Optimism, Restraint, and Repetitionby Marshall Yarbrough
One of the perils of a winter festival is its overlap with cold and flu season. A music critic is trained to be receptive, but sometimes the things you pick up are the wrong kind of infectious. So I missed a large chunk of the festival due to illness. The spirit was willing but the flesh was wheezy and feverish. Still, even a truncated Winter Jazzfest is bound to hold treasures.
Yonatan Gat kicked off the Friday night marathon at the Bowery Electric, performing Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12, known as the “American Quartet.” Dvořák composed the piece in 1893 during his stay in the United States, shortly after writing his Symphony No. 9, subtitled “From the New World.” It was during this stay in the U.S. that the composer wrote, “I am now satisfied that the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the negro melodies.” Still, prejudice in the classical world excluded most black musicians, and in the century that followed they would find more freedom in vernacular music.
That’s an inadequate origin story for jazz, meant only to say that Gat’s choice of material was significant. A guitarist, Gat started out as co-founder of the Israeli garage rock band Monotonix. He has brought that sensibility to more recent solo records Director and Iberian Passage, which feature heavy improvisation and Bitches Brew-like tape editing. Like the Czech Dvořák, the Israeli Gat has been open to a wide variety of vernacular sounds, including African and Brazilian music.
Gat was joined by Greg Saunier on drums, Michael Coltun on electric bass, and Curt Sydnor on organ. Gat played without use of any effects pedals, emphasizing Dvořák’s melodies but adding the rhythmic and sonic oomph of an electric ensemble.
The group seemed to need time to fall in with Gat, and Saunier was fighting a collapsing kit throughout the set. Once the band found a groove, however, especially towards the set’s latter half, with Raphael McGregor joining in on pedal steel and reinforcing the melodic themes, the performance beautifully expressed the optimistic humanism characteristic of the composer’s work.
Next up was a duo set at the New School featuring festival artist-in-residence Andrew Cyrille on drums and Bill McHenry on tenor sax. Cyrille opened the set with mallets hitting a steady tom tom groove. McHenry, a light touch in a rumpled suit and loosened tie, looked like he’d walked straight out of Cassavetes’s Too Late Blues. The highlight of the set was the second song, “Drum Song for Leadbelly.” The song was a deconstructed interpretation of the blues man’s “Green Corn,” with McHenry and Cyrille trading off like a tag team: first McHenry would play the melody, ending always with a staccato burst on one note, then Cyrille would solo, maintaining the feel of that staccato coda. As the song progressed, McHenry took more flights away from the melody, and for the last few bars the two joined together. Also notable was “Proximity,” Cyrille’s composition dedicated to the late trombonist John Gordon. Both Cyrille and McHenry were at times barely audible and yet richly present, Cyrille sweeping brushes across the drums and McHenry blowing into his horn without tone.
Last up on my infirm itinerary was the percussion ensemble TIGUE, featuring Amy Garapic, Carson Moody, and Matt Evans, with occasional playing by Tristan Kasten-Krause on bass and Ben Seretan on guitar.
Nell Zink’s novel The Wallcreeper contains this funny exchange:
“Your mom told you drummers smoke weed?”
“No! She told me drummers smoke weed to keep from getting carpal tunnel syndrome.”
“I thought they did it because drumming is boring and monotonous.”
“It’s not monotonous if you smoke weed.”
There’s truth in every joke, of course, and while TIGUE’s set was far from boring, there was an element of monotony, starting with the first song’s steady droning eighth notes. Things got interesting in the creative way TIGUE had of deliberately breaking that monotony, constantly changing the placement of bass and snare to make an ever-shifting array of down and up beats.
Like the Baltimore band Wume, TIGUE understands that once you’ve established a repetitive figure, even the slightest change sounds momentous. These changes sound at first like escalation, but they aren’t leading linearly towards a final cadence; rather they spiral infinitely, never resolving, like the keyboard chords Matt Evans played on the band’s fourth song, which circled a tonic but never found it.
The three core members closed out the set with a purely percussive song. The band showed a number of influences throughout the night, from Krautrock to what Evans dubbed “space dance music,” but at the end they sounded like nothing so much as a marching band drum line. I thought, especially given the festival’s stated theme of social justice, of the marching band for Talladega College, an all-black institution in Alabama, which faced criticism for agreeing to perform in Donald Trump’s inaugural parade. Donors and alumni, understandably, had pressed the college to withdraw in protest, but the administration, also understandably, declined to do so. As one of the band members, student Antonio Phillips, told the New York Times, “We’re musicians, so this is a good platform for us to showcase our talent in front of the world.”
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.