COLOR AND GROOVE:
by Marshall Yarbrough
Winter Jazzfest 2016
(LE) POISSON ROUGE | JANUARY 13, 2016
RIDAY NIGHT MARATHON | JANUARY 15, 2016
Arriving at (le) poisson rouge a half-hour after doors for the opening night of the Winter Jazzfest, I sat in the bar area watching the venue fill up and waiting for feeling to return to my fingertips. Next to me, a pair of young Chinese women with Xs on their hands and braces on their teeth, across the room a British couple with a whole bottle of wine—so an international crowd, both sober and festive. There was the familiar opening-night buzz in the air that made my pre-show impatience more bearable.
Happy Apple started the evening after a brief, quippy intro from festival producer Adam Schatz. Drummer Dave King eased the trio into the first song, his playing rich with rim shots and muted flare, more color than rhythm but with a frenetic quality, despite the restraint. As the song progressed the trio would lock into brief bursts of groove, sax player Michael Lewis providing the melody, bassist Erik Fratzke playing chords. The song built slowly, King’s frenetic playing growing in volume and Fratzke summoning back the same descending line on the bass, while Lewis kept his tone clean.
The next song was a kind of asymmetric stomp—a deconstructed stomp, a stomp-and-start. After that came a near-bossa nova groove. Lewis’s tone grew bluesier as the set progressed. Rhythmically he and King seemed locked in with one another most of the time; Fratzke’s role was harder to define. King’s drums provided enough of a rhythmic anchor that the bassist was free to add color of his own. In one or two low moments this meant some uninteresting soloing, but mostly the bassist added a loose, fascinating counterpoint. If King laid down the foundation and Lewis built a melody on top of it, then Fratzke was tunneling underneath it all.
(le) poisson rouge is that rarity among venues that manages to feel both cold and stuffy at the same time. After standing under what must have been, improbable as it seems, a cooling vent for most of Happy Apple’s set, I was glad to catch Colin Stetson and Bill Laswell from a warmer if more distant vantage. By the time they started their saxophone and electric bass duet, the venue was nearly full.
Stetson and Laswell stood on opposite sides of the stage, like each was giving the other room for the massive barrage of sound they were together hurling at the audience. Laswell’s bass was swathed in flange and fuzz effects, it seemed he also made use of a loop pedal to add layers to his sound. Presumably it was Stetson’s use of circular breathing that gave his playing its never-ending quality. Though the set’s initial sludge metal-like assault was impressive at the outset, the two players never seemed to really gel with one another. I felt like much of what Stetson was up to was drowned out by Laswell’s volume. Then again the fault might not have lain entirely with the bassist. As a certain grizzled eminence told me after the show, referring to Stetson: “I want to hear him play saxophone, not sound effects.”
Closing out the evening was the Ex. A punk band from the Netherlands, the Ex has been at it for over three decades. One senses the band’s long history of collaborating with figures from the jazz world—most recently with Kan Vandermark for a show at WFMU’s Monty Hall—factored into its being programmed for the Winter Jazzfest. Still, even playing as a core unit, the band is as good an argument as any for the overlap between free jazz and punk music. The songs themselves were tightly structured, but the quartet of Terrie Hessels, Arnold de Boer, Andy Moor, and Katherina Bornefeld played without restraint.
The set opened with a song that mixed Talking Heads-like neurotic nasal lyrics with Wire’s noisiness and angularity—which is a poor way of saying that it sounded like a goddamn punk song. The first song devolved into an extended discordant instrumental. For the next few songs drummer Bornefeld took lead vocal duties, her voice landing somewhere between Dagmar Krause and Mama Cass. Eventually Arnold de Boer came back to the mic for a song in which he seemed to be shouting out a list of expiration dates (“Zero-five, twenty-eight, eleven—expired!”)—it was Johnny Cash’s “25 Minutes to Go” for the consumerist epoch. Walking to the subway after the set I felt like I’d been zapped out of the venue with a cattle prod.
Matana Roberts was carrying a lot of stuff with her as she stepped on stage at SubCulture. After kicking off the Friday night marathon with a solo set, Roberts would immediately be headed off to the Stone, where she’d been in residency all that week. By way of introduction she described her set as an expression of her love of the alto saxophone, listing off several Chicago horn players while the crowd murmured approval. As she began playing Roberts had a clear and breathy tone, venturing out from a tonic and returning, repeating patterns and runs in different scales and different contexts.
To say Roberts introduced each new piece would be misleading; rather she kept up a running conversation that seemed both to inform her music and to draw from it. As Roberts’s playing intensified her tone grew rougher, more impassioned, punctuated by breaths and groans. She mentioned Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Trayvon Martin. Reminding the crowd that that day, January 15, was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, she told a story of being lost in Memphis and suddenly finding herself outside the Lorraine Motel. Roberts’s set represented a kind of thinking through the instrument, meditation through a horn; this extended to the audience as well, gathered to witness and participate in her expression.
