Monday, June 25, 2012

Brief Notes on Recent Shapeshifter Shows

The new Shapeshifter Lab in the Gowanus is really taking off, with strong bookings multiple nights a week for the past month or so. I was able to catch the trio Sun of Goldfinger (Tim Berne, David Torn, Ches Smith) at the Lab last week. It was a great follow-up to the recent Tim Berne/Nels Cline/Jim Black appearance at the same venue. In either case, take Tim Berne on alto, add a guitar magus/shaman/mad scientist and a heavy, multi-genre-spanning drum presence doubling on electronics, and you've got something that could be its own sub-genre of improvised music, though I wouldn't know what to call it.

I also saw the middle night of Oliver Lake's three-night run at the Lab, which featured the Darius Jones Trio playing before Lake's Organ Quartet. I've been enjoying Jones' new quartet record, but seeing the trio (Jones is the only musician the quartet and trio have in common) made me realize I need to catch up with his earlier stuff too. Jones' musical voice is strong and clear and there seems to be no limitations on what he can do technically on his instrument. Seeing him play with Oliver Lake was a pleasure, with Lake stepping in to contribute some fiery solos on a couple of Jones' tunes.

I think this was my third time seeing the Organ Quartet, and what I noticed most this time was the richness of Lake's compositions. They can be enjoyed, but certainly not wholly apprehended at first listen (at least not by me). There's a lot going on in these tunes - rhythmically, harmonically, structurally - and the format - alto/trumpet/organ/drums - adds to the sense that Lake has carved out his own territory with this music. It's recognizably part of a tradition (or maybe multiple traditions) but there are no real, obvious antecedents that come to mind. I'm looking forward to hearing how Lake's compositions sound on the big band record he's been working on.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Three Nights in May

Psychic Paramount @ Le Poisson Rouge
I finally got the chance to see the Psychic Paramount, the heavy, vocal-less guitar-bass-drums trio whose albums I've been enjoying for the last year or so (especially the latest, II). There's a great purity to what they do, with everything, including their look, stage lighting (and smoke!), and album packaging contributing to the total effect. And it is very effective. On record, their sound is an enveloping, physical experience (and a frightening one if you've been listening to something quiet before a Psychic Paramount album comes up on the iPod - they master their music LOUD). Live, they sacrifice none of the precision of the studio and, as it should be, the experience is more overwhelming.  As in any successful trio, and especially for one that produces this big a sound, all three musicians have to pull some serious weight. Jeff Conaway on drums sets a high level of intensity while getting into some complex patterns and remaining locked in with Ben Armstrong's bass, which is often the most steady, insistent rhythmic element, relentlessly propelling the music forward. Drew St. Ivany, on Les Paul, alternates between contributing to the rhythmic drive and taking effects- and feedback-aided solo excursions. Much of the variation and drama in the music comes from these shifts in what the guitar is doing. There's no loud-quiet-loud here, but it is surprising how many different kinds of loud these three musicians are able to produce.

Fred Hersch/Dave Holland/Billy Hart @ Jazz Standard
On paper, this lineup sounded like the product of a very hip jazz fantasy league draft. In practice, this was a dream team that lived up to its promise, giving me the feeling that I might just be listening to the world's greatest piano trio (though I really wouldn't want to get into a debate on that question - how can you compare, for example, Hersch's regular working trio with John Hebert and Eric McPherson - just about the gold standard these days - with The Bandwagon and The Bad Plus, two long-running trios who are almost in their own separate categories, existing in musical worlds of their own creation?) The set included some tunes from Hersch's repertoire - "Still Here", Ornette's "Forerunner" (probably the best version I've ever heard from a Hersch group, surpassing even a very memorable one at the Vanguard with Paul Motian) - as well as at least one Holland composition and, to close, Charlie Parker's minor-key "Segment".

I was seated to extreme stage left, so that I was closest to Hart's kit. From this location, the sound mix was a bit off, but it was worth it to have such a privileged vantage point on exactly what the drummer was doing. I don't recall hearing Hart in a piano trio context before (though there are some fine trio moments on his latest quartet album, All Our Reasons), but he supported Hersch beautifully and the feel he brought to the music was supreme. Holland played through an amplifier, which didn't seem to color his tone much but did help make every note distinct (something his technique had a lot to do with too, I'm sure). He seemed to be having a ball playing with Hart, and his solos were full of clear, spontaneously realized ideas - he seemed to be improvising in complete sentences. There was a nice moment on Hersch's "Mandevilla" where Holland played a brief idea based on a descending pattern, only to have Hersch echo it part way through his solo which followed - just the kind of detail that makes piano trio music, at its best, a deep, rich music rewarding (and sometimes requiring) close listening. There were also a few of those moments which seem to happen in every Hersch set, and on his records, where he seems to have reached a peak of invention in the course of a solo only to go beyond it, fluidly unspooling a few more yards worth of brilliance before coming back to earth (apologies for the mixed metaphors!).

Milton Babbitt Retrospective @ Elebash Recital Hall
This memorial retrospective at the CUNY Graduate Center, featuring nine of Babbitt's compositions spanning almost 60 years, was a good crash course for me. I'd heard only a few Babbitt compositions, though I did get the chance to see the massive (and currently non-working) RCA Mark II synthesizer he used up at Columbia a year or so ago. Perhaps because it was the first time I was hearing many of these extremely dense, complex pieces, I tended to enjoy the solo works best, particularly None but the Lonely Flute, More Melismata (for cello, and one of Babbitt's last works), and My Ends are My Beginnings (in which a single performer alternates between clarinet and bass clarinet). While the program was full of impressive performances, the undoubted highlight was Philomel, the Babbitt work that is probably most often tagged with the term "masterpiece". Like "masterpiece", "stunning" is an overused term of praise, but it accurately describes the effect of Judith Bettina's performance (in conjunction with the backing tape featuring the Mark II). Combining otherworldly (and now probably unrepeatable) synth textures and Ovid-derived serialist arias, Philomel (composed in the Year of Beatlemania, 1964) is still a revelation (as Ethan Iverson put it in his Babbitt obit, this is "permanently avant-garde" music). If you follow that last link, I recommend you go one step further and check out the really excellent Babbitt documentary Iverson links to (also available on YouTube).