New beyond-jazz in NYC clubs

Alto saxophonist Greg Osby debuted a sextet with vocalist, electric guitar and vibes at the Village Vanguard, and pianist Lafayette Gilchrist brought an unusually horn-heavy band from Baltimore into (Le) Poisson Rouge, opening for guitarist Vernon Reid‘s rockin’, scratchin’ Yohimbe Brothers. Is this the shape of jazz to come?


Late summer is a time for sneak previews of the ensembles launching in the fall. So gigs at showcase spaces like the Vanguard — hallowed by many live recordings of jazz’s greatest greats (Coltrane, Rollins, Monk, Bill Evans) — and (Le) Poisson Rouge (in the basement where the Village Gate not so long ago held its “salsa meets jazz” nights) provide a heads up for potential trends, or just what ensembles entrepreneurial musicians will be floating soon to those few venues in the U.S. and abroad willing to try the untested. 

In two of the cases here under consideration, the leaders are known quantities, trying to put together bands that balance edginess with popular appeal. In the third, a less-well-known player is betting his future on a quirky, massive onslaught subverted by his own sly humor. I like it when players take chances.
Osby, about as technically accomplished and conceptually serious a saxophonist as there is under 50, has put together several hard-hitting small groups during his tenure with Blue Note Records, which started with Man Talk for Moderns, Volume X in 1990 but has evidently ended (his 16 acclaimed albums on that label are no longer available from it, or listed in its catalog). He’s recorded with Dianne Reeves, collaborated with Cassandra Wilson, and now presents Sara Serpa as nearly his equal on the front line. She provides quite a contrast with both Osby and her predecessors. 
Affectless in her stage moves and with a small, bright, uninflected voice that delivers dot-like syllables, no lyrics, she might be a single Swingle singer or a bossa nova backer-upper. She hits the pitches, swings lightly, offsets Osby’s alto sax but never competes with it. Osby played rings around her, full of ideas though they all seemed to be of equal weight or significance to him. Meanwhile vibist Joseph Lepore and electric guitarist Nir Felder create pleasing timbral beds; their music is tempered by the warm resonances of their instruments. Bassist Adam Birnbaum serves unobtrusively; to my ears, drummer Hamir Atwal was busy but a slip behind the time frame suggested by the rest of the band. They’ve recorded 9 Levels for a label called Inner Circle, and they performed the CD’s repertoire, which I found interesting, not deeply moving. This group may improve as it keeps gigging, but at first exposure seemed to comprise popular elements without finding great potential in them.
Lafayette Gilchrist, who’s aptly dubbed his bluntly funky orchestra The New Volcanoes, was a surprise. Most famous for his role in tenorman David Murray’s quartet and big band, at (Le) Rouge he slunk into a seat before a beautiful grand piano, while two tenor saxes, two trumpeters, an alto saxist, drummer and electric bassist joined him (was there a trombone player, too? I forget). Gilchrist appeared diffident, but his initial address of the keyboards demonstrated enormous and unfussy chops. Then the horns let loose a unified blast that would have knocked the ’70s rock-pop band Chicago off its feet. Mentioning that one of his songs had been used in the epic television crime series The Wire, Gilchrist proceeded to deploy his impressive range — Monk motifs, silent-movie accompaniments, darting single note runs, etc — just beneath the swagger and howl of the massed brass and reeds. He hasn’t written contrapuntal parts for these instruments, rather parts that fill up the audio spectrum. The deft and unstoppable electric bassist underscored the brutishness of the ensemble and solos, so it moved more  sprightly than lava. The big sound eventually became exhausting, but I haven’t heard anything like The New Volcanoes. Maybe the closest was Professor Longhair’s last great band (on Crawfish Fiesta), but without the syncopation.
Electro-ambient keyboardist Taylor McFerrin’s trio had preceded Gilchrist; the Yohimbe Brothers, which comprises turntablist DJ Logic, keyboardist Leon Gruenbaum, and vocalist Latasha Diggs along with guitar-slinger Reid and a rhythm team headlined. My ears had tired by the time they got onstage; I was struck by the amount of sound, the accumulated density even more than the volume of what was going on, but found it difficult to hear any tonality apart from Gruenabum’s evidently self-engineered “Samchillian Tiptiptip Cheeepeee,” which he wears like a fanny pack and fingers so it emits blips that cut through and over everything else. Reid, who plucks extremely fast, kinky and articulated lines, was not coming through to me, and Ms. Diggs’ unintelligible words were further obscured when a rapper sat in. I can wholeheartedly recommend Reid’s first solo album Mistaken Identity on which many of the same musical elements appear; his work with Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society and Defunkt’s Thermonuclear Sweat. Even better, because it’s brand new: Free Form Funky Freqs: Urban Mythology,Vol. 1, featuring Reid’s ripping trio with electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston. Acid and metal heads, take note!
Incidentally: the newly opened (Le) Poisson Rouge has gained notice for cross-genre bookings that include contemporary concert music from the classical side as well as diversely ethnic ensembles, cutting edge pop and r&b. It’s run by two former Juilliard students, and has a fine mission statement, but is essentially the same dark dive with a bar and dancefloor that we’ve frequented in many cities over the past 40 years. The floor was mostly open — there were very few tables and seats — for this three hour performance, probably to encourage milling about. Sound mix was fair, light show kinda cool, but (Le) Rouge will survive or not on the basis of location (Bleeker Street, middle of Greenwich Village) and its bookings, not comforts or decor. What’s new about that? 

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