January 16, 2016
I began my night on Saturday, January 16, with a legal PED—a double espresso—in anticipation of my first Winter Jazzfest marathon: twelve venues, seven hours, and 100-plus groups. By morning, instead of a 26.2 decal for the butt of my jeans, I had a knotty hangover and a move-the-decimal-one-to-the-right-size credit card bill. Notes on some damn good jazz performances, too.
First up on my itinerary was Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus, an eighteen-piece outfit featuring Mark Helias conducting but Formanek at the helm, center stage on double bass. They opened the night on the ECM Records stage at the New School Tishman Auditorium, a fitting venue for the group, with its plush leather seats, tiered seating, and a large screen in back of the stage. One specialty of Kolossus, exhibited by its first piece, was noir-like jazz reminiscent of Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, which bloomed spectacularly with ominous horn swells. It was like the soundtrack to the tragic climax of a 1940s gangster picture, the innocent dame shot, clutching her stomach and collapsing in the street. Or the first appearance of Godzilla, King Kong. The Kolossus! I thought.
This noir style, however, was only one shade of Formanek’s cinematographic palette. Loping bass led off the piece, accompanied by the winds, which traded melodic lines and foreshadowed the larger swells to come. Formanek also took full advantage of everything his eighteen-strong Kolossus had to offer. He adeptly carved out trios and quartets to shift dynamics or provide backing for solos, which ranged from a silky tenor gliding through runs to the guttural spurts of the lead trombone. Beneath the latter, during the third piece, the marimbas played a haunting two-note refrain, which, backed by the rest of ensemble, built, broke, and reformed like a series of waves, until it eventually settled, dissipated. Baton down. The Kolossus retreats.
Next I booked it downtown to the Greene Space to catch Kaki King, the Brooklyn-based “New Guitar God,” as decreed by Rolling Stone. She performed her live work, The Neck Is A Bridge To the Body, a sanitized multimedia performance featuring too-close-for-comfort screen-saver visuals projected onto the face of King’s guitar and a traditional screen. Neck Is A Bridge began with King’s all-white Ovation Adamas 1581-KK Kaki King Signature 6-String Acoustic set in a stand alone on the stage, waiting to be played. A nondescript ambient track played over the speakers and the screen displayed a golden, effervescent spray. It reminded me of champagne, beer. I ducked out and hit the bar in the lobby. When I returned, King was behind the guitar, which remained suspended on its stand. She finger-picked, prodded, tapped, and knocked out rhythms and classical-tinged folk melodies, stretching the typical guitar sound but keeping strictly within the bounds of non-alienation. Curlicues of light synced to the music spiraled out from her string pegs. The crowd, which filled the space, totally dug it. My beer paired well.
The centerpiece of the performance was a clever stop-motion short film featuring King’s Ovation and a supporting cast of guitars, iconic and odd—a Gibson SG, a Flying V, an Epiphone hollow body, and an Oblong double-neck, among others. Assisted by subtitles, King gave voice to the guitars, expertly adjusting her playing style and tone to fit each character. In the film, the Ovation is a stand-in for King, an outsider that prefers to follow its muse. It gets bullied by the bratty SG and Flying V, nagged by its acoustic family, and seeks guidance from a wizened busker-guitar. In the end the Ovation stays true to itself. I took this message to heart and retreated into the comfort of my cynicism, hit the bar and grabbed another beer.
Back up to the New School, this time to see the Jim Black Trio in the 5th-Floor Theater of the Jazz Building. The space was intimate, carpeted, and plain, like a mid-size college classroom. I arrived just in time to grab a seat at the back before it became standing room only, the hundred or so people crammed in enjoying a palpable, pre-show buzz. The Trio didn’t disappoint. After a brief intro of airy free jazz, the group launched into almost straight-ahead rock, led by Black’s driving drums and Teddy Klausner’s sustained, arena-like piano chords. It brought to mind the poppy numbers on Stanley Clarke’s Journey to Love, though stripped down to a garage aesthetic. While the Trio did seem to embody certain aspects of fusion’s desire for universal appeal, such consideration dissolved as easily as the pieces shifted dynamics, tones, melodies, and structures. The aforementioned rock led to a section of swift bop whose industrial turn, driven by Black’s hard-edged, precise drumming, was tempered by a playful, lounge-like elegance from the piano and Thomas Morgan’s bass.
