Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Destruction of Black Civilization, at The Stone

I think it's important (and, more importantly, fun) to supplement one's live music diet by occasionally taking a chance on a show, going to something based on just a name or a description without having heard any of the music or knowing about any of the musicians. If you're open to avant-garde/experimental music, The Stone is a good place to indulge in this kind of experiment. Which is how I found myself attending something called "The Quarktett Presents: The Destruction of Black Civilization".

Conceived by writer/critic Greg Tate, this was ostensibly a celebration of historian Chancellor Williams that, through a series of improvised "movements", took the form of a necessarily incomplete, but still impressive, grand tour of Black Music from blues and gospel to the funky electric church of Miles. I'm not sure I got an accurate count, but there were something like 14 musicians on stage (including a reader, a singer, and Tate doubling on laptop and bass). It is a measure both of my ignorance and of the current depth of talent in New York City that I was not previously aware of any of these musicians (save Tate, and I didn't know he played bass).

While Tate's ensemble Burnt Sugar (many of whose members were part of the Quarktett) relies on a system of "conduction" to guide their improvisations, this evening of music was guided by instructions, written by Tate and read to the players before each of the movements. Though not all of the 16 movements were performed due to time constraints, they were an eclectic bunch and the instructions reflected Tate's sense of humor and willingness to both challenge his musicians and allow them quite a bit of freedom.

Having only read about them, I imagine that this is what the musical/theatrical pageant/happenings of the late '60s and early '70s, as organized by groups such as the AACM, BAG, and the Human Arts Group, might have been like, incorporating poetry, theatrics, education, with improvisational music (in a pre-planned framework) at the heart of the enterprise.

The content of the music in some movements was left entirely up to the players and their interpretations of the instructions.  In others, they were playing along with tracks or samples from Tate's laptop.  Though many styles were touched on, the band was obviously at home in an electric Miles groove (apparently a major component of Burnt Sugar's sound), as they proved during a movement that consisted of playing "Directions" over a processed/distorted playback of one of Miles' groups playing it - bassist Jason DiMatteo particularly stood out on this one with some full-on, fast and furious Dave Holland stuff.

The evening ended on a very high note with a final movement utilizing Burnt Sugar's conduction techniques - trumpeter Lewis "Flip" Barnes' highly animated conduction of the group closed out the movement, beginning with instructions to the keyboardists to "play some Cecil", gradually building and cohering into a joyous, full group blues, provoking spontaneous vocalizations from a very amped audience.

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