Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Another Wild Weekend of Sounds (Wacław Zimpel, The Spectres and friends)

Much like weekend of September 16, and the upcoming weekend, there was plenty to see and hear on Friday and Saturday. Alphabet City's Jazz and Poetry Month continued with two sets by Polish clarinetist Wacław Zimpel, that included performances in the second half by a few poets. 

City of Asylum, the organization that assembles these performances at Alphabet City, has had each of the month's shows introduced by an exiled poet who addresses the audience by Skype from a screen on the stage. Having been to three performances this month, the introduction has made me start to think more about the notion of writers being jailed, exiled or in some cases killed because of the words they publish. The concept of "fake news" - which is especially at the front of my mind now, having skimmed an article in the New York Times Magazine about the power of Russian media - and the way it can take off has me wondering about the future of free press in this country.

Midway through each performance this month, the audience is asked to hold up a placard (actually an 17x22 piece of paper) with the name of an exiled writer on it , as a symbolic remembrance of all the people punished for putting pen to paper. Over time, it has started to less like a simple gesture, and more of a serious reminder that we could be next, if our leaders continue on the crash course they're on now.

Zimpel had a series of keyboards and samplers onstage, in addition to his alto clarinet. The set began with a gentle drone that kept building in layers: a harmony appeared on top of the first drone, then a bass drone slid in underneath. After a few minutes, he started blowing his clarinet. His lines were spare at first, but the directness of them sounded like something from a later John Coltrane piece, with dramatic long tones flowing out of tempo over the undulating sound. His first set lasted about 30 minutes. The keyboards got most of the focus, with the drones getting reshaped, with a beat eventually getting added and the overall sound getting a little more psychedelic when Zimpel played melodies on them. But the clarinet sections were the high points.

In the second set, Zimpel accompanied readings by author Osama Alomar (City of Asylum's writer in residence) and poets Maung Day (from Myanmar) and Toi Derricote (of Pittsburgh). The combination worked well, with the artists interacting, letting the music accentuate or punctuate the text. Zimpel played a little more by himself after that.

The highlight of this part happened when he pulled out the khaen, an instrument that was invented by a woman in Laos. (Zimpel made a point of mentioning this, since female inventors often get short shrift.) The instrument looked like a giant set of pan pipes, or a section of a railing pulled off a flight of steps. However, as the picture above shows, he didn't blow on them from the top or bottom, but on the side. And the sound they made was otherworldly, like a trumpet or a soprano sax, with a tone that sounded like the creation of a synthesizer or pipe organ. (If you're friends with me on Facebook, look for the video I posted.)

On Saturday night, James Street Gastropub hosted the release of a split single by the Pittsburgh bands the Spectres (pictured below) and the Me Toos. However, the Me Toos had to bail on their set that morning due to family issues, which was too bad because drummer Kevin Koch was celebrating his 40th birthday that night, in addition to playing.

Maybe I was just really jonesing for guitar-centric rock after the previous evening to balance out the weekend, but I really had a blast listening to everyone. The Park Plan started the evening off, playing a handful of new songs in their set (at least there were some that I didn't recognize). The upstairs room, where the music happened, is a great, wide-open banquet-hall kind of space but it's not exactly built for rock and roll. If you mic everything, you take a chance on destroying everyone's ears and killing any nuance. Mic only the basics and some elements might get lost. Jenn's bass in the Park Plan got a little lost, but the vocals were prominent. So were the guitar leads, which, when Adam took them, had a rather George Harrison-quality during a song that was otherwise heavier than the Beatles. Good blend.

Bass wasn't a concern with the Spectres. Drummer James uses kick pedals to play both snare and bass drum, freeing his hands up to play guitar. Dan plays guitar and baritone guitar, the latter sounding really appropriate for their music, giving sort of a phantom bassline, as well as leads. Both of them take turns singing lead. They reminded me of the Flat Duo Jets, but with James' double duty on strings and skins, it was clear that Pittsburgh yet again has someone taking a bigger act's delivery and upping the ante. On a sidenote, I had forgotten that I met both of these guys last year while working on the Heroineburgh episode where I was the villain. They were both extras. 

Since the Me Toos couldn't play, LoFi Delphi filled in for them. Jumping in at the last minute didn't mean they were shaky. The band just finished tracking their new EP about a week earlier, so things were plenty tight - harmonies, hooks, crunch. It was all there.

All that, and I was home at a decent hour, as the (family) saying goes.

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