Monday, May 23, 2011

LIVE REVIEW: Wadada Leo Smith & Motoko Honda Square Off in Someone's Living Room (5/22/11)

"The piano and I will be very surprised!" - Mimi Melnick

“I’m supposed to say something about music,” a soft-spoken Wadada Leo Smith told the crowd gathered in a sun-stippled Encino living room that overlooked an orange crate-art panorama of the West Valley. “It’s always hard to begin, so I’ll just start anywhere.”

The dreadlocked trumpet mystic-slash-music professor and his one-time Cal Arts pupil Motoko Honda (who have already blown people away performing together at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater and the old Rocco space) proceeded to make good on their promise: they started on that precipiece called “anywhere” and wound up “somewhere” quite different with two sets that consisted of at least five improvisational journeys that ranged from stretched out to surprisingly brief. It wasn’t an old-school jazz battle like “The Chase” but a mutual benediction of two minds twisting themselves around each other like two snakes on a caduceus staff. It was a bracingly eloquent fight club between Pupil and Teacher.

Piano, pimped

The Pupil had brought something new to the 1922 Steinway grand sitting in the corner by the patio doors. This piano has seen the fingers of Horace Tapscott, Gerald Wiggins and Nate Morgan to name just a short list, yet the Pupil brought the 21st century in from the cold and tricked out the instrument with a collection of electronic gizmos and wires including a KAOSS pad perched right above the action frame. Mistress of ceremonies Mimi Melnick (it was her house), as well as some of the whiter-haired old schoolers in the tiny audience, didn't know quite what to make of it. If one expected the Pupil to perform some sort of sleight-of-jazz with her techno frippery, she went the opposite direction. The Pupil barely used the devices -- and when she did, salt-and-peppering the roiling music she and the Teacher produced with admirable restraint. "We have a long history together," the Teacher smiled at the crowd.

Word. The Teacher began with splats of quavering half-notes; the Pupil sidling up to his runs with shimmering notes zipping like tiny little sprites dancing on the stalk of plants, traipsing up to the petals, then flying off and fading away. For the second improv, the Teacher muttered to the Pupil: "You start." She did, plinking the piano wires while hitting ominous clusters on the keys. The Teacher hung back as the Pupil went into a lyrical Bill Evans mode -- maybe with a little of Keith Jarrett's searching quality -- before unleashing an avalance of descending/ascending notes.

Next up was Smith's 2009 collaboration "Rabia's Unconditional Love: A Spiritual Mystery of the Heart," with the Pupil taking over the role of bassist Jack DeJohnette. The Teacher pushed ugly, flatulent sounds with his trumpet mute -- call it "playing while drowning" -- while the Pupil weighed in with her aggressive left hand, splitting jagged chords that leaked into a quiet twilight sleep. The Teacher ended the song with a strangle, playing bent over with the bell of the horn pointed straight into the carpet. They go even further on the closer "Joy: Spiritual Fire: Joy" from 2009's Spiritual Dimensions, with the Teacher finishing up with an outtake of breath that sounded like bubble wrap scraping across concrete. "By the way," the Teacher told us. "I know all of you."

Leo addresses the crowd

From Left: pianist Ben Rosenboom, bassist Mike Watt (yellow jacket),
and historian Steve Isoardi watch the show

At the end of the performance, Horace Tapscott's biographer turned to the Beast and remarked: "She reminds me of Horace."

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