Saturday, May 19, 2007

Downtown Saturday Night

Sometimes New York just fits. My past few trips down there have been overly harried, too many problems in transit, or meeting people, or missing music I came for. So it was nice, for once, to have a smooth ride from start to finish. (Well, almost. The train home was two hours late.) I think as a result I enjoyed everything more.

The musical portion of the trip kicked off at the Bowery Poetry Club Saturday night big band massacre. Kyle Saulnier's Awakening Orchestra, a group I know nothing about, led off. It was a big, bold big band, Saulnier conducting in wide, agressive gestures and the band powering through his music. Everything was really well played. The writing, though, left me a little short. Saulnier is clearly a skilled composer, with a lot of nice sections in the charts, but little of it hung together well. His language stems from a fairly standard modern big-band sound. The grooves were more backbeat and less swing, funk but not too funky. I found very little coherence in the writing, a neat free or noise-based intro that didn't really connect to what came after, solos that, while uniformly good, didn't connect to the bigger picture. He wrote a great punchy odd-metered tune that devolved into a very standard 12-bar blues. My favorite moment of the set was a great bari solo on "Protest"- not flashy, but tremendously interesting and rewarding. . His last tune hung together best, well built and richly orchestrated, if a bit abrupt in its end. This band feels like it's in its infancy, and I think there are better things to come.

Darcy James Argue and Secret Society's set, the last for awhile, was rock solid in every way. Both friendship and, frankly, envy preclude me from saying a whole lot more, but soon you'll be able to hear it for yourself. I will say that Darcy's skills as MC and rabble-rouser have grown exponentially since I last saw the band live two years ago. (He gave Mark Small the star turn on “Phobos”, which he ate up, but hung him out to dry introducing the tune, obliquely comparing him to the unstable, ultimately doomed moon of Mars.) And Ingrid Jensen just tore Transit to pieces-every time I hear her she sounds better.

After the set, I had just enough time to tramp over to the western edge of the island to the Jazz Gallery and Henry Threadgill's Zooid. The second set was advertised as 10:30, but walking in at 10:15 I was treated to the last ten minutes of the first set. I don't pretend to understand Threadgill's music- see Ethan's post at D-out for one great description, or hunt out some of the stuff Myra Melford has written about her experience studying with him for a more informed view. I will say that inasmuch as I've followed his music, especially in the last fifteen years, while the structures have not changed radically, their presentation, both on recording and here live, gets more and more abstract. The band- Liberty Ellman on guitar, two cellos, one acoustinc and one occasionally processed (and doubling trombone on one tune), tuba and drums- read the compositions from big oversized manuscript paper, but dammit if I could follow along beyond the occasional unison melody. The beat was always clear, often quasi-martial, but the meter was rarely obvious, with the tuba and drums dancing all over the stated beat. The comping (all three strings comped, though rarely at the same time, Ellman favoring octave strumming, the cellos short figures, often with double-stops.) Sometimes the interplay and textures sparkled, sometimes they wallowed. Through this density Threadgill, when he played, cut like a master fencer, everything clear, bold and striking. The other soloists had their moments, especially Ellman late in the set and bone/cello ace on several tunes, but too often couldn't match the leader's strong sense of direction. (I see a theme emerging here in my review...) The music was a well-rehearsed high-wire act, and while there was the occasional toppling body, there was foremost a marvelous spectacle of sound.