Martin Longley's Music Blog
JAZZ GUITAR SOUNDS: New York (Part 1)
Lou Reed with John Zorn, James Blood Ulmer and Mark Isham are among the latest clutch of left-field eclectica surveyed by our Big Apple critic.
Lou Reed/John Zorn
John Zorn/Milford Graves/Marc Ribot
(le) Poisson Rouge
One of these two John Zorn gigs cost more to enter than the other. One of them possibly featured a portion of its customers who might just have been hoping that one of its artists would sing, and play some non-improvised material. Lou Reed and John Zorn performed in January of 2008 at the latter's Lower East Side venue The Stone, with a people-capacity of maybe sixty.
In that joint, folks knew to expect the unexpected, but the freshly opened Poisson Rouge club in Greenwich Village has an as-yet untested demographic, even though its booking policy is turning out to be almost as adventurous as The Stone's, particularly given its much larger size and very accessible location.
So, Reed is in a decidedly improvisational mode (even though his roadie periodically seems to place sheets of paper on a music stand: do these contain musical notation, reminders for effects pedal settings, or incoming emails?), but this state should come as little surprise, as he's been sculpting spontaneous 'noise' since the Velvet Underground days. Reed presumably feels more settled as a linear riff-generator, even if these repeated structures might extrude in slow motion, or be disguised as ascending guitar fanfares.
He can't escape some kind of rock'n'roll structure, but the resultant drones and swoops are still highly abstract when viewed from outside improvisation's inner sanctum. Zorn takes on the role of active partner, even if only because he's playing faster, stuffing more circular-breath throttling into the space, taking his alto saxophone tone to the highest cutting reaches, and sustaining great caterwauling threads at unending length. Whether pre-meditated or not, the pair end up mimicking Middle Eastern or gypsy drones, even going as far as the Basque Country and Scotland in their search for extended bleating textures.
Most of the music is deliberately targeted to sound painful or produce pain, but in a very controlled manner, shaped with precise attention to agony-detail. Earlier, frequent Zorn collaborators Phantom Orchard had taken harp and laptop to the perimeter, but now Zeena Parkins and Ikue Mori return for the encore, preceded by vocalist Mike Patton, who divides his stage-time between bassy beatboxing, chimpanzee gabblings and sometimes a highly tuneful sweet keen that lies comfortably on top of the Zorn/Reed wash.
This is ultimately Zorn's universe, but Reed is visibly excited by this new area of collaborative activity. Such adventurous searching is becoming an important factor in his musical life, far removed from any settling into a greatest hits complacency.
Two nights later, Zorn has had a haircut, and the band is playing in the round. The Poisson stage possibilities are interestingly varied. The evening's first set is cancelled at extremely short notice, due to what's described as either 'illness' or a severe 'personal situation'. This means that bassman Bill Laswell will no longer appear, and Zorn's rustled up guitarist Marc Ribot as a replacement for the second set.
This switch has the result of completely changing the musical landscape. With Laswell, events would have taken a pulsing, trundling dub turn, but with Ribot's guitar in place, the improvisations immediately surge up in a power trio attack of scrabbly, trebly hyperactivity, Milford Graves opting for dense free jazz blurring, with only isolated pools of sensitive pottering.
There's a more noticeable rapport between Zorn and Ribot, a result of their ongoing collaborations. They're reacting to each other within a millisecond, constructing twinned howls and fast repeats whilst Graves is circulating his thunder. Ribot has an amazing control over his guitar sound, switching quickly from shaken feedback to near-acoustic Delta blues scrabbles, from Derek Bailey to Jimi Hendrix to Hank Williams. Zorn is forced to react speedily, as Ribot immolates himself.
There's going to be two special guests for the price of one, Zorn announces, just before taking a break. Lou Reed's the man, and Ribot's going to remain, setting up the anticipation of a duelling banjos scenario. Yes, the axeman testosterone is soon spurting (as well as Zorn's showering of spittle, shot at massive velocity out of his horn bell, revealed by sickly blue lighting). Reed's better in this setting, which although remaining improvised, ends up being a sharp combination of free jazz and free rock's prime advantages. Reed selects the growling subtone zone that Laswell would have colonised, whilst Ribot tackles the tinnitus end. Reed's deliberately dinosaur-sluggish, death metal slow, as Ribot crams as much screaming detail in as possible. Graves is vocalising, adding an Afro-theatre aspect. Zorn is playing lower-note bursts, slightly obscured in the increasingly competitive mix.
