Monday, April 23, 2018

Alex Harding/Lucian Ban and Stephen Crump's Rhombal in Pittsburgh

City of Asylum brought two out of town acts to Alphabet City over the past week. Actually, it's a regular occurrence, with a lot of visiting groups playing there. I just haven't gotten over there as much as I'd like, new job and all. It was a disappointment to miss Jonathan Finlayson when he was here in March.

The duo of baritone saxophonist Alex Harding and pianist Lucian Ban are both skilled at free improvisation but their set last Thursday was built on soulful, spiritual music as much as it was on wild blowing, using one approach to get to the other.

Harding just visited Pittsburgh about five weeks ago, as a member of Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. But City of Asylum regulars have said they remember him as a member of Oliver Lake's Big Band, which came to town a few years ago, playing under the tent in the nearby park. That night, Harding played a solo that got listeners on their feet, somewhat literally. Last week, as far as I know, marked Ban's first visit to Pittsburgh. Among his work, he released Sounding Tears last year, a collaboration with saxophonist Evan Parker and violist Mat Maneri. Harding and Ban, though, have been playing together for 20 years in various situations.

After opening with the moody "Deep Blue," the duo paid tribute to Cecil Taylor with "We're Playing for CT." They didn't try to recreate the pianist's style but Ban's fingers were flying gracefully over the keys while Harding put forth some fast tonguing, later taking the neck of his horn and blowing that way. During the evening, the saxophonist often stopped mid-solo to moan empathetically along with the music.

Ban frequently stood up and hulked over the piano while playing, occasionally sticking his left hand into the instrument to create a percussive sound when his right hand struck the keys. During one unnamed tune, his attack made the piano sound like the cimbalom, the Hungarian instrument similar to a dulcimer. Harding switched to bass clarinet for this one, deepening the sound of the evening even further.

Harding retold a story about a gig at Cecil Bridgewater's club in New Jersey, A woman in the audience asked Ban if he was born in the South. When he explained that he hails from Transylvania, she still insisted, he must be from that South. A ballad they played toward the end of the set confirmed that lyrical quality the woman heard. It also gave Harding a chance to growl through his horn, making the whole thing turn a corner.

On Sunday night, bassist Stephan Crump came to town with his quartet Rhombal. Their 2017 album featured Tyshawn Sorey on drums, but last night, he was replaced by Richie Barshay. Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Adam O'Farrill appeared on both the album and onstage last night.

With the Spring weather finally upon us, Crump said he was able to practice outside earlier that afternoon surrounded by birds. "Those birds were so happy," he explained at the start of the set. His compositions cover a variety of directions. "Nod for Nelson" had the horns playing spare but significant lines over a rolling, grooving bass and drums part. Conversely, Crump and Barshay kept it spare in "Grovi" while O'Farrill and Eskelin played some sharp, quick phrases. O'Farrill played with a unique blend of traditional technique and original ideas. His tone had a bright quality that sounded a lot like Clifford Brown to these ears. What he created with that sound was something altogether different: well-executed statements, extended lines, broken up occasionally by sharp rhythmic blasts.

Eskelin, who first came to Pittsburgh about 25 years with his wild trio with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black, physically got into his playing, literally leaning into his music. He wasn't always busy and wild with his solos. But his ideas were well-chosen. The music often called for him and O'Farrill to blend lines, answering each other or building together.

Crump is also a physical player, leaning into his bass, mouthing his parts along with his instrument. This visceral type of performance could be distracting if he weren't such a strong player. He also straddled riffs with longer lines, bowing harmonics that could barely be heard but maintained the energy. Barshay locked right in with Crump, clearly in sync at the end of a tour. He frequently switched from sticks to brushes mid-song, even playing with his hands during "Pulling Pillars/Outro for Patty."

After a few months in limbo, Alphabet City once again has a bar/restaurant set up in the building. It's a great combination, along with their bookstore. However, on both nights, some of the dining patrons thought nothing of talking loudly during the set, which made for a slight distraction. For example, when Crump introduced a song that was inspired by walking his sons to school, the talking covered up the fact that the Ornette-ish piece was"Skippaningam" from their self-titled album. Luckily the performers didn't mind on either night.

No comments: