Friday, December 28, 2007

Brandon Ross' "Theorema" @ Jalopy 12/28/07 + URB ALT (Oops) + Upcoming...Incoming NYC/Philly

I arrived late to the show; bridge and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway(BQE) traffic slowing things down. Plus there's the trick of getting to Jalopy aka Jalopy Theatre and School of Music (despite the somewhat institutional sounding name, it looks like a well-loved funky club, both inside and out). You can't trust the directions from either Mapquest or Googlemaps as they will get you to the wrong side of Columbia Street, looking woefully at the BQE and wondering how to get to the other side. You've got to keep going up Hamilton and then turn left, going under the BQE, and left again to get to Hamilton going the other way. Then you'll end up on the side of Columbia Street that houses Jalopy almost on the corner. It's a great club, with old-style wooden church pews and folding wooden chairs, hardwood floors, and a bar with alcohol (and I think some juices), a string instrument rental display, and an intimate stage space framed by heavy red velvet curtains.

I want to write about how thought-provoking, engaging, and rich-sounding this show was in some kind of specific detail, and I find myself at a loss. Even while I was sitting in one of Jalopy's the center row pews, I was occasionally thinking 'how am I going to write about this so I remember it?' I mean I could talk about harmonics, and rhythms which were so key to the music played, but it wouldn't give the most embodied portrait. Key for me were the ways that bodies at play created sounds; the flesh-and-bone interactions of this show which was a mix of improvisation and notated work. I didn't get to see the notation so I don't know what Ross' scores looked like. I know there were a number of instances when bassist Stomu Takeishi looked as though he was reading the score very closely.

Tonight I didn't have a camera, still I felt myself watching intently the process by which each musician played their instrument, drew sound from it with their whole body. It was a frame-by-frame recording experience to be sure. What my uncle would call making "memory pictures." This was more obvious with the playing of Stomu Takeishi whose bodily invocations communicated so much as to the route of sound through his body--bubbling up from his shoe-shorn feet, toes curling around pedal knobs, knees bending as his torso extended forward and then back. The music percolated through his chest as he moved his shoulders never losing contact with the bass which didn't seem to hold its solid wooden form against these movements. Although Takeishi's music stand obscured some of the view of his electric bass--a really beautiful instrument by the way--its body was a part of these ambulations ultimately as resonator even though Takeishi wasn't playing an acoustic body this evening. Most evocatively, the sound would pop into one of Takeishi's cheeks and he'd hold it there, looking like he had a big rubber ball between cheek and gums, waiting for the moment to play a note. You could almost feel the tension of someone saying, "Wait...wait for it, wait for it...Now!" Then he'd pluck or tap a string and the cheek would deflate and the cycle would start anew. It's a really amazing experience to be allowed to witness that aspect of someone's creative trajectory. I had been moved previously by Takeishi's commitment when I saw him play at Rose Live Music, with the Out On A Limb All-Stars conducted by Lawrence "Butch" Morris, as part of the curated series Brandon Ross put together in September of this year (Takeishi and Ross have played together as an acoustic duo For Living Lovers, as well as in Henry Threadgill's and Butch Morris' respective ensembles). In the former instance even though he was sitting I could still see his embodied expressiveness. I don't know how it feels to him, but watching Takeishi I felt I was seeing an artist willing to fully give himself over to the process of achieving particular sounds. For vocalists I suppose the equivalent for vocalists is the "ugly face." (Rachelle Farrell's performance ethos is a good example of this.) (Takeishi pictured above left in 2005 playing with the Sax Pistols in Italy; no offense to F. Truono but this image doesn't fully capture the energy circuitry I described above, though you do get to see those cheeks bursting with channeled sound.)

