We assume this is: (a) Barack Obama; (b) Juan Epstein from Welcome Back Kotter; or (c) “ObamEpstein.”
Barring Saturday night’s live-soundtrack performance by guitarist Bill Frisell, the final weekend of the ACJF’s “Artists & Legends” concert series brought the 88 keys of the piano to center spotlight—piano as deconstructed and rebuilt by three successive generations of players: Marilyn Crispell, Myra Melford and, closing out the festival’s last night, Vijay Iyer.
All three pianists are fiercely smart, relentlessly curious and open to vanguard ideas, and intellectually equipped with an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of their chosen instrument – basically, every Romney-Ryan supporter’s worst nightmare of “the Lofty Left.” Marilyn Crispell emerged alone onstage for the beginning on Friday night’s program at REDCAT, bowing graciously before lighting up the keys for a forty minute improvisation. There was no rhythm section , no groove or pulse to graft onto or pocket to fall into, just tumbling, escalating, dissonant tones and clusters intertwined with lyrical ECM New Ageisms like a double helix, a de facto guided tour of Crispell’s influences: Cecil Taylor (who plays REDCAT next week BTW), Keith Jarrett and Anthony Braxton, whom Crispell made her name with in the 1980s. (Dare we say we caught traces of George Gershwin and George Winston in there too?) Sitting just to stage left, the Beast was able to spy the reflection of Crispell’s hands in the shiny dark wood of the upturned keyboard cover. (They appeared disembodied and dancing in the dark, like a routine from The Electric Company or Ernie Kovacs.) Like wandering but united twins, they never strayed too far from one another – the right slightly more aggressive, like it was straining on a leash, while the left kept the more steady pulses. The trick, we surmise, is to not get caught in a mental roundabout, where one is trapped in a Moebius-circle where one’s improv options decrease exponentially. Crispell seemed to be settling into a pattern of avant-garde iciness mixed with lyrical beauty (including some snatches of Tin Pan Alley), not integrated but in blocks: ‘playOUT-playIN-playOUT’. She dove into a furious salvo of single-fingered notes hammered out double-time until the reflection of her hands blurred. Then she dropped the soft last note like a feather.
A second bench was set up for Myra Melford, who emerged with Crispell for “Piano: Four Hands,” which they performed before. Essentially a divide-and-conquer duet, with Melford on the lower-register 44 and Crispell manning the upper, playing tight in tandem but with little variations so swift and deft they were easy to miss. Melford was obviously energized to be sitting next to one of her heroines, moving her head and shoulders back and forth as she played and mouthing her lines with gusto as she played them. Both artists finished this brief interlude with bows and held hands.
After an intermission came Melford’s bewitching new Pacific Rim-flavored ensemble Snowy Egret. The sextet began with a 40-minute uninterrupted suite of compositions -- "The Promised Land," "Snow," "The Kitchen," "The Virgin of Guadalupe" -- interspersed with open improvisation. These were distinguished by trumpeter Kirk Knuffle’s mellifluous constricted tones, guitarist Liberty Ellman’s warm jazzy lines and Stomu Takeishi’s daps and pops on his oblong, pear-shaped acoustic bass. The sixth musician played no instrument: the butoh master Oguri provided a sort of counterpoint to the band, freezing like one of those creepy statues from Doctor Who while the music was at its most lively, and flailing about in marionette-sans-strings fashion when things grew quiet or subtle. The elliptical "A Musical Evening at the Concepcion Convent," blew away any conceptions of stucture or melody, with Melford triggering eerie sampled whispers ("green light...green trees...green leaves...silence has a sound") while Oguri executed a crabwalk with a chair held tightly under his ass. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey's solo was the centerpiece of "The First Protest": kicking in with the kind of mongoose-hiss you hear when you open a new can of tennis balls, switching drum sticks with mallets with brushes and even the palms of his hands so swiftly it was like watching sped-up drawings in a flipbook.
Right before she introduced the Vijay Iyer Trio on the following Sunday night, new CAP UCLA Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds aptly summed up the evening-to-be to the crowd at Royce Hall: “It will only ever happen this way once.”
[all photos courtesy of Myles Regan]
Iyer took the stage looking like a cosmopolitan, Grammy-winning, grant-magnet jazz artist at the top of his form should look, dressed in a crisp, shiny grey suit and bright orange shirt, thin, wiry and youthful (despite the fact that he’s forty-one) and boiling over with promise. Before beginning the ambitious, 13-song set with a dewy, mysterious prologue called simply “Lude” (as in pre- not quaa-), Iyer acknowledged the crowd with Ellingtonian deference: “I came to listen to you guys, and I hope to hear you out there tonight.”
The trio easily slid into “Accelerado” and the 70s’ funk cover “The Star of the Story,” songs from Iyer’s latest CD that they’ve been bending and twisting into varying forms in concert for the last few years. (That’s the thing about jazz: you never have to play the same song – even if it is the same song – twice.) For the latter, Iyer employed a soft pre-recorded drum loop that opened up his accompanists to all sorts of slithering inside and out of the rhythm: Stephan Crump running tickling hands up and the neck-strings of his bass; the amazing Marcus Gilmore unfurling double-time brush strokes on his drums that hit one’s face as fresh as sea spray. Iyer, deep in concentration like a Los Alamos scientist, constantly pushed ballroom-like flourishes against the tense, frisky rhythm section. For the anti-ballad “Up On This,” Crump hit upon a striking, spectral sob from his bass that one wanted to clap for but didn’t – not want to bruise the bracing, living-in-the-millisecond mood. Each of the players took solos, but they did not spin off into Endless Improvland, instead conserving their energy for short bursts, like fireflies lifting off for brief sorties before re-alighting on the mothership.
“Phase Two” began with the appearance of Iyer’s chosen legend for the evening, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman. Coleman, who came up towards the end of the Loft Jazz Scene in New York of the late-70s/early-80s, looked like he just came over from the Brooklyn G Line in tee-shirt, khaki jacket and trademark backwards baseball cap as he bit into Iyer’s “Morphology” and "Habeus Corpus," using his particulated sax bleats like a punctuation marks to test and tease the creeping-panther melody. “Passage” was a floating, amniotic duet between Iyer on Fender Rhodes and Graham Hayes on ghostly, Bitches Brew-inflected flugelhorn. Arguably the evening’s showstopper was “Hood,” dedicated to the late Detroit DJ Robert Hood, an extended motorik jam drawn out on a one and two-chord progression set by Iyer that he kept repeating insistently and hypnotically. The whole group – now expanded to a sextet with the addition of Hayes and Herculean-lunged tenor saxophonist Mark Shim – mimicked the electron-pulse of Detroit House while weaving in quick snatches, squiggles and bytes of abstraction, like Sun Ra’s orchestra mating with Kraftwerk in George Clinton’s living room. They closed with the equally frantic "Good on the Ground," with each solost chasing each other over a piledriver fusion-funk workout.
Mark Shim, Coleman, Graham Haynes
And the thing about Iyer: He never once uttered the word "Jazz" all evening. Welcome to the future, y'all.