scheinman frequently plays with him). Otherwise, these were very different experiences - Grimes and Cyrille free-improvising in the glass-and-palm-tree canyon of the Winter Garden, Scheinman and Fulks harmonizing with guitar, fiddle, and a bunch of songs in the tiny back room of Barbes.


It's a good thing that the Bang on a Can Marathon has a big, attractive venue to accomodate it's annual orgy of free music, but the long, tall open space of the Winter Garden tends to swallow up sound. When I saw a Johnny Cash tribute concert in the same space last year, I thought my problems with the sound might've been a result of sitting too far away from the stage. This time, though, I was much closer but still found that many of the details of the music got lost in the reverberations of the space. The new piece (noirish, soundtrack-y, a bit like Blues Dream) that Frisell performed with the Bang on a Can All-Stars sounded good, but I think I would've liked it better had it been louder (Frisell himself was conspicuously quiet, though this might've been partially a result of his wanting to keep the focus on the band and the composition) and longer.

As for Grimes and Cyrille, a tremendous amount of music was being produced by just two men, but I couldn't help thinking how much better it would've been in a small venue, where every nuance could be seen and heard. Grimes alternated between bass (olive green and covered with shiny star stickers) and violin. On bass alone, he was something of a one-man orchestra, bowing, strumming, double-stopping and producing a wide, deep stream of music. Cyrille's drums, skittering, restless, kept the music moving forward, though not in anything like a straight line.

The music was decidedly and proudly free, and clearly could've continued much longer (Grimes has a recent double-disc that documents a 2.5 hour continuous solo improv session!), had a PA not been given the extremely unenviable task of coming on stage to give the "wrap it up in five" signal. I know they had to keep the (extremely full) program moving, but can you imagine someone tapping Mingus on the shoulder and telling him to wrap it up? Maybe the musicians asked to be signalled so they'd know when to stop, but I still don't envy the person that had to do it.

I also saw a string quartet performance of Gavin Bryars' watery, "Amazing Grace"-haunted "Sinking of the Titanic" at Bang on a Can (after which the news was announced from the stage that the final survivor had died!), but I came away thinking that the title might've been more appropriately applied to Grimes and Cyrille's music. As opposed to an underwater quartet, playing calmly as the ship goes down, Grimes and Cyrille conjured the shreiks of the drowning, the groaning of the ship's hull. That's part of the beauty of this kind of music - not only is it "free" of harmonic and rhythmic constraints from the players' point of view, but the listener is also left entirely (and perhaps uncomfortably) free to interpret the music, including interpreting it as grating noise.


Though she's clearly capable of playing just about any style of music, violinist Jenny Scheinman is probably best known for her jazz work. Talking genre in relation to Scheinman's work can be misleading, though. The music she's made with Bill Frisell, for example, incorporates significant classical and American folk elements. And if last night's show was typical, her recent live collaborations with singer-songwriter-guitarist Robbie Fulks have been showcasing her love and talent for country music. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that these two musicians were working together, as I was to hear that Fulks is now living in Brooklyn. He may now qualify as the borough's finest country musician, though that's a little like having the finest knishes in Nashville (sorry, country musicians of Brooklyn!).

This was my first time seeing Fulks live, and he lived up to his reputation for on-stage wit, even getting laughs with a between-song riff on Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev. I'd always thought of Fulks primarily as a songwriter, but his guitar playing and singing (lead and harmony) impressed at close range, testimony to his experience and mastery of traditional styles. He played some great songs that I'd never heard, including some from his 50-song MP3 collection 50-Vc. Doberman. Fulks is the kind of songwriter that creates and inhabits characters - a fed-up barroom troubadour in "Goodbye, Virginia", a homicidal father in "Whitetail Woods Incident". His songs rarely seem to be sung from the point of view of "Robbie Fulks". He's also able to write new songs that sound old - he's obviously a serious student of country music, in all its forms.

Songwriters that have these characteristics are like "genre" film directors, in that they tend to be thought of as great "craftsmen" rather than great artists, often an unfair or incomplete judgment. It's no insult to point out that Fulks' craft as a writer is exceptionally strong, though. A close listen to the way he chooses words and fits them into the structure of his songs will tell you that much. Nothing is out of place and, at the same time, there are little sparks and surprises in the songs that take them beyond the workmanlike.

Having only heard Jenny Scheinman in jazz and instrumental contexts, I didn't know quite what to expect of her as a singer and folk-country songwriter. Maybe it's some kind of latent bias I have toward vocal music that makes me surprised to find out that someone I associate with instrumental music has a good voice - "if they can sing like that, why aren't they doing it all the time?" Actually, Scheinman seems to do a good job in her career of balancing and accomodating all the various types of music she's interested in (another Frisell associate, bassist Tony Scherr also sidelines as a rootsy singer-songwriter). There seems to be deep emotion behind Scheinman's songs, but they're not straightforward confessions. She incorporates dream logic and imagery and uses suggestive and allusive lyrics to set up and increase the impact of more plain, direct declarations.

Her fiddling is top notch, totally embracing the style of whatever tune she's playing. No showiness. No "jazzing things up" to show she's more sophisticated than the material. Besides trading original songs, Scheinman and Fulks also played two associated with the Carter Family, "Single Girl, Married Girl" and "John Hardy", plus a Jimmie Driftwood tune and an Alvin Crow instrumental, "The Broken Spoke Waltz", which a young Scheinman learned from a record her father brought home from a trip to Texas. This was the last of the Scheinman-Fulks shows at Barbes, but her ongoing Tuesday night residency continues. The next couple weeks look to be a return to jazz territory.

Bonus Henry Grimes Links

video of Grimes at Newport playing "Blue Monk" with Monk - a lot of this is shots of the crowd and sailboats, but Grimes appears at about 1:20 and again after the 4-minute mark

the entire Jazz on a Summer's Day documentary appears to be here - it's an absolute classic

Henry Grimes' mind-boggling discography - sessions with the biggest of big names in the late-'50s/early-'60s, then a 37-year gap


Margaret Grimes said...

Thank you for your enthusiastic and insightful columns, Steve! Please will you refer your readers to Henry Grimes's web site,

Margaret Grimes said...

Also, Henry is playing again next in New York City this coming Thursday, July 25th (2013) from 8 to 10 p.m. at the Zinc Bar, We hope you will come by and write some more! The group includes Aruan Ortiz, Francisco Mora Catlett, and special guests Henry Grimes and Don Byron. Thanks again!