Martin Longley’s New York Sounds: Boris Wang Sex Stetson

Martin Longley gets into Chinese jaw harp, Fellini soundtracking, Japanese metal and whaledrone saxophone…

Boris - Photo: Cristina Guadalupe

Boris – Photo: Cristina Guadalupe

(le) Poisson Rouge
May 6, 2013

It’s hard to corral Boris into a metal-generic corner. Whilst this Tokyo trio’s prime reputation revolves around a spiralling psychedelic ascension, they are just as likely to get grubby and direct, or even poppy and spangled. This Poisson show was the first of two nights, dedicated to a general 20 year career overview. The second evening was destined to reproduce a specific album (Flood, MIDI Creative 2000), and to concentrate on the abstracted drone facet of the Boris output. The first night was sold out, but the Poisson never packs in the punters to an excessive degree, so there was still space to roam around, seeking an appropriate vantage point.

Unhinged lead guitar solos abounded, mostly delivered by the stage-left Wata, but also occasionally by Takeshi, when he wasn’t intent on abusing the bass neck of his two-headed monster axe, crafting rumbling runs. Drummer Atsuo spent much of the time with one stick held triumphantly skyward, steeled for an inevitable thunder bombardment. He judiciously used a large back-mounted gong for full dramatic effect. Atsuo concentrated on the kind of totally symmetrical beat-insistence that would drive most improvised music devotees to the brink of frustrated madness. Deeply unimaginative, savagely anti-syncopation in outlook, but still imbued with a brutal caveman power. This is a band that can sound as cosmic as the Acid Mothers Temple on one song, then become as uncomplicatedly biker-rockin’ as Motörhead during the next. Song lengths varied accordingly. Boris numbers sometimes possess a mainstream structure, disguised by rampant riffing, hardening an extreme carapace around a melodic soft centre. After around 75 minutes, an encore was called for, but sadly never arrived. The set was cut off somewhat suddenly, just as the threesome were developing another layer of climaxing. It was an abrupt finish to a dark-slugging, densely molten, core-spewing set.

Wang Li
The Graduate Center
May 7, 2013

This gig was the last in an adventurous season of Live@365 global music concerts, that being the number on Fifth Avenue where lies this bastion of the City University Of New York. The music had ranged from Hungarian gypsy cabaret to a Trinidadian orisha ceremony. Certainly no conventional perception of what might be demanded from a world music series. Wang Li’s performance came with an introductory clarification: that all of his sonic emissions were perfectly natural, and without any intervention from electronic processing. Only a touch of microphone reverb was allowed. This Chinaman’s chosen instrument is the jaw harp (or kouquin, in Mandarin), of which he has quite a collection. Wang Li was born in Tsinghao, but now resides in Paris. His armoury looks quite unlike the small metal devices used by most American practitioners. These Chinese versions are usually larger, played in a horizontal fashion, with their thrumming extensions protruding to the side. It also looked like they were fashioned out of bamboo. This was a rare opportunity to hear the mouth cavity as an orchestral stage. Closely amplified, every nuance of vibration, twanging, altered pitches and circular-breath droning was magnified into the makings of a large-scale musical expression. Li used his voice to accentuate the groaning foundation, becoming at one with the jaw harp buzz.

Li’s circular-breathing techniques were even more apparent when he took up the hulusi calabash flute. This is a Chinese equivalent to the harmonica, although looking more like a horn, with its bulbous gourd-middle and blowing mouthpiece. He mostly employed this instrument to create atmospheric pieces that developed in linear fashion, thickening layers as breath accumulated. Playing in dimly-lit conditions, Li communicated the aura of an introverted ritual rather than a starkly-starred entertainment. Nevertheless, he always maintained constant interest in his sound painting pieces. This was partly due to a curiosity about his instruments and methods, but mostly due to his sheer narrative skill. Each piece was like part of an audio-visual journey across the Chinese landscape, often shunting tracks to make a pilgrimage through Li’s inner mind itself. He’s not the most cheery soul, boasting an extremely deadpan verbal delivery, morose, pessimistic, blunt and prone to sudden outbursts of mild confrontation with the audience. Li is not an entertainer in anywhere near the conventional sense. This is just as well. His collection of sonic devices is not too much of a novelty display, but rather the strange tools for even stranger musical interludes. Many of his pieces sounded like fragments of a lengthier adventure, an edited sliver of a much longer odyssey.

