Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Thoughts on Some Recent Shows (+ Amazon Knucklehead Dilution Project)

In the last couple weeks, I've had the opportunity to see three of the most exciting contemporary drummers on the New York scene: Tom Rainey (with guitarist Nir Felder), Ches Smith (with his These Arches group), and the man who has fit that description for over 50 years, Paul Motian (with a quintet).  Rainey was the only one of the three that I hadn't seen before and he was extremely impressive, employing a full range of techniques (including playing with his bare hands) with a concentrated focus - you can see Rainey listening and the results, whether subtle accents or controlled explosions, consistently elevate the music being played (Rainey is truly onto some "next level sh*t"). I would think Felder's music must sound very different when he plays with any other drummer.

I'd seen Ches Smith before (with Mary Halvorson and in Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog), but I don't think I'm ever quite prepared for him. One of the most fascinating drummers to watch, there is something very visual about his style, simultaneously free/out/avant and rock-oriented. He seems to have a special mind meld with Mary Halvorson, finding just the right weird thing to perfectly accompany whatever weird thing she's playing at a given time (and to be clear, weird is to be taken as an endorsement of this music). This was my first time hearing a set of Smith's compositions, and though I probably can't describe them adequately (they were pretty diverse), I definitely want to hear more. 

I've written plenty about Paul Motian, but there was one moment toward the end of the recent set I saw at the Village Vanguard when the sound coming from his corner of the stage was just amazing. He really had the whole kit simmering with an utterly distinctive combination of (among other sounds) "pish"ing cymbal, clattering sticks, and a sound that reminded me of kicking the side of a file cabinet. As I said about Fred Hersch's piano sound at the Vanguard, I don't think any recording I've heard of Motian has quite captured what he sounds like in that room.

After seeing Motian's quintet last weekend (he's at the Vanguard for two more weeks with two different groups), I think I can feel a major Bill McHenry phase coming on. McHenry's use of space with Motian was one of the more striking features of the group's sound.  He built up solos gradually, deliberately, from short phrases separated by pauses that seemed almost uncomfortable (like pauses in a conversation that last just a little too long) to longer, more sustained runs, whether languid or fleet - it was edge-of-the-seat dramatic and wholly successful.

The entire quintet impressed me with how fluent they were in Motian's language, with McHenry and pianist Russ Lossing perhaps most outstanding in this regard. Distinctively Motian-esque phrases kept cropping up in the midst of improvisation (certainly on Motian's own tunes - the set I saw seemed to follow a strict pattern of alternating Motian compositions with standards). Some of this was just a matter of improvising on the melodies, but at other times, it really felt like these players were really thinking like Motian, they'd absorbed his compositional language and now sounded like natural, native speakers.

And while I'm on the subject of great contemporary New York-based improvising musicians, I should point out an injustice of sorts that's recently come to my attention. I noticed yesterday that Jason Moran's pretty much universally praised Ten, consensus best jazz album of 2010, currently has a three-star (out of five) rating on Amazon. This matters because it could potentially keep people away from discovering this album. People who may not be familiar with Moran's work or only know his earlier stuff might actually give credence to the two (in my opinion) wildly misguided two-star reviews and miss out on some great music. Surely Ten had more than four total reviews at one time, but now it seems that it's being sold through an Amazon affiliate and Amazon has wiped all the previous reviews and started from scratch, so that these two bad reviews really stand out and have undue weight.  So, what I'm proposing is that any fans of Ten reading this follow this link and review it. Let's right an aesthetic wrong here. (And maybe somebody with a blog readership exceeding mine can pick this up and make it a mini-campaign.)

Bonus Links
I found a great Bill McHenry audio interview (along with two streaming live sets) here.

And a sweet YouTube find: McHenry Sings Carmichael! (in Spain, while looking a lot like Mad Men's Paul Kinsey)

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