Friday, September 21, 2007

While the gettin' is good: OUT ON A LIMB, 9/20/07

Master guitarist Brandon Ross' Out on A Limb curated music series at Rose Live Music was intended to give musicians an opportunity to get out of their comfort zones and try working without the usual nets, be they back-up musicians, laptop computers, or whatever.

"Naked," as bassist Melvin Gibbs intoned this evening, is the operative word. Gibbs and lyric tenor Carlo Vutera were on tonight's bill with Vutera offering the first set, a primarily a cappella performance of songs in Spanish, Italian, and there was also one in French I caught which dealt with memory and was quite haunting. Vutera is the owner of Rose Live Music which he runs with his sister, Gina Vutera. But he was quite reticent about accepting Ross' invitation to participate. Somewhat refreshing modesty from an opera singer (yep, there have been some unfortunate recent experiences), except he almost backed out of the gig. That would have been a shame. In between songs he said he was ultimately lured by the opportunity to work with composer/conductionist Butch Morris on the final night of the series.

The naked voice is a scary thing to put out there, especially when it's yours and you're singing to an intimate group of people a selection of songs that requires the placing of your heart on your sleeve. But Vutera rose to that, he allowed himself to be exposed with a maybe four feet between him and the audience--at eye-level no less on the Rose's low stage--singing songs that he loves. It was all there in his voice, and it was moving to witness. Vutera, a Sicillian, was born in Italy, and has lived in Belgium and New York (he's a long-time Williamsburg resident), where he sang with the New York Light Opera. But he was apparently changed forever by studying Cuban music, which he did for three years while living in Havana and working with coach and pianist Pura Ortíz and singing at the National Opera House. He has released an album which includes popular Neopolitan works along with traditional Cuban ones, and supporting him are some of the top musicians in Havana. Vutera called himself "a romantic" tonight, so it's not surprising the album is called Ammore (check out Vutera's playful bedroom eyes on the cover), it's also available in Spanish as Mi Amor. Where can you get it? Why, CD baby of course (love 'em!). Vutera live and unaccompanied was rawer sounding than what you'd hear on the CD (go to his MySpace page for more tracks), he was also more vulnerable and immediate. It's just a different experience, both for audience and musician. Fortunately, we were a crowd capable of appreciating Vutera's ultimate willingness to "go there" evidenced by repeated enthused applause (and not just from his biggest fan, the friendly María, who was collecting the cover charge, and to whom he dedicated the song "Maria O Mari").

Melvin Gibbs was up next, and though he said he's never nervous before playing a gig he was nervous yesterday about this one. The bass, he explained, is meant to be played with other things. It's not a solo instrument. I've never subscribed to this view having grown up listening to Charles Mingus, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, and Jaco Pastorius. Even though they each "played well with others" (even the legendary ego that was Pastorius, RIP), I listened to them because I came to appreciate their particular musical voices.

But it's not like I was going to stand up and contradict the bass legend that is Mr. Gibbs.

There was no need for that anyway because Gibbs went on and pulled a breadth of sounds from a six string and a four string bass that made his hesitancy a moot point. Plus, he treated us to a couple of poems from a book he found during his recent touring in Europe, The Immeasurable Equation: The Collected Poetry and Prose of Sun Ra (pictured below right). Gibbs had been planning on bringing his laptop, as he makes his own beats and such (all the beats on his MySpace page are his own), but playing a laptop, he shrugged, was "so 2003, I just couldn't get with it [for this date]." (He mentioned the unfortunate issue with live performance and laptop music, where the musician is playing away but to the audience it looks as though s/he is checking their email.) I was grateful Gibbs wasn't feeling the laptop. Nothing wrong with those beats, it's just a huge gift to have the opportunity bear witness to an artist journeying "out on a limb" creatively. These days it's a pretty rare experience. It's also not a simple one; it was evident that Gibbs was pushing himself at different points during the set to go beyond his own expansive instrumental vocabulary. Gibbs, pulled lyrical passages, full sensual lead-lines, deft runs, funk, punk, deep growls and crunchy moans from his basses. He played with the bass as a melodic instrument--strumming, slicing, and arranging chord progressions; worked it as a spare rhythmic engine, sometimes giving a hard yet full sound with thumb and plucking; he worked note extensions with pedals, gave us a range of meaningful distortion, and played with harmonics from behind the pick ups--I didn't know that was possible.

There were dedications; a work speaking to the situation of the Jena 6. Gibbs shared that his mother and her sister had moved to New York because they witnessed a lynching in their town; they left for New York the very next day--so nooses hanging from trees aren't a silly prank to him. Also, Gibbs gave us an edgy instrumental commentary on the Jamaican vacation phenomenon known as "Rent-A-Rasta" of which he'd recently become apprised on his own vacation where he went to rest, look at the water, just relax, something he doesn't normally get to do when he travels because it's all about work. But some people go on vacation to experience "something" completely new. Nuff Said. Gibbs also played a beautiful and multi-voiced piece honoring Sonny Sharrock with whom Gibbs played for a number of years. Gibbs shared that over those years Sharrock only held one actual rehearsal--he preferred to teach Gibbs about playing through telling jokes, "because it was all about the timing." That's some profound trust in letting the process be what it's gonna be. Gibbs even accompanied himself on voice on a few songs, and played the mbira (pictured below right).

All told it was a profound experience, and if that's the first and last time Gibb is ever gonna play a solo set (which is what he inferred) I can't tell you how glad I am I was there.

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