Wednesday, November 01, 2006

BMI/NY travel journals: episode 5

...or, Bang on a Cantaloupe.

Monday was notable, not only for the longest and most confusing US customs stop to date, but also for Dr. Eddie Henderson's appearance at the Smoke jam session. I made it in time for the majority of the opening set, and had the honour of hearing Henderson weave his way through "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" on crisp, Miles-ian harmon muted trumpet, marvelous flugelhorn on Larry Willis' "To Wisdom the Prize" and his ballad feature (I forget which tune it was), closing with a relatively obscure Wayne Shorter tune, "Edda." Jeremy Pelt was there, once again, and was obviously appreciative of Henderson's playing. The jam was populated mostly by singers - I was one of three or four piano players in the house. It was cool that I got to play a lot - and to an extent I miss playing with singers, as I've done it with decreasing frequency over the past few years - but I was totally fried by the trip down.

Tuesday's meeting was spent looking at Jim McNeely's music from some recent records, and him talking about his background and development. As he tells it, composition was a secondary pursuit for him and he only really started taking it seriously after working with Brookmeyer in Mel Lewis' band. That inspired me, as a pianist-composer still a little unsure of the order and emphasis of that hyphenate.

I then headed down to the Cantaloupe Music showcase as part of CMJ. R. Luke DuBois opened the show with a "DJ set" that alternated spacious waves of processed piano and keyboards with more electro-based rhythmic work. His mini-sets were interspersed throughout the night, almost as intermission music, I suppose. I found it so captivating that the soundchecks for the upcoming artists irritated me, to a degree. The first band up was Gutbucket, a four-piece band featuring outgoing Cantaloupe honcho Ken Thomson on alto. It sounded very Zorn-influenced to me, with its mix of punk, metal, screech-and-squeal, and Balkan dances gone awry. It was unrelenting, almost to the point of being monotonous, and Ken's spaz-dancing appeared to get in the way of his sound; the ballad of the set, a really great piece, was marred by an overly squawky tone and intonation issues that may have been avoided if he moved around less. Then again, I couldn't get into Keith Jarrett for a long time due to the duck-calling vocalizations and the body movements. There was a fair amount of rock-star posturing involved - maybe I missed the irony, but it didn't always mesh with the music. Visiting the Gutbucket MySpace, I liked the tunes there.

Gutbucket were followed by guitarist/composer Dominic Frasca. The "virtuoso" label applies here - utilizing tapping and other techniques associated, in my mind anyway, with Stanley Jordan, Michael Hedges and Kaki King, Frasca performed hypnotic pieces that grew in a minimalist way, and were entirely musical. I'm not sure what purpose the Roland gear and the laptop served - and that's a compliment, for the technology to be that transparent. The first piece (of two) ended in an uncharacteristically violent slapping of the guitar, but the sound was still pure and relatively calm - just louder than what had preceded it.

The centerpiece of the show were "special guests" Ethel, a string quartet initially known to me through their collaborations with Joe Jackson and Todd Rundgren. They epitomized the idea(l) of rhythmic authority, laying back on the bluesy phrases, attacking the Celtic/bluegrass sections with gusto, and just in general being one of the groovier string quartets I've heard. The pieces composed and/or arranged by members of the quartet demonstrated their intimate and idiomatic knowledge of not only their instruments, but their ensemble, and their familiarity with genres outside of classical music aids their musical sense tremendously. Don Byron's "Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye" was also a highlight, with its second movement not hiding its debt to "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."

So Percussion (who I missed when they were here as part of Pop Montreal) played music from their new album, Amid the Noise. I was taken by the way they seamlessly incorporated electronics into their setup, their stage and sonic presence. They mentioned one piece was referred to as "drum-tronic," with its out-of-phase d'n'b beat, but the idea of percussion-tronic sums up the aesthetic they presented quite well. There were some instrumental combinations providing effects I'd never thought of before - the mixture of triangles and vibes sounding like a glockenspiel's big brother, for instance.

Due to my early train and lack of sleep, I skipped out on 1-Bit Music. I'm sure it was fascinating - it sounds like an intriguing concept, one that can be hit-or-miss in a live setting. Besides, the argument that broke out on the 2 express train, post-Halloween parade, was a lot more humourous. There seems to be a need for a Miss Manners for the MTA (or m├ętro, or other alliterative public transit system).

I'm not back in NYC until December; while I'll miss the creative music that gets presented there, I welcome the chance to re-appraise my Montreal cohorts with new perspectives and fresh ears.

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