92Y Tribeca
May 8, 2013

Sadly, the excellent 92Y Tribeca arts centre will be closing its portals in the summer of 2013. Designed as a more youthful and adventurous outpost of the original 92Y in the Upper East Side, it combines an ideal space with imaginative booking policies. Not for much longer, unfortunately. This also means that WBGO will have to find a new home for The Checkout, its regular live broadcast show. This penultimate edition opened with Sexmob, the long-running quartet of wily rascals, unavoidably fronted by trumpeter and raconteur Steven Bernstein. This is a collective, but the other members are less forward, at least in the verbal arena. Briggan Krauss (saxophones), Tony Scherr (electric bass) and Kenny Wollesen (drums) join Bernstein in the totally harmonious marriage (or perhaps swinger party would be a more appropriate image) involving deep complexity, ribald japery, complete self-expression and sheer non-compromise. They were celebrating the release of Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti, (Royal Potato Family, 2013) subtitled Sexmob Plays Fellini: The Music Of Nino Rota. This inevitably means that the focus is on Rota’s work for the flicks of the Italian director Fellini. Always primarily involved with the radical re-interpretation of popular songs, this repertoire offers a more arty base than has often been the case for Sexmob in the past.

First came “Amarcord”, then “La Strada”, their multiple themes not always immediately apparent, manifested in the guises of New Orleans street parading and New York free jazz. Suddenly, individual soloing prattles coalesced into romping circus stomps. Wild Italian partying. Bernstein had two microphones, one of them with a gravelly distortion effect that might normally get used on a harmonica. His tiny slide trumpet issued modal-mash-ups with serrated sides. Krauss soared with passion, part Albert Ayler, part Sidney Bechet. Towards the set’s climax the horns engaged in a deranged duel, each issuing curtly alternating mini-statements of screaming precision. Berstein imagined himself as an old-time radio performer, visualising entire families huddling around their valve sets. He wore a suit to match those days, a neon-checked shocker that only the folks in the venue were privileged to witness. Scherr’s bass tone was wonderfully organic, and very individualistic, sounding at times like a tuba, at others snuffling out a deep dub reggae line. His strings had a warmly organic grumble, and his overall sound stood somewhere between the expected electric quality and an upright’s taut springiness. Bernstein interspersed the tunes with excerpts from his handy Italian phrase book. To non-natives he almost sounded convincing, but why could we not cease our involuntary laughter? Sexmob filled their set with tomfoolery, but at any point it could twist into the  stern throttling of improvisatory extremity. Not many combos are capable of such astounding diversity, especially during a single composition.

Colin Stetson
(le) Poisson Rouge
May 8, 2013

Here’s another solo performer, echoing many of the qualities displayed by Wang Li the previous evening. Colin Stetson is also involved with forming extended pieces that revolve around drones, spirals, circular breathing and vocalising into his instrument. The Stetson horn is way bigger than Li’s tiny collection of fragile jaw harps. His bass saxophone is hoisted with the aid of a torso harness, Stetson eschewing the usual practice of placing it on a stand. It’s such a beast that he alternates with an alto, possibly for artistic reasons, but most probably to give his lungs a rest. Stetson doesn’t just play his horn, he inhabits its very structure, creating gargantuan soundscapes that don’t usually pause during their development. With vocal sounds that either sing or groan like a didgeridu, his emissions almost tread beyond the confines of the saxophonic existence. His aims are often akin to those of Li, but his methods involve a much more strenuous engagement with his instrument. Stetson can be comfortably (or perhaps uncomfortably) placed within the jazz zone, but his rise has involved just as much of an engagement with the alternative rock scene, which is why this sold out Poisson gig pulled in a very mixed crowd, in terms of age demographic and chosen garb-type. He might recall Evan Parker’s never-ending circular-breathing ripples, but Stetson’s palette is more linear and conventional, trimmed of embellishment and micro-details. His vocabulary is more brutal and minimalist, with less events on its slowly evolving horizons. He remains compelling, however. Just more rock’n’roll than improvisatory in nature.