Monday, December 29, 2008

Make the Healing Where You Are: Harriet Tubman @ Nublu


My thoughts, which I'm a bit delayed in posting--blame it on ole man winter... (thanks to J for the nudge)

• • •

I should probably say this isn't a review. Truth be told what I write in this blog is never meant as a "review" per se. Arguably my best writing here is an attempt to recreate my wholistic (visceral/aural/visual/emotional/intellectual, etc) experience of being in a certain place at a certain time.

Maybe I'm thinking about my response to being at Nublu this weekend. The East Village spot was for me a disorienting intersection of the popular, the profane, the sacred, the jam band, and the NY downtown legendary, along with a record company: Nublu Records (located a few doors up from the club). For those not in the know it's a popular neighborhood spot, where you're as likely to find would-be young hipsters snogging on a couch behind reformulated beats that vinyl-heads will remember from their crate-digging or high school days (nod to Mr. G). Those old vinyl-heads will recognize the connection between Nublu and Wax Poetics, and the avant garde-minded among them the fact that multi-talented drummer Kenny Wollesen (Tom Waits, Fred Frith, etc.) often engages his more experimental side there, with Love Trio, and the composer/conduction pioneer Lawrence "Butch" Morris leads the Nublu Orchestra which also includes members of recent performance art/ "it" band phenoms The Brazilian Girls, members of which who are also fixtures at Nublu. Nublu is a big supporter of Brazilian music, international jazz, and DJ culture with both established folks and emerging spinners dropping whole sets and/or beats in between sets by other artists.

Basically, this means you've got serious music-heads, musicians, and artists, along with frat boys and sorority girls, and art school denizens all hanging out in the same room. It makes for an interesting inter-generational and cross-cultural mix of folks.

It took a while for things to get started, so Harriet Tubman (l-r above: Melvin Gibbs, bass; JT Lewis, drums; Brandon Ross, guitars, banjo, vocal) didn't go on until midnight. They set up in a performance space that faces and is located maybe two feet from the bar, doing a sound check simultaneous with the DJ doing his thing about two inches away from them. The musical pulse is at a constant at Nublu, and in between sets the DJ's mix is almost louder than your thoughts. That effectively keeps the energy at a certain plateau while people wait for the next act to come on, though it can complicate a set up and sound check.

HT began their set with one of their few cuts that feature vocals, "Can't Tarry," which is also on their MySpace page. The song specifically comes out of their field research into Mississippi Delta blues, and reads like a gospel blues, with guitarist Brandon Ross plaintively calling out, "Lord, can't tarry here no more." Trippy, I had been playing that song on my iPod earlier that day. For a while, and perhaps still, you could download the track from their MySpace page as long as you were a MySpace subscriber.

The rest of the set was transcendent for me, but that's my experience listening to Harriet Tubman play, particularly live. It's a bio-chemical spiritual reaction. I was mightily aware of this on the third cut when JT Lewis was carving out the beat in that awe-inspiring way he has. You can tell he can hear multiple meter options in what's going around him as well as various sequences of accents; he's a master grammarian on the drums. At some point he hears where he needs/wants to go and locks that meter and a sequence pattern in, and then after about 8-10 measures begins to switch it all up. Interestingly, I always found his choices ones my ear could fall right into it--but they were never obvious. Lewis' MySpace page prominently displays his credo: "RHYTHM IS LIFE!/TIME IS NOT MY ENEMY!" I've long been fascinated by this sentiment. I have no problem with the first part, but the second... While I don't think time is my enemy, I never feel like I have enough of it. I guess I think of it as that fascinating aunt or uncle whom you wish you could see more of, and never seems to stay long enough when they visit.