The vibration is just right: a mammoth sound of violent tussling, performed with masculine subtlety.
The Larry Coryell Organ Trio
The last time that guitarist Larry Coryell played in New York was in February 2008, with his Indian-themed Bombay Jazz combo, at the Jazz Standard. For his return residency, Coryell is further up the amplified scale with his Organ Trio, teamed with Hammond man Sam Yahel and drummer Billy Hart. It's an entrenched band concept that would usually herald the arrival of a steaming groove, although this particular formation is more placid than anticipated, closer to mainline jazz, and less concerned with soul-blues funking. Coryell keeps a cool head, his tone staying smooth and silvery.
There's none of the seething crackle that he's still been harnessing on certain projects, even in recent years. The guitarist is in a very romantic mood, playing in soft shimmering tones, their message intended for his wife. Yahel maintains a purring swell, but doesn't rise up towards any Hammond histrionics. Likewise Hart, who's in an introverted, splashing mood. If each New York visit is rising on a slow gradient towards amplifier overload, Coryell has a few more residencies to fill before getting into power trio shape, but it would be exciting to hear him turn up the dial sometime soon, even though this tranquil side still has its balming advantages.
The Kenny Burrell Quintet
An even older old guitar master has just made his first New York appearance in close on a decade, playing a week-long residency at Dizzy's Club. Detroit dude Kenny Burrell has been given the unusual privilege of extending into the Monday of the following week, and this last night presenting his quintet feels like a celebration of a very enjoyable tenure.
Burrell's approach encompasses several jazz eras, beginning at the dawn of bebop, getting into some 1970s Latin-groove action, then including several more original compositions that distill the guitarist's varied sounds into a single timeless entity ("Mark One", for instance).
Like Coryell, he favours an archetypal jazz resonance, but it was Burrell himself who was instrumental in creating this particular glimmering tonal palette in the first place. The quintet features a stirring bunch of players, with the stripling Tivon Pennicott providing an equal power balance in the front line, ranging from flooding saxophone runs to delicate flute breezing. Peter Washington's on bass, pianist Benny Green is a 'special guest', operating on a flamboyantly lyrical level, whilst drummer Clayton Cameron highlights a clattering set of hardcore Latin influences, providing most of the combo's tougher edges.
When not proffering originals, Burrell has a vibrant choice of standards, picking out Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington's contrasting "Rain Check" and "In A Sentimental Mood", along with Dizzy and Chano Pozo's "Tin Tin Deo", in honour of both the club and Burrell's own early appearance on a pivotal Gillespie session.
Boris Savoldelli/Elliott Sharp
Making his New York debut, the Italian singer Boris Savoldelli initially appears as a forgetter of words, covering the floor in front of his stool with sheets of lyric fragments. In the end, he doesn't seem to need them, as he constructs dense layers of vocal loops with his real-time sampling foot-pedals.
The first half of Savoldelli's set represents some of the more populist sounds to be heard within this home of experimental music: even though he's improvising complete song-formations, he's building them up in the Bobby McFerrin manner, but utilising current real-time sampling techniques.
Savoldelli's imitating the sound of drums, bass, strings and the like, then logically concluding with a series of pop-sweet singing overlays. The methods might be adventurous, but the finished songs are very commercial. Savoldelli is mainly influenced by scat-jazz structures, but also includes elements of progressive rock and even Sardinian polyphonic choral singing.
He succeeds in a form of avant pop that can't help being viewed in contrast to what Savoldelli considers to be his 'darker side'.
This second part of the evening involves a collaboration with New York guitarist Elliott Sharp, within a completely improvised framework. It's necessarily surprising, as Sharp sets out to demonstrate the sonic diversity that lies within his many-stringed, custom-built beast. Employing a range of pedals and tools, he veers from tender filigree to howling feedback, packing in a multitude of textures, densities , abstractions, riffs, solos, sampled bass repeats and sampled clunks. Savoldelli is twitching violently, tapping his larynx in the name of vibration, manipulating his own sampled tones into wobbled pitch-waverers. He picks out linear lines, then jumps off into random abandon, and again, even though some of the pair's music is extreme,
Savoldelli always maintains an accessibility that could reward him with an appeal to those who don't regularly traverse these shadowy pathways. It was a fine night for both the audience and Savoldelli, who was visibly thrilled that his mentor-figure and prime influence Mark Murphy was in attendance.
