Thursday, February 4, 2010

WSQ/M'Boom at Birdland

When I first heard about this, I assumed for some reason that M'Boom (the all-percussion group founded by Max Roach) and the World Saxophone Quartet would be playing separate sets. Even though I eventually found out that they were playing together, I was not at all prepared for the sound of nine or so master musicians launching into the staccato intro of "Hattie Wall", the WSQ's traditional set opener. The WSQ has a big sound on its own, but the addition of M'Boom's interlacing rhythms, those additional, complimentary colors (including Joe Chambers playing the tune's insistent nine-note motif on vibes), created a moment of music that was thrilling in the most literal sense. It was so powerful, so strong, as to be genuinely moving. And that was just the first tune.

I've written about the WSQ before, and I've been hoping for a chance to catch them live. At Birdland, all three surviving original members were present - Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake, and David Murray. That's a gathering of saxophone colossi right there.  There's no substitute for Julius Hemphill, but James Carter brings a huge amount of fire* and game on alto and soprano.

I don't know if Max Roach had any pedagogic intentions when he started M'Boom, but seeing the group perform is like taking a crash, non-academic course in percussion appreciation.  The depth and sophistication of the group's music expands notions of what can be achieved with percussion instruments in a jazz context (obviously, all-percussion ensembles are a highly developed tradition in other parts of the world). The WSQ was already a highly rhythmic group - despite having no traditional rhythm instruments, their work almost always has a strong rhythmic pulse, often driven by Bluiett's baritone - so the addition of M'Boom was less about giving the WSQ a rhythmic foundation than it was about adding greater complexity, extra dimension to the music.

Although nothing in the rest of the set quite matched the shock/awe of "Hattie Wall", the music stayed on a high level as the combined groups played compositions from various members.  One Murray composition was based on an Amiri Baraka poem called "Imagine Obama Talking To a Fool" ("ha-has of imbecility"!), though Murray titled his composition "Yes We Can" (can't wait for the viral WSQ campaign video in 2012 - watch your back,  There were moments when the elegance of the harmonies and arrangements suggested Ellington, and there were nods to the percussion-heavy musics of Brazil and Latin America, including a showcase for Latin percussion legend Ray Mantilla.

*A large digression, or a whole other post, would be possible on the role of overblowing and other post-Coltrane sax techniques in this music, suggested by this recent study (via NPR's A Blog Supreme).  In short, I'll just say that to me, at least in the WSQ's music, these sounds suggest not anger or rage, but attempted transcendence, an effort to push past the limitations of the instrument, of technique, of the music (Hamiet Bluiett briefly touches on this subject at about 8:20 of this profile - the whole thing is worth watching, though).

Bonus Links

Some vintage performance footage of M'Boom (this site is definitely worth browsing - lots of great video)

My previous post about the WSQ with links to some amazing YouTube videos of them playing in an elementary school

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