Friday, June 24, 2011

Recent (and Less Recent) Live Music, Part Three

James Carter Organ Trio w/ Nicholas Payton & James 'Blood' Ulmer
Having recently picked up Carter's live organ trio record (with Ulmer guesting), I had to check out this group live, especially with the addition of Nicholas Payton. I'd only seen Carter as part of the WSQ, and while his mastery was very much on display even as the junior member of that group, he has more of an opportunity to show his personality when leading his own group. In his interactions with the crowd, choice of material, even his sharp suit, Carter made it clear that, at least with the Organ Trio, he’s proudly working in the tradition of band leader as showman, though I hear no pandering in his playing. I imagine Carter takes on familiar material - the first, trio-only part of the set featured "Out of Nowhere", "Killer Joe", and "Come Sunday" (with vocals from drummer Leonard King) - knowing full well that he can transcend familiarity through virtuosity and straight-up musicality. (I thought there was another Sunday-themed tune, as the set was on Sunday night, but I can't remember it now. It definitely wasn't "Gloomy Sunday" or "Sunday Kind of Love". “Sunday in Savannah”? Maybe, but I don’t think so...) Payton and Ulmer came out toward the end of the set and were featured on the last few tunes, including Ulmer's blues guitar-and-vocal showcase "Little Red Rooster" (also featured on the live record). I would've liked a bit more of the guest stars, but that's not to say there was anything lacking when it was just the trio.

I also recently picked up a copy of Carter’s US recording debut as a leader, The Real Quietstorm, featuring an intriguing band that includes Dave Holland on several tracks as well as a young Craig Taborn on piano. It’s a serious record with an strikingly wide range of material (including pieces by Monk, Ellington, Sun Ra, Don Byas, Jackie McLean, and even Bill “Honky Tonk” Doggett) and Carter helps keep it interesting by playing six different instruments in nine tunes (it's not a gimmick if you can play them all as well as James Carter). As with the Organ Trio, Carter took on a potentially trite concept and made real, substantial music out of it.

Neil Young w/ Bert Jansch at Lincoln Center
I only recently bought my first collection of Jansch's music, having previously been more aware of his reputation than his actual music. Though his Scots-accented vocals got a bit lost at times on their way to the upper balcony, his mastery of the open-tuned acoustic guitar was absolutely clear and undeniable.

I've seen Neil several times (six? seven? eight?) now, and I would probably rank this solo appearance somewhere in the middle of those shows. There was nothing as transcendent as seeing him play "Like a Hurricane" with Crazy Horse in the middle of a raging thunderstorm or as surprising and satisfying as his rarities-filled solo acoustic set at the United Palace, but neither was there anything quite as awkward as seeing the full choreographed version of Greendale performed in front of a summer shed crowd or the debut of a long block of electric car-themed songs at Madison Square Garden before they'd been refined (I think that’s almost a pun in this context) into the form in which they'd appear on Fork in the Road. On a guitar geek note, the Gretsch White Falcon (familiar from the early CSNY days) threatened to upstage Old Black (yes, it has its own Wikipedia entry), as Neil played some surprisingly effective solo electric numbers on both guitars (something I've never seen him do). The best comparison I can come up with is this: if Old Black would kill you by liquifying your internal organs, the White Falcon would come to life, slice through your flesh and snap your bones with its beak. The Falcon had some serious bite.

Along with several newer songs (a mixed bag), After The Gold Rush figured prominently in the set, including what might've been the night's high point, an "I Believe In You" so pure and perfect that it seemed to dissolve time, making the 40+ years (!) since it first appeared temporarily irrelevant.

Gowanus Jazz Fest at Douglass St Music Collective - Michael Formanek Quartet, Frank Carlberg's Tivoli Trio
In the Formanek Quartet, the bassist-leader (the only member of the group I hadn't seen before) seemed to form a solid center with his playing, and his compositions were a fine launching pad for his hugely talented bandmates. Even among musicians as good as these, it's hard for Tim Berne not to be the center of attention when he's playing, but he also found opportunities to lay out, setting up some nice trio moments with Formanek, pianist Jacob Sacks and drummer Gerald Cleaver. I need to get this group's album (with Craig Taborn rather than Sacks on piano) as there seemed to be a lot of meat to the compositions that would reward repeated listening.

Cleaver was back the next week at Douglass St. with the Finnish pianist Frank Carlberg. Carlberg's Tivoli Trio compositions (inspired by childhood memories of a circus/variety show  trio) made for a fun, varied set, but it was bassist John Hebert who stole the show for me. I've seen Hebert several times with a wide variety of musicians, but I don't know if I've ever seen a group that gave him a better showcase. Hebert left no doubt why he, along with Cleaver, is one of the most in-demand musicians working. It was one of those performances that makes you think, at least on that given night, there can't possibly be anyone anywhere playing that instrument better. Hebert was somehow both inside Carlberg's tunes, in deep communication with Cleaver, and threatening to burst out of them with a surplus of furious invention.

Most recently, I saw Tim Berne/Ches Smith/David Torn/Trevor Dunn tour the stations of the free improvisational cross at Barbes (playing what Berne called “the Unpaid Jazz Fest”), moving together through moods ranging from outer spacey to droning to ferocious to funky. I hadn’t seen guitarist David Torn before, but I’m guessing that the phrase “mad scientist” gets used a lot in writing about him. He’s got a lot of gear and knows how to use it to get sounds that are both (to employ two cliches) ear-catching and mind-bending. He threw some crazy curveballs and often added contrasts to what the other musicians were doing without overwhelming them (though, to be sure, he could have with the tools at his disposal). It was also my first time seeing Trevor Dunn (though I knew about him going all the way back to Mr. Bungle), and I was impressed by how he maintained a very high level of focused, creative intensity, a continuous stream of ideas executed with conviction, for the entirety of an almost continuous hour-plus set of improvised music.

As at Douglass St, I noticed how good Berne seems to be at listening, his sense of when to contribute what to the mix, including knowing when to lay out. He seems to be all about the total sound rather than taking a star turn as a soloist, though when he decides it's time to throw down, he can chop some heads. As for Smith, he gave a clinic in [whatever you want to call the style of music this group was playing] drumming, going beyond the kit to play various toys and spare parts and then coming back to build a sick beat. Leaving aside all the extended techniques, I've never seen anyone play drums anything like Ches Smith does. He's certainly developed his own style, particularly in the unorthodox way he approaches the cymbals. I think it has something to do with the combination of long arms and a small kit.

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