New York Sounds: Trumpets (and a cornet) Ablaze!

Martin Longley polishes his bugle in NYC…

The Dave Douglas/Donny McCaslin Key Motion Quintet
Jazz Standard

Dave Doulas Key Motion Photo Credit: Zak Shelby-Szyszko.

Dave Doulas Key Motion Photo Credit: Zak Shelby-Szyszko.

This was the first of four Dave Douglas nights at the Jazz Standard club, each of them highlighting a different performance perspective. The unexpected has become the expected where this highwire trumpeter is concerned. Douglas is perpetually scouting for fresh settings, new musical concepts and unfamiliar terrain where he’s able to stretch his abilities, to heighten an already fearsome virtuosity and communicative playing passion. Three out of the four combos were premiering unexplored parameters. The second evening teamed Douglas with the So Percussion new music ensemble, the third unveiled a new acoustic quintet featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and pianist Vijay Iyer, whilst the closing session was the only one which could be viewed as in any way retrospective, as the tried and trusty Brass Ecstasy waddled their Art Ensemble Of New Orleans way onto the stage.

The opening Thursday night involved perhaps the most rugged, pushy and certainly the most electrified sounds. The Key Motion Quintet is co-led by tenorman Donny McCaslin, setting out to combine the repertoires of his recent Perpetual Motion album with the songbook of Douglas’s own Keystone combo. The McCaslin disc was released by Greenleaf Music, so it’s all in the Douglas family. Key Motion also features drummer Mark Guliana, electric bassist Tim Lefebvre (both of them appeared on Perpetual Motion) and keyboardist Adam Benjamin (who was a part of that same album, as well as being a Keystone regular). Despite this grafting of personnel and songbook, the resultant band becomes something else again, partly due to the sheer excitement of their live presence, and partly because the music has clearly evolved, tightening its rubbery looseness, so to speak.

Both Benjamin and Lefebvre are dedicated to the electronic perversion of their instruments, emitting sounds through a veil of knobbery, distorting, fragmenting, spangling, cutting, cracking and frosting, but invariably sounding like themselves. In a demonic pact with Guliana they set about turning fusion into a darkly funky, subliminally threatening beast. The rhythms are jittery, the interlockings are on the run, the punch is deep down at bowel level. The front line of horns are left to dwell in a comparatively traditional house of jazz rules, spurting a constant alarum and operating at a flashing level of execution. Douglas talks directly into his trumpet, shaping phrases whether crisply muted or outwardly expelled. McCaslin’s tone is less vocal, more liquid, like a subterranean current, searching for its blowhole. It’s as if the old bebop language has been forced to mutate into a new form that’s more of a patchwork, urged towards a greater schizophrenia by the rhythm team’s twitching constructions.

Key Motion are developing a dub jazz vocabulary. During McCaslin’s “Energy Generation”, Lefebvre flooded his volume control up to full with his pinky, intermittently creating a low bleed of sub-tone. Guliana was the master of strictly controlled cymbal skitters and self-muted clumping blows. Benjamin was playing his Fender Rhodes with one hand, adjusting his effects filtration unit with the other. If eyes were closed, some of this threesome’s sounds would shade into each other’s corners. This first set found a band sounding as if they’d been closely twinned for quite some time. The rapport was deeply locking into place. All elements were perfectly inter-related: the groove, the tunes, the momentum, the tension, the band stance of playful humour, the ripping horn solos over innovative soundscapes, the sense that spotlit passages were being taken in unpredictable ratios and in surprising sequences, not always alone, but in headlong tandem. Plus the fact that audience attention was totally gripped throughout.

Wadada Leo Smith

How many birthday cakes can a trumpeter gobble? To celebrate his 70th year, the Interpretations series presented two nights of Wadada Leo Smith’s new music at Brooklyn’s recently-transplanted Roulette. This meant three bands each night, and a communal cake at the end of each evening. Smith’s actual birthday fell two days after the second gig, so maybe there were more cakes on the way. The first evening’s candles were of the frustratingly fire-hazard kind that spring back into life after being extinguished. Smith blew them out through his trumpet, which seemed like a highly appropriate act. The first night’s proceedings were constructed very contrastingly with the second session. Each of the three sets (the Mbira trio, a string quartet with singer Thomas Buckner and the Golden Quartet) restrained themselves to around 30 minutes apiece, and the show concluded surprisingly early.

This second evening operated at the other extreme. Following an afternoon’s rehearsal of this complex, varied and ambitious music, a soundcheck was still in progress even as the audience was gathering. The gig began around 30 minutes late, and each set doubled its duration compared to those of the previous evening. It was, after all, a Friday night. Even so, Smith wanted to relax into the experience, to savour the unfolding of what amounted to a lot of freshly penned work. All three of the ensembles and settings took hold of the audience firmly, and there was no sense of any crawling timepieces in the house. The epic evening rolled on by in a consistently engaging fashion.

