Saturday, February 27, 2016

This Week in review: Kurt Vile, Ches Smith/Craig Taborn/Mat Maneri

I can't think of a week that was as jam-packed with music as the current week. It began on Monday night with Kurt Vile & the Violators who played a sold-out show at Mr. Small's (that's not them in the picture above). My old Pitt/WPTS friend Jesse Trbovich has been playing guitar, bass and saxophone with Kurt for several years and he helped me get a ticket after I waited too long to get one on my own. 

I don't really know a whole lot of Vile music but I really enjoyed the show. There was a lot of mid-tempo groove stuff going on, but the way they colored in the songs made all the difference. Jesse's alto got buried in the mix for the one song he played, but I could sort of feel it. 

After the set, I yelled out Jesse's name at the stage and he jumped off and came down to chat. I haven't seen that guy in over 15 years, no exaggeration. And despite being in a super-successful touring band, he's still one of the sweetest guys there is. Always has been. I miss that dude. But a lot of rock and a short chat really made my night.

Then on Thursday night, I saw the guys in the photo: Ches Smith (drums), Craig Taborn (electric piano) and Mat Maneri (viola) at the City of Asylum loft/space. (To read my preview of this group, go here.) This same space presented Mary Halvorson and Stephan Crump last April, but back then it was a very casual, intimate set-up. This time, they had a whole stage set up, with mikes and everything, and whole lot more chairs. Note: Those three orbs that look like they're hanging above Smith's head are actually lights further behind him. Though it would be cool if they were percussive bells.

The trio just released The Bell, an album on ECM and they also performed at Jazz Connect last month in New York. Their music is based largely on improvisation, though written themes very slowly creep in after they've had a chance to stretch out. That was really the case on Thursday. Snatches of themes from the album occasionally popped up, tying things together. Maneri or Taborn often came back to a riff or even just a series of notes, but most of the time, things were left to chance. Sometimes things had a pointillist quality to it, but there was always a lot of forward movement to the sound. You always knew that it was proceeding towards something. This was the penultimate date of the tour, so after a series of shows, the guys were really in tune with one other.

Smith had his vibes there, which he played with four mallets, occasionally bowed and played percussively by running a drum stick across the pipes, sometimes while sitting at the trap kit. Taborn normally plays acoustic piano with this group, but he used a Rhodes on this night since they couldn't get a piano up the spiral steps of the loft. It added greater dimension to the music, creating droplets of sound during one of the more gentle parts of the evening. Maneri amplifies his viola, adding some effects pedals to in, including one that drops the pitch down to bass level. A few times, it got so low I was wondering if it would shatter the amp's speaker.

During my interview with Smith, after the Jazz Connect set, he mentioned that he "always has bands that repeat things way too long." True to form, they repeated the final section of "For Days" a few times longer that it should have lasted. But sometimes it's hard to stop once you get a good thing going.

One other impressive part of the night, besides the music, was the turnout. The room was packed with what seemed like around 70 people. (I'm bad with figuring out numbers visually. It could have been more than that, or a tad less.) That might not sound huge for a show, but in that room it was, and on a Thursday night in Pittsburgh at a free jazz show - it's a rarity. And maybe a sign of good things to come, together with the equally populated Ethnic Heritage Ensemble show from the previous week.

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