I had never seen drummer Gerald Cleaver before this evening. (I actually didn't get to see much of him this evening either due to the combination of Jalopy's raised stage and the angle of the kit set up vis-a-vis my seat view.) The "" bio I read (and link to here) cites his playing as "powerful and tasteful." I get the "powerful," but have no idea what was meant by "tasteful." All the restrained, self-conscious politeness I would associate with that adjective wasn't in evidence tonight. But if the writer meant to say Cleaver can be powerful without overpowering and playing over the rest of an ensemble I could see that. He certainly is inspired and creative. There was one moment of soloing when he seemed to get carried off on an improvisatory thread, but Ross did seem to be intentionally giving Cleaver the musical space to do just that at particular moments (for example in one case where he looped ambient feedback that played under Cleaver). Cleaver was massaging, striking, hammering and shimmering sounds from the drum kit. In various instances he pulled a drumstick across a the edge of a cymbal; tapped and stroked the floor tom, snare and symbols with his fingers--something that has become ubiquitous for some players. But Cleaver sounded like he was talking, having a conversation, or sneaking into the conversation that Takeishi and Ross had already started, or cajoling and teasing them into having a conversation with him. Some other interesting moments: Cleaver played the snare with a regular drumstick and the floor tom with a drumstick with a percussive attachment adding a subtle polyrhythmic element; he played this stick alone a few times and its tone sounded like a shaker filled with seeds, or a cabaça. Going further with this layering of simultaneous percussive timbres, he played the snare with a what looked to be a bass mallet, and the floor tom with a regular drumstick, and then the floor tom and snare both with bass mallets during one piece where he repeated a rhythmic pattern until it was its own chant, or maybe a ring shout. (Cleaver pictured above right playing with David Torn during 28° JazzFestival Saalfelden [24/8/2007]; photo: Claudio Casanova/AAJItalia]

I missed the introduction and explanation of Theorema, that is the specific meaning for Ross, aside from a more elegant and open way of referencing theory/theorem/concept which I had already kind of hypothesized. As it turns out Theorema is in process, which somewhat harkens to a scientific read of the term, as in "testing a theory." Everybody should be so fortunate to have their process sound this compelling. Some improvisation, or working through of concepts, can be quite cerebral; someone playing with an algorithm, or attempting to work through intervals via some randomized system. These efforts meant to free a performer/composer from the constraints of their traditional (read= History of Western Music) compositional knowledge can become another kind of prescriptive for the creative process.

Ross' compositional work has a consistent cerebral element, it also has considerable sensuality. This union becomes apparent when watching him play. Tonight he solely played his Klein electric headless guitar, with which he has an extensive and unique rapport. Something about this melding of the cerebral and sensual reminds me of Jason King's article on Roberta Flack in Listen Again, Experience Music Project's latest collection of presented papers from its Annual Pop Conference. There's a great quote from by Flack where she calls her music a mixture of science and soul; I believe she's talking about her arranging style having been honed both in the gospel and classical music training of her youth and the way in which she applied the chordal and counterpoint grammar of classical music to the arrangements of the soul, pop, gospel and folk music she recorded. from a 1977 radio interview that King cites "Flack is asked to explain what she leared from classical training. She responds that she likes 'to stay involved in the structure of music' in a 'scientific and soulful way." [182] Ross has also cited an engagement with diverse "folk" musics (he places folk in quotation marks in his description) of which he's pushing the boundaries by purposeful employ of considered compositional approaches.

Ross' performance physicality is more internal than Takeishi's; instead of movements of several inches, his gestural changes were contained in a minimum of inches and millimeters. You could watch as some element changed in Ross' face, or in the manner of his frequent leaning into the score, or within the literal space between himself and where the music was traveling--you could call that sound, or energy, or air molecules. With that leaning, in the instances where there was no score, I found myself wondering if Ross was was listening for progressions that were coming to him as he played, or for the changes that Takeishi and Cleaver were creating, or if something else entirely was happening. (Obviously, I have an ongoing fascination with the creative process as it's experienced by different folks) There would be changes in the music that were telegraphed a second before in some minor shift in Ross' posture, or the expression on his face. Interestingly, I noticed the facial expressions weren't just visual shifts, but you could feel a shift of energy with those subtle ripples as well. During the improvisatory moments (no one called out songs until the final number when Ross announced an Ornette Coleman cover) Takeishi looked at Ross intently, both at his face and where his fingers were on the fretboard, seemingly reading when to answer a note and what harmonies he might consider. Recently, I had been listening to a lot of Ross' recorded work and there were a couple of moments when I was stunned by how close to the recorded sound of his guitar this live work was. Despite working in the electric frame it's not a given that with direct line in a musician will be able to achieve the sound that he/she hears in her/his head or in a live context, given the vagaries of room sound and various mics, etc. In one really beautiful moment I recall, Ross was playing softly but with great articulation and rich tone, then he slightly increased his volume and played for a few more measures at which point Takeishi and Cleaver joined him. The power of quiet intensity has been coming up in few places for me recently; in the aforementioned Jason King article, as well as in a Victor Wooten video tutorial a friend sent me where Wooten talks about how Curtis Mayfield would play his electric guitar very softly and very intensely, in live contexts, clubs where people were talking and eating and people would get quiet in order to hear him. Not just because he was Curtis Mayfield, but because of the quality of that quiet voice, the kind of power it imbued. Similarly Ross' quiet intonations have that quality of power as well as startling clarity and color, all of which makes you want to hear what he's saying musically. (Ross pictured above left in a fairly similar representation of his "conscious listening/responding" stance--I'm just gonna call it that for now, to mark the posture)

