Friday, July 8, 2011

Recent (and Less Recent) Live Music, Part Four - Master Drummers

Here are some more reports on music I’ve seen in the last month or so. All three of the shows in this installment have at least one thing in common - they all featured master drummers: Charli Persip with Don Byron and Geri Allen (playing under the banner of Byron’s Ivey-Divey Trio, earlier versions of which have featured Jason Moran and Jack DeJohnette, among others), Ben Riley with Ethan Iverson and Buster Williams, and Andrew Cyrille with Ben Street and David Virelles. I'm always aware that I don't really possess the knowledge or language to adequately describe what musicians of this level are doing, but reading Robin Kelley's Monk biography has reminded me that there is value in documenting the day-to-day life of this music - who played with who, what they played, how it sounded - for future reference, even if the documentation is inadequate or incomplete. Some of the reviews Kelley quotes sound ill-informed, ignorant, or just plain laughable to us today, but even if they give a distorted picture, it may be the only picture we have of a particular moment in time.

Don Byron/Geri Allen/Charli Persip at Jazz Standard

I think of Persip mostly as the drummer on Mal Waldron’s amazing The Quest with Eric Dolphy, but his discography ranges far and wide (I love that he put out an album called No Dummies Allowed, though I haven’t heard it) in a career almost (but not quite) reaching back to the era that inspired Byron’s original Ivey-Divey album, a tribute of sorts to the famous Lester Young-Nat Cole-Buddy Rich session of the mid-’40s. Though playing as the Ivey-Divey Trio, the set went beyond the music of Byron’s original album to include Mel Torme’s ballad “Born to Be Blue”, featuring some tasty ballad tenor from Byron and impeccably swinging brushwork from Persip; “Joe Btfsplk”, a Byron original featuring a twisty clarinet melody which was not nearly as melancholic as might be expected for a tune named for a Li'l Abner character with a perpetual rain cloud over his head ("an allegory for clinical depression", according to Byron); and even some Monk (“Four in One”, I think), on which Allen, surely one of the better living Monk interpreters, did some particularly fine work.

Ethan Iverson/Buster Williams/Ben Riley at Smalls

Ben Riley is probably best known as a Monk alum, appearing on many of Monk’s major live and studio recordings of the ‘60s. Like Persip, though, he has a huge and wide-ranging discography, from Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge to his role in Sphere and other projects with Kenny Barron and Buster Williams. I listened to a Kenny Barron live trio album with Riley and Williams several times before seeing them with Iverson at Smalls. Iverson himself told the audience that he’d been listening to Riley and Williams with Jimmy Rowles and Mary Lou Williams as preparation for the gig. Although I wouldn’t have picked up on these influences, whatever preparation he did certainly paid off.

I’d seen Iverson playing the jazz canon at Smalls before, with Tootie Heath, and like that gig, this meeting with the masters was a lot of fun. The trio seemed to be feeling each other out a bit with the first set opening “Now’s the Time”, but things quickly took off from there. “These Foolish Things” was an early highlight as Iverson dug into the tune with some passionate and deeply melodic improvisation that should have erased any doubts about whether he belonged on the stand with Williams and Riley. Maybe it’s just because I’d recently read Iverson’s epic piece on Lester Young and listened to a couple of the classic Prez renditions, but I thought I detected some of that influence in the way Iverson approached the tune. The many, many sets Williams and Riley must have played together in their long careers showed to very good effect as they were absolutely cooking on a “Confirmation” that went into “Caravan” as Riley gave the rhythmic signal at the end of a solo, Iverson picked it up, and the trio took off to the desert. If there was anyone in the room not having a good time at that point, they have my sympathy. Though I was a bit doubtful about Williams' pickup-enhanced bass sound at first, he thoroughly won me over with his remarkable technique - employing double stops and slides to great effect - and the energy with which he propelled the music forward in conjunction with Riley.

Unfortunately I had to leave after the first set, but I wonder if they got to any Monk in the second. I also wonder what Stanley Crouch, who I believe I spotted at the bar (and who was the subject of a memorable interview conducted by Iverson), thought of the music (I guess if I had any guts, I could've asked him myself).

As a curious side note, I came across a couple of reposts (here and here) of the New York Times weekly jazz listings that included Nate Chinen’s blurb for this gig. Strangely, they appeared to have been rewritten as if translated into some other language and back into English. Iverson’s band is referred to as “The Terrible Plus” and Williams and Riley become a “stroke organisation” instead of a “rhythm team”!

David Virelles/Ben Street/Andrew Cyrille at University of the Streets

I’d seen David Virelles, a twentysomething Cuban-born pianist, play with Mark Turner, Ben Street and Paul Motian. It was clear in the context of Turner’s group that he was a substantial player with his own, non-derivative sound, but leading his own Continuum trio with Street and Andrew Cyrille he opened the doors wide, giving the audience a more complete view of the (quite advanced) stage he's reached in his musical development. Though there were compositions (Virelles’ I assume), the music often felt very free and the trio explored a wide dynamic range, unafraid to allow the music to approach silence at times. Though it encompassed everything from cool, stately extended chords to percussive clusters, there was a thoughtful/intellectual quality to Virelles’ playing that sustained a serious mood that was relieved by the more playful spirit of Cyrille’s relentlessly inventive percussion. As much music as Virelles and bassist Ben Street (one of those musicians who is ubiquitous, but for very good reason - he seems to be able to adapt to, engage with and enhance any musical situation he's in - he also always looks like he's listening really intensely, which probably has a lot to do with his success) were playing, I still found myself watching the drummer for much of the set. I suppose it’s no stretch to call Andrew Cyrille the archetype/patron saint of avant/free jazz drummers. He has a thousand sounds at his disposal, using every part of the kit and many things beyond the kit (he even took a “mouth solo” - Cyrille would’ve made a fine beatboxer), but every one is musical and he deploys them with taste and purpose (and he can swing plenty, too).

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