3 August 2011

Many Prophets as one

When I saw pics of The Prophets, before they performed at the Gods, I naturally thought of Sun Ra. It’s an obvious connection given the zany presence and the madcap costumes that make both bands such unique theatrical shows. But I’ve seen Sun Ra at Villa Celimontana many years back, and the music is quite different. And I’m not sure that The Prophets lay any claim to outlandish origins, although they did mention connections to Mali and Ethiopia and the music clearly talks with a language out of Africa. There’s also jazz and rock there, so this is exotic and international but not extraterrestrial.

The individual components of their performance are not unique, but the whole is clearly unconventional: two drummers; four alto saxes (actually 3 altos and a C-melody sax - a new one on me and apparently an instrument that hasn’t been produced for many years); no bass (although I think they sometime use one); occasional vibes; invitations to the audience to join in on homemade wind instruments; no clearly defined, individualistic solos; occasional duets or smaller ensembles, including a drum duet). And the costumes, of course. As I said, the music spoke of Africa. Apparently some of the band had travelled to Mali and one tune was Ethiopian. So the music was riff-like passages that morphed in a minimalist way over time, with moving contrapuntal lines from various saxes and polyrhythms from drums and others. I thought I counted lots of threes (triplet feels and lines in 6s or 12s) and lots of riffs that seemed front-loaded (is there a musical term for this?) with shorter notes on the beat and on the accent, and longer notes following. This all made it not swing and not relaxed, more jumpy and perhaps African. But then I remember fours from drums so there were polyrhythms happening and gently changing. There were solos, but they were not obvious, singular, ecstatic events. These were squeaks and squeals, unimposing, flittering over the grooves. The one piece with vibes just confirmed the African connections with the lilting grooves of tuned percussion. It got a little odder with the invitational piece. This was three melodicas, a fog-like wooden horn, two drums and about 10 wind instruments made with holey hose, straws, balloons and rubber bands that were played by invited audience. Congrats to Jono Lake who took to his instrument with considerable rhythmic confidence, which is what the piece needed. In the spirit of Prophetic anonymity, I’ve nothing particularly to say about the individual musicians. The masks created the anonymity and the music confirmed it. This was a zany presentation and rough around the edges, but lively and fresh and I loved it.

Given the masks and the instrumentation it’s hard to know who’s who, but The Prophets were Peter Farrer (C-melody sax), Dale Gorfinkel (alto, vibes), Marcus Whale (alto, sitting in for Sam Dobson), Laura Altman (alto), Finn Ryan (drums) and James Waples (drums).

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