After the set ended, I headed off to the Bitter End to see Makaya McCraven. Whether it’s a trend or just my own experience, most of the drummers I’ve seen over the past few years seem to approach the instrument with as much regard for tone and color as for rhythm. I’m thinking of players like Tatsuya Nakatani and Paal Nilssen-Love; Happy Apple’s Dave King fit the mold as well. It was interesting then to see McCraven stick to a more straightforward rhythmic approach, laying down a groove and riding it out.
McCraven led his quintet—with Matt Gold on guitar, Marquis Hill on trumpet, Justefan on vibes, and Joshua Ramos on bass—through a smooth set of head-solo-head arrangements, the rhythm leaning towards 6/8, 12/8, 3/4. The individual players seemed more intent on maintaining the groove than standing out in their solos, though Hill and Justefan both played well.
After falling victim to the doggedly enforced two-drink minimum at the Bitter End, I headed up to Zinc Bar together with my table mates, two alto players from Portland and a flight attendant from southern California. Entering the venue I lost my crew in the crowd as I joined music editor George Grella at a table and caught the last half of James Brandon Lewis’s set. The trio consisted of Lewis on tenor sax, Warren “Trae” Crudup on drums, and Luke Stewart on bass. Like Happy Apple’s bassist, Stewart asserted himself in the mix with big, ponderous chords. Equally impressive was the way the whole group ramped up together for Lewis’s solos, taking the solos as one unit. The set reached a late climax with a song Lewis dedicated to his father, “Lament for JLew,” a powerful dirge in 12/8 that I’ll quote George as having sounded like a “metal power ballad.”
After woofing down two dollar slices at Percy’s on Bleecker—when you don’t want to spend any more money but nevertheless have to eat, the dollar slice is there for you, and the relative quality of Percy’s slices makes the transaction far less depressing than it could be, believe me—I hoofed it down to the Greene Space on Charlton Street to catch electric guitar quartet Dither. I was only able to see the group’s last two songs, but what I saw I liked. Some of the players took skewed lead lines, others added fractured stabs; the whole thing combined to form a mangled rhythm. I probably wouldn’t be the first to point out the interesting contradiction you get by replacing the quintessential classical chamber music ensemble, the string quartet, with the electric guitar, perhaps the quintessential noise instrument.
Listening to Dither I was reminded of reading a prominent L.A. food critic talking about the role of spiciness in Thai food. The critic’s claim was that it was a misconception that spiciness dulled flavor—like burning your tongue on molten dollar-slice cheese. Rather the spiciness was a portal you passed through, whereupon you’d encounter a whole galaxy of new flavors. Dither was like that, with noise taking the role of spiciness—an essential element that informs, rather than obscures, the myriad elements that lie beyond.
When Dither finished I headed even farther south, down to the Django at Roxy Hotel in Tribeca. The Django is a swank place with vaulted ceilings and artfully exposed brick; the wait staff dresses better than you do. The acoustics are warm and muddied, which suited guitarist Gilad Hekselman and his ensemble a little too well. Hekselman’s playing was virtuosic and impressive, but his talent didn’t seem to point to anything other than itself. The rest of the group, by contrast, was thoroughly self-effacing; Mark Turner’s sax was barely audible and Turner himself had a habit of stepping down off the stage. Still, the set was more than enjoyable. It could be that the warm space swallowed up the more subtle aspects of the group’s playing.
I ended my night at Judson Church, where I saw Colin Stetson again, this time in duet with violinist Sarah Neufeld. What a contrast from (le) poisson rouge, where Stetson and Laswell, competing to see who could make their instrument louder and noisier, seemed as standoffish as two frat guys comparing the size of their lacrosse sticks. Neufeld and Stetson’s set was a generous, sensitive collaboration, shifting between pretty, shimmering minimalism and dark dissonance. The crowd in the church sat on the floor in front of the stage as the musicians engaged in a kind of droning, enveloping call and response.
Neufeld seemed to take the lead for the most part, sawing out repetitive lines on her violin, filling the space. The interior of Judson Church is blissfully non-conducive to critical neurosis: at a certain point you stop worrying about what kind of effects people are putting on or whether they’re using loop pedals, and instead just let the sound wash over you. Stetson, meanwhile, given the vast cacophonous range he is capable of, showed admirable restraint. After three songs as a duo, Neufeld and Stetson alternated solos. Stetson’s was particularly impressive, hinting at a kind of blues structure and making use of the percussive clacking of the saxophone’s keys. At a certain point the sound of the saxophone was almost all resonant frequency and cabinet buzz, hanging in the space together with Neufeld’s steadfast violin, intensely present and yet at the same time ethereal, already an echo of itself.
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.