It was a sweet night, with the pews filling up by the middle of the set as more people found their way to the Jalopy end of Columbia Street. It kind of reminded me of Bold As Live's The Family Stand event because Ross had family there ('tis the season), similar to V. Jeffrey Smith's kinfolk showing out--oh, now wouldn't it be great to see a Bold As Live conversation with Harriet Tubman (Melvin Gibbs, JT Lewis, Brandon Ross)! (Mr. Fields are you reading this? Wouldn't that be a richly diverse series of conversations given the musical history of those three instrumentalists?). So in evidence were his nephew photographer Bayaté Ross Smith, who currently has work in the quite interesting looking Face Off show at the Rush Arts Gallery & Resource Center in Chelsea (hoping to check that out soon). Also present, family friend and photographer Hank Willis Thomas a really gifted conceptually driven artist as well as, hmm, I think artist/curator Shane Aslan Selzer, but we didn't officially meet.

• From Patricia Lay-Dorsey's October 2007 Photo-A-Day Gallery: image of Gerald Cleaver "playing his drums and cymbals using two rolled-up sheets of paper...appropriately enough, music scores. And it worked! The whispery sound he created was just what was needed to set the tone for Andrew Bishop's experimental composition in four movements, "'Metaboles.'"

• Intensely enthused All About Jazz review of Cleaver and his ensemble Veil of Names' 2001 release Adjust

I got out of Jalopy at 11am. I had planned on running uptown from Brooklyn to get to The Shrine in Harlem for the last of the URB ALT 4.5 show. But URB ALT had started at 8pm, and I had the idea that it would only go for 3 hours because a previous Shrine show seemed to be on that clock. So I figured it was a no go. I was wrong, wrong, so wrong. URB ALT didn't finish until 1am! Next time I'll put in a call to confirm what's up, cause I missed a chance to hear some funk-filled improvisations and get my dance on--and we all know how important that is, whatever the time of year! The night featured Meera, a Pakistani band; Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Felili--both Meera and Felili dedicated songs to the recently assassinated Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto. They along with MuthaWit and special guests saxophonist/singer/keyboardist Micah Gaugh and guitarist Soul Product turned the joint out. You can read about the URB ALT 4.5 show (for a limited time, cause MySpace is on limited server space, people) on the MuthaWit blog.

Upcoming...Incoming...January 2008

BAMcafé Live: FREE! 9pm
Friday, January 4th: Nora York, whom I first heard at the Tom Terrell Benefit 9/11/2006.
She's performing excerpts from her new project Furtiva Lagrima.

Saturday, January 5th: Anna Fiszman & Marc Landesberg with Felili
Boston Fielder has predicted that Felili is going to break bigtime soon. If you listen to her work you can see why. Run, don't walk to see her in the near future.

At the Kiswick Theatre (Glenville, PA, right outside Philly)
January 11th
Sister Rosetta Tharpe Benefit, featuring The Dixie Hummingbirds, Willa Ward with the Johnny Thompson Singers, Marie Knight, Odetta and The Huff Singers. A Fundraiser to purchase a headstone for Tharpe's gravesite.

At Joe's Pub
Friday, January 11th
Abigail Washburn featuring Bela Fleck
Multi-lingual roots music singer-songwriter/ banjo player with legendary Bela Fleck

Saturday, January 12th, 7pm The Carolina Chocolate Drops/ Catherine Russell.
The Drops just got featured on The Great Debaters soundtrack, featured on Oprah, and tapped by rock critic Kandia Crazy Horse, yeah, unh-hunh.

... and somewhere in Brooklyn
January 15, 2008
URB ALT 5.0 - Annual Dr. King Tribute
Time, Place, & Artists to be announced


...back at BAM

BAMcafé Live: FREE! @ 9pm
Friday & Saturday, January 18-19
Black Rock Coalition's Children of the Revolution Part II

@ BAM but not free
January 22
Mavis Staples

In February....
Harriet Tubman @ BAM
sho' nuff!



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