13 September 2011

A testing outing

My night at the Crosscurrent Festival with Dave Burrell and Matana Roberts’ Coin Coin was clearly the most challenging outing of my time in NYC. There’s a lot to like about this. The Crosscurrent International Contemporary Jazz Festival is a three-day event that involves visits from Italy, although I’m not sure who travelled or how the theme was created. I do know it’s an Italian connection and it’s in its third year. The venue was excellent: Le Poisson Rouge. It’s got great lighting and sound and it’s a comfortable space with a generous stage. But it’s especially interesting because it stages various arts: theatre, dance, jazz, rock, experimental music and more. Also interesting were the bands, of course. I can struggle with experimental music, but it can also be wonderfully involving and satisfying when you close your eyes and take it for the sound that it is.

Dave Burrell played the first set. This was a standard piano trio in format and at the start of each tune, you may have thought they would play pretty standard-style. The tunes started with a fairly simple and lyrical melodies, but they developed into atonal, often cacophonous, improvs by whoever took a solo. Then a sudden stop: there was no out head. These were capable musicians and you could clearly see the skills. I remained flummoxed by the style but that’s my problem not theirs. I liked this well enough but I wasn’t quite convinced. BTW, this was Dave Burrell’s 71st birthday special project. Dave Burrell (piano) played with Michael Formanek (bass) and Steve Swell (trombone).

Indicative of this venue’s variety of programming we had a poet between bands and given this is NYC this was a famed poet. Amiri Baraka (prev. LeRoi Jones) read a lengthy poem on jazz performance. I loved hearing the rhymes as they flittered through the piece and the images of jazz performers which I felt he got so right. This was very much enjoyed, even if I didn’t catch all the subtleties.

Matana Roberts led her sextet Coin Coin in the final, and my favourite, performance of the night. Matana is a capable alto saxist but is perhaps better known for her composition and better known in Europe than in her home country. She described this as a “chance strategy piece” and later named it as a mixtape. I presume the chance strategy is the compositional approach for this piece. This was a performance of a recent CD but altered in approach, with videos and headphones at some times (thus mixtape?) and overt signaling from Matana. This was not fully charted dots: my ears suggested there were lines that were written (they sometimes played unison, or played themes that were obviously related) but the performance was largely improvised. As I understood, the story was of a black slave girl several generations back in Matana’s own family. Matana played sax but also spoke and sang, often using words as sound as much as literature. “I was born in 1752” was one of the first lines, and the story was of slavery, abuse, and survival of this girl and black slaves in America. The video had frequent views of train tracks, and I wondered if this spoke of the famed Underground railroad escape route, as well as family photos and a picture of a young girl. Whatever, this was beautiful music played with skill and with a real message. Many of the methods were experimental and the improvisation was atonal, but I delighted in the themes that would show through and hold the piece together and the very beautiful use of voice by Matana. A stunning presentation and intimately purposeful piece of music. Matana Roberts (alto, composition), Daniel Levin (cello), Shoko Nagai (piano), Thomson Kneeland (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums).

Hello to Martin Longley who I met at this outing. He's a jazz writer for the BBC Music website, Jazzwise magazine, the NYC Jazz Record and Coventry Telegraph newspapers and I read his recent interview with the Necks in a current local NY jazz paper. Very nice to have a chat and compare notes about matters of jazz writing, although mine is pastime rather than profession.

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