James Blood Ulmer & The Memphis Blood Blues Band
As if the prospect of catching Ulmer isn't sufficient, the musical director of his Memphis Blood Blues Band is Vernon Reid, principally known as the leader of Living Color, and a self-confessed acolyte of tonight's main man. The combo's line-up also includes drummer Aubrey Dale, bassist Mark Peterson, keyboardist Leon Gruenbaum, harmonica player David Barnes (from Brooklyn) and violinist Mazz Swift (from Queens).
Ulmer made his name as a harmolodic disciple of Ornette Coleman, firstly as part of the altoman's band, then elaborating on those mysterious principles as leader of his own combo. In recent times, he's found the blues, although Ulmer's version remains aloof from the music's mainstream, incapable of relinquishing its twisting jazz roots. This is not to say that it's lacking in the giblets department. Ulmer ensures that his blues is teeming with roughshod downhome content, raw and unadulterated, whilst also being arranged to maximise the soloing prowess of the universally brilliant band.
When resting from solos, the players will team up to pump out ensemble riffs, slickly lashed together for full trundle-power. Barnes and Swift sometimes work so closely that their individually distorted instruments create an orchestrated grind, swiftly pursuing the guitar exchanges of Ulmer and Reid.
The repertoire might be mostly made up of old blues chestnuts, but they've never been heard in this mode before, derailed by rock, jazz and funk motifs. What is it about the old guys, and their gnarled-string earthiness? The younger Reid lets loose smouldering runs, but his tone is a wondrously sculpted noise, lacking the angular unpredictability of Ulmer, whose asymmetrical phrases possess a mangled wildness. Gruenbaum is an asset, using Hammond organ, synth-Rhodes, melodica, piano and hip-hanging kitsch-board, a micro version of those old 1980s git-key thangs, like Herbie Hancock's now playing once again.
This is all visually impressive, but the sounds generated are also exciting, adding even more to the already varied palette. Mention needs to be made of Swift's violin sound too, an exhilaratingly extreme amplified scream that belies the fact that she's spending most of her time playing with an Irish folk outfit. Of course, Ulmer's vocals match the band sound: craggy and wandering, deeply soulful. It would be good to witness a return to jazz abstraction, but this blues stuff will easily keep the furnace stoked in the meantime.
Nels Cline/Norton Wisdom
The Knitting Factory
Mark Isham/Nels Cline
The very same evening as the Ulmer gig, there is even more of an axe orgy down at The Knitting Factory, in celebration of the Fender Jazzmaster guitar, which is presently enjoying its 50th anniversary. Looking at the roster, it seems as though the musicians for whom it was intended have shunned it, though the Jazzmaster has clearly found welcoming hands in the form of rock'n'roll players in search of a deeper sound.
Tom Verlaine (Television), J. Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo (both Sonic Youth) are either twanging, distorting or riffing, but jazz is (sort of) represented by Nels Cline (though he is a member of the partially rocking Wilco), playing in partnership with action painter Norton Wisdom, also from Los Angeles. Cline is inhabiting an introverted soundscape, whilst Wisdom wipes, strokes and splashes oily, watery mixtures onto a large plastic screen.
Cline can't help but create a background aura, once Wisdom begins his fascinating process of a work that's in perpetual motion, built up in marvellous spontaneous detail, symbiotically figurative and abstract, then wiped off or transmogrified as soon as his next idea seeps to the fore. Wisdom matches immense immediate technique with an almost casual disposability, and it's apparent that Cline is content in his role as atmosphere builder, looking constantly to the painter for his next sonic cue.
The guitar shapes hover like saturated dark clouds, ready to burst and gush forth. Even if Cline's sonic pus was to shower liberally over Wisdom's work, it's certain that the painter would embrace the experience, to swirl up some new arcane image.
Cline turns up in another setting a few days later, playing a prominent part in West Coast trumpeter Mark Isham's band, alongside a pair of electro-acoustic laptop percussionists. Here, Cline's guitar is allowed more body, an increased degree of grappling with the axe's expected rock'n'roll feedback output. He drops in a set of acidic solos at strategic points, as Isham's pieces (mostly his movie soundtrack compositions) grow from impressionistic cloudings up to beat-spilling sonic pile-ups.
This gig is part of the FONT Music season (Festival Of New Trumpet), but Isham's horn is no brashly dominant cry: he chooses to mostly bleed into the music's very fabric, creating layered textures that sound increasingly compelling as the mix steadily becomes more balanced, and the vibrations communicate on an ascending line.
Marc Ribot plays at Taylor John's House in Coventry, on 8th March 2009...
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