Saturday, January 23, 2016

Going to The Stone to see Matana Roberts, Nate Wooley & Evan Rapport

My review of this year's NYC Winter Jazzfest is now up on the Pittsburgh City Paper website. Find it here.  Two of my colleagues wrote a review of the event on the JazzTimes website, and it made me realize that there's really no way to do a comprehensive rundown of everything that happened there if you're one person. Or if you do, it means that you can't see whole sets or expect to catch a set by a favorite musician if their set conflicts with your big plans. Then again, those writers live in New York and one of them told me that the roster of acts wasn't anything really new for a New Yorker.

The photo above a section of the wall inside the Stone, the Lower East Side performance venue where John Zorn serves as artistic director. (How many performers can you identify?) Musicians usually curate a weeklong residency, with the freedom to present different things each night.

I went to the Stone last Thursday evening to see saxophonist Matana Roberts. (It wasn't part of Winter Jazzfest.) Being directionally challenged, it took me a while to get there, and besides, the place is easy to miss. The entrance is right at the corner of Avenue C at East 2nd Street, with the only indication being a small (as in 3"X1") sticker right at the handle of the glass door with the name. I'm not sure if I walked past it the first three times or if the metal gate was down when I first walked by.

The website mentioned that there are no refreshments served at the Stone, "only music," which I can understand. But for some reason I thought the place would be...bigger. There were several rows of chairs facing the "stage area" (nothing so much as a stage) with about three more rows behind the band. Back here in Pittsburgh, we used to have art/performance venues like Garfield Artworks and the Turmoil Room, which were storefronts in a past life and revitalized by sheer will of the participants. The only difference between them and the Stone really is the New York spot was a little cleaner, had proper acoustics and had a grand piano in the corner. Not only is there no booze, someone told me they don't allow you to BYOB. This way, all the attention is given to the music. Sure, it cuts down on any potential tourists, but if someone is going to the Stone, logic follows that they're not there to pay $15 and just hang out. Everyone sat quietly waiting for the show to start, not unlike patrons in an adult theater.

By the time Matana Roberts (alto saxophone), Nate Wooley (trumpet) and Evan Rapport (alto saxophone) walked up from the basement, there were more than 20 and probably close to 30 patrons in the room. Without much more than an introduction of the players, they launched into an improvisation, riding waves of sound, blowing long tones together and taking turns riding on top of the other two.

At one point between improvisations, Roberts commented that there was a lot of psychic energy between her, Wooley and Rapport, and she couldn't have been more accurate. Rapport sounded calm during one section, later breaking into some wild fluttering. Wooley, armed with a few mutes including devices for a pure wah-wah sound, volleyed a riff between the two saxes, breaking into splats and smears at other times. Roberts moved between supportive long tones and vibrato, switching when it was time to let her companions take a more prominent role. I could've listened to her original, sharp melodic lines all night.

This is going to sound very much like a tourist - and really, I was to a great extent - but it felt like this was the ideal New York free improvising situation that probably happens on a regular basis on the Lower East Side. It might be common, this-is-who-we-are playing for the musicians or the volunteer taking the $15 cover at the door (all of which goes to the performers). But to someone who is used to seeing musicians like this play to one hand's worth of people back home, wishing that more people would investigate this music, it had a magic quality. Magic because the music was great, and magic knowing that somewhere this music is commonplace and that 30 people think nothing of shelling out $15 to spend an hour listening to it.

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