First off, the Golden Quartet was expanded to a Golden Sextet, with Susie Ibarra joining Pheeroan akLaff on a second drumkit, and vibraphonist Bobby Naughton emerging from decades past to revive his old partnership with Smith. The rapidly ascending young Cuban pianist David Virelles replaced Angelica Sanchez from the previous evening. John Lindberg was, as ever, on the upright bass. Smith’s general body language gave the impression of stern impatience and dissatisfied frustration, as he repeatedly made overt gestures to Virelles, guiding his relationship to the music’s careful evolution. Smith’s manner might have been the result of a certain way that he chooses to display excitement and urgency. Or, alternatively, he could have been expressing negative sentiments. During previous performances by this group, his signalling hasn’t been so pronouncedly obvious. All of this was visually distracting, and continued to be so during the next two sets. Smith probably just prefers to seek out the best possible performances. It might have been better for the audience to close its collective peepers, but ultimately it was desirable to forge ahead, concentrating on the sheer aural input. Smith doesn’t approach his horn with a scattershot virtuosity. He’s more of a post-Miles architectural sculptor. A fulsome, brightly talkative bugler making bold statements in the air. Or down into the depths, as he frequently adopts the Miles-ian stance of pointing his sketches down to the stage-floor, painting with confident strokes or decisive trills. Smith is a very different soloist, once his stylistic approach is set beside the machine gunning aerobatic excesses of Dave Douglas and Taylor Ho Bynum (the latter actually lurking within the ranks of Smith’s soon-to-come Silver Orchestra). Lindberg delivered one of the best solos, employing his wah-wah pedal as a pronounced part of its semi-electric voicings. Once again, Smith was hovering beside him, almost appearing as though he was calling a halt to Lindberg’s self-expression. The final piece of the sextet set was “South Central L.A. Kulture”, which stood apart from the preceding pieces due to its limber funk muscle-tone, hinting at the repertoire of Smith’s electric Organic combo, who would close out the concert. The acoustic instrumentation of the Golden Sextet didn’t quite match this tune’s inner nature, which was a contributing factor to its unpredictable excitement.

The middle set was a repeat performance of “Central Park”, featuring the voice of Thomas Buckner. This work had been premiered in NYC in late 2010. Buckner wasn’t required to completely dominate the piece, as his contribution mostly seemed to inhabit an equal space with the collective instrumentation. Occasionally rising above the mass, but never dominating. Smith’s Silver Orchestra also played his “Africana 2” violin concerto (allowing a flamboyantly citrus-stringed display by Jennifer Choi) and gave a global premiere of “Occupy The World For Life”. This newest piece was more directly robust than the other two works, doubtless eager to express its message without any digressions. Smith’s writing for a new music line-up successfully combines the tone and structure of a modern classical composer, but with a smoothly integrated free jazz sensibility. There were, after all, three drummers in the ranks. When reedsman Marty Ehrlich took his solos, they were amongst the most gripping and wild-spirited of the night, even more effective for being surrounded by a precisely-formed sonic architecture.

To complete his highly diverse collection, Smith closed out the evening with Organic, his mostly-electric combo. Its template could be described as descending from early 1970s Miles Davis fusion and a more earthy, groovesome manifestation of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time. The ingenious line-up featured three simultaneously soloing electric guitars, and electric bass, with Lindberg also remaining, having already revealed his inner electric spirit on the acoustic upright. The deliberate tactic of including Angelica Sanchez on regular acoustic piano and Okkyung Lee’s cello was also calculated to unbalance any sonic complacency, though the latter revealed a harshly amplified ferocity during her arresting solo scything stretch. Each guitarist (Michael Gregory, Ben Tyree, Lamar Smith) rose periodically to an ascendant position, providing a highlighted solo, then receded, to allow another’s expression. The music would have had an even greater effect in the closer surroundings of a club, with a more brutal amplification, but then maybe the piano/cello extensions would have been subsumed. As it was, the power of a lower-volume fuzzing still held great authority.

The Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet
The Jazz Gallery

Even though the cornetman Taylor Ho Bynum was debuting new compositions, this majestic gig was notable principally for the searing quality of his band’s high-wire solo work. The two sets celebrated the release of Apparent Distance, with the first one effectively running through this new suite. The leader himself made the earliest impression with a completely solitary display of trapeze-style daring, ripping to the limits of his horn’s range, whilst maintaining a complete control during high velocity pepper spraying. Several stretches of a more communal nature were led by the repetitive cyclings of drummer Tomas Fujiwara and guitarist Mary Halvorson, pulling out thick wedges of melodic gristle. Indeed, one of Fujiwara’s most striking solos revolved around the extremity of insistent minimalism, making his eventual breakout into splashing, polyrhythmic detail all the more startling. The stunning front-line was completed by altoman Jim Hobbs and bass trombonist Bill Lowe neither of them caught too often in NYC. Bynum brandished the weapon of sheer surprise. It was impossible to pick favourites amongst the horns. In turn, they proceeded to deliver a succession of astounding solos that passed through virtuosity, imagination, humour and extremity in turn. At one stage, Hobbs set out to emulate a bagpipe from the Cretan shepherding mountains. Or was it simply an alto arriving straight from a Balkan wedding party? His fingers fluttered as one whilst he vibrated the atmosphere in an extended ritual of goatskinned trancing. During another notable solo, Hobbs was again rampantly expressive, brutally escalating his vibrato-laden phrases on an asymmetrical pathway. Lowe (also a tubaman) sounded almost conventionally jazzy following this, but absolutely anyone would, post-Hobbs. Lowe wisely took the lower path, his very being emanating garrulous creativity. Arriving close to the year’s end, this was a serious contender for one of 2011’s very best gigs.

Dave Douglas is in residence at The Royal Academy Of Music, London, at the end of this month…