This sort of versatility was exciting not for its own sake, but because it was so clearly the Trio’s own. Through every experiment and diversion—muted piano strings, hand-drumming, noise-prog infusions—the group played with coherence and an infectious elation. I left the theater smiling, thinking I had just seen what might have resulted if Bill Evans had been alive to discover Slint and then form a trio with Steve Gadd, and made my way back down to the Greene Space to see pianist Fabian Almazan.
Almazan performed his Rhizomeproject, a set of compositions for jazz trio, string quartet, voice, and guitar—the latter two provided by jazz guitarist and composer, Camila Meza. The sound of the group was nothing if not full—powerful, beautiful, bountiful, hopeful—which fit the stated theme of the project: the perseverance of rhizomes—roots of certain plants that can survive all manner of above-ground turmoil to eventually sprout new growths—as it relates to human existence. Almazan’s piano soared atop layers of bass, strings, and heavy drums, creating a lush soundscape that Meza’s voice, cool as frosted glass, pierced like a ray of light. Almazan did his theme justice and inspired this sort of descriptive language, but unfortunately little else.
At its best, the Rhizome project evoked an unpretentious cinematic impressionism, and certain moments, like when the trio went full-steam on a section of free-form bebop during the second piece, were electric because of their variation. At its worst, Rhizome was untempered and aimless. This was partly because the set was continuous, each piece bridged together by an ambient aural wash. But it may also have been because the performance was its own sort of torture, a saturation of beauty, like listening to the love theme from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet on repeat. Almazan’s expression during the set, one of intense, furrow-browed focus, seemed to bear out this assessment, like he was trying to survive the force of his own compositions, urge a rhizome sprout through the topsoil.
The quiet of Tribeca still frightens me. It’s like stepping into an Epcot pavilion, or a Hollywood backlot, it’s so open and pristine. I emerge from the Franklin Street. 1 stop at 10:45 p.m., wary, and headed east toward an idling taxi. My steps echo out from the cobblestone. Sirens doppler in sound-design silence. A woman faces forward in an unmarked black car. Stagecraft, all of it. Then I come upon the glowing marquee of the Roxy Hotel, the greatest set of them all.
I stride past the extras in the lobby and down two flights of stairs to the curtained entrance of the Django, New York’s own Rick’s Café Américain. I explain to the maître d’ that I’m from the Brooklyn Rail, slip him a fifty, and in a snap I’m seated near the stage, house left, at a table brought in atop a waiter’s head. It all seems so plausible after a dozen oysters, two Negronis, a Stella—and with guitarist Samy Daussat’s charming “Gypsy Tribute to Serge Gainsbourg” as soundtrack. Daussat makes it easy to indulge, perhaps too easy, what with his eye-popping fretwork, the sultry vocals of Vanina de Franco, and the foot-tapping rhythms of Stéphane Cochet on piano and Claudius Dupont on double bass. The boisterous, middle-aged Frenchmen toasting the band and nodding along to de Franco cooing “69 Année Erotique” don’t hurt either. Another Negroni? Make it a Soixante-Quinze.
After Daussat, reedist Sylvain Rifflet’s quartet takes the stage, with Benjamin Flament on percussion and processed metals, Philippe Gordiani on guitar, and Jocelyn Mienniel on flute and kalimba. Rifflet is a French minimalist, citing Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Moondog, and Philip Glass as influences for his latest album, Mechanics (Jazz Village, 2015). The crowd, though likely unaware of Rifflet’s taste or Flament’s processed metal, seems appropriately anxious.
The set opens with Mienniel layering flute runs through a delay pedal. Rifflet joins him with a percussive, breathy tenor sax. Gordiani enters with a descending blues line and Flament with a mono-rhythmic pulse that neither strays nor further develops. By the end of their second piece, “Glassicism,” from Mechanics, a smooth jazz-rock dirge with a Philip Glass-like coda of interlocking melodic lines, half the crowd has left. I don’t blame them—Daussat was a hard act to follow—but their leaving is unfortunate. Rifflet’s compositions, while not attaining the elusive transcendence of the minimalism that inspires them, are challenging and intriguing, admirable for their risks and for mingling minimalism with jazz, rock, and even early-seventies prog (think Jethro Tull, circa Thick as Brick). I raise my glass to the people who stuck around, though they don’t seem to notice, and polish off what seems like my seventy-fifth Soixante-Quinze. The maître d’ signals to me. My unmarked black car is waiting. I blindly pay my bill, stand up to leave. Curtain down. Roll credits.