But during the third song in the first set Lewis stopped playing, and I realized that I was so bound up in the rhythm he was creating that I stopped too. Breathing that is, and I was seriously heels over tail, or however that saying goes when you're suddenly just hanging in space, nothing below and nothing beneath, until he brought the beat back in and I knew where to land. It reminded me of jumping off the high dive into a pool as a kid, or flipping off the uneven bars--those few seconds when it feels gravity has no power. It's just your consciousness and your body in space and time. In retrospect I wish I had asked Lewis about it after the set. But who knows if my experience would have resonated for him. Lewis was also more vocal this show, talking in between cuts, in one instance about artists and gentrification--a great riff on how artists see possibility where city power brokers see the castoffs or detritus of urban development, but that when artist organize and manifest that possibility then those other folks suddenly notice the value and want it back (I think acknowledging the displacement of Gibbs and several other artists from the 475 Kent warehouse-lofts in Brooklyn in January 2008), in another asserting the importance of what I'd like to think was constructive anger, and lastly the originating ethos of Harriet Tubman: healing (hence the title of this post) in this 10th anniversary year of their founding. (pictured right poster image for an April 2008 mixed media show by 475 Kent artists featuring performances by Melvin Gibbs, and other residents)

What I noticed this time hearing them was how much they listen to each other. This was probably a function of being quite closer than at their Joe's Pub gig last year, and my own intent listening. There were times when I was listening to Melvin Gibbs and hearing him create patterns and then switch up and change the accents, sometimes creating an accent through an absence of a note. It made me really want to hear him talk about rhythmic and harmonic counterpoint, and reminded me of an anecdote he told about guitarist Sonny Sharrock at his solo show in the Out on A Limb series at Rose Cafe last year in Brooklyn. Gibbs played with Sharrock for a number of years. He shared that over that time Sharrock only held one actual rehearsal--he preferred to teach Gibbs about playing through telling jokes, "because it was all about the timing." (this made me think about Sharrock's playing on his own composition "John's Children"--apparently inspired by John Coltrane--which I recently heard on saxophonist Byard Lancaster's album, It's Not Up To Us, with Sharrock on guitar, the connections keep going...) Other times when Brandon Ross would start layering a sound bed, Gibbs would create a layer and then Ross would put down another layer using loops and effects pedals, and as usual hitting those high sonics with a fleshy sensual feel rather than an effect that made you curse having forgotten your earplugs. Interestingly too, Ross laid back when Gibbs explored the high end which was kind of fascinating since I hadn't heard Gibbs go there so extensively previously. Ross was creating varied textures, some simultaneously full and porous, others high and keening, as well as series of cyclical voicings (this last aspect more apparent to me than when hearing them live previously) with those high keening tremelos abruptly falling as if to their knees (in prayer? in emotional rapture?) only to rise slowly, again ambulating into some other voice, some other layer.

Notably none of HT's members were calling out songs, one or two would start and then another would listen and decide when and how to come in. At a couple of points Lewis and then Ross specifically asked Gibbs to call out a piece, which he did by starting to play a series of rhythms and note motifs. This absence of the traditional "count off" resonated for me when I was watching a clip of jazz pianist/theorist/educator George Russell talking to Ornette Coleman, and the late music writer/musician Robert Palmer about that same absence with Coleman's musical ensemble with Don Cherry (trumpet), Ed Blackwell (drums) and Charlie Haden (bass)--Russell was asking the composer/musician how the players knew when to come in. Coleman's response, "...instictive insight." Following up on this Russell talks about the heart as the highest intellect, and how this view--which he suggests as predominant in "Third World" considerations, naming it as a "Third World technology"--is ignored in much of the West which primarily considers music as "entertainment" and has failed to understand this distinct technology (which can only be accessed by being engaged and accessed, i.e.: mindful practice-mindful practice-mindful practice...) instead reducing it to the stereotype of the naturally (read: racially) gifted but non-intellectual black musician. The clip ends with the detailing of an interesting exchange between Russell and renowned architect/visionary Buckminster Fuller (1895 -1983) (Coleman wrote a work for Fuller, Prime Time/Design Time (for Buckminster Fuller) (1984)). You can check out this conversation in Shirley Clarke's (woefully out-of-print) documentary Ornette: Made In America (1985). Unfortunately, the embedding option has been removed from the YouTube video clip, but you can go directly to the YouTube clip to check it out. But if you ever get a chance to see Clarke's documentary in its entirety, which sometimes plays film festivals or at art house revivals. Go.

The same goes for the increasingly rare Harriet Tubman stateside performances, for the entirety of 2008: 2 shows in NY. Hear about a show. Go.

Endnote:
American Film Institute's (AFI) 2000 response to a query about commercial availability of Clarke's documentary.
bio for filmmaker Shirley Clarke (1919 - 1997)

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