Friday, April 29, 2022

Jason Stein, Damon Smith, Adam Shead and Friends at Alphabet City

From the moment that Jason Stein, Damon Smith and Adam Shead started playing this past Monday at Alphabet City, they were engaged in a rollicking three-way conversation. Bass clarinet, bass and drums, respectively, hit the opening note like they were playing a composition but was followed was built on pure improvisation. 

Stein has come to Pittsburgh several times, including several visits with keyboardist Paul Giallorenzo. The trio with Smith and Shead felt like the most exciting performance so far, bringing out some of his most inspired playing. He mixed rapid clips of melodies with growls and slap-tongued moments that could have gone on all night. 

Behind him, Smith attacked his bass, sometimes literally. After playing with knuckles on the neck and plucking rapidly with his right thumb, he had a whole arsenal of bows which he jammed under the strings when he wasn't doing any arco work.  He also weaved a stick, Sonic Youth-style, among the strings, detuned his low E-string and rattled a plastic chain on the instrument. There are physical players out there, and people like William Parker often brandish two bows, but Smith really seems like the most visceral bassist of them all. Again, despite the spontaneous nature of the music, he displayed a drive that knew exactly what he wanted to accomplish. 

Then there was drummer Adam Shead. The Buster Keaton of the group. Well, that's not really true because he didn't do any physical comedy during the set. But Shead maintained a deadpan expression throughout the set while he walked offstage with ringing bells in his hands, placed electric toothbrushes on his drum heads for a sustained tone and blew into his snare drum (see above). He also sat down at the house piano for some prepared piano work. He and his bandmates eventually moved into what felt like some free bop, with Stein showing no shortage of sonic options from his instrument.

When the trio paused after playing for about 30 minutes, they brought up three additional musicians. Bassist Eli Namay used to live in Chicago, where he knew Shead. He now lives in Pittsburgh and plays with pianist Mark Michelli and vocalist Mai Khoi, who also joined them onstage. 

The sound, naturally, took on a completely different shape. Michelli did some prepared piano techniques in addition to clean playing, which made the music more expansive. The addition of a second bassist didn't muddle the sound at all, since both players were listening closely to one another and complementing the sound. 

Personally, I'm very particular about vocals in free improvisation (one might say "fussy"), even when they take on the role of an additional instrument. Khoi did a lot of drawn out, low growling but she worked in tandem with the rest of the group rather than floating over them. A friend seated more in the center of the room, which  picked up more of Khoi's voice through the p.a., really liked it. So perhaps my seat on stage left cut me off from the sound. While I was partial to the trio's opening set, the sextet's part had a lot of energy, inspiring Shead to gradually dismantle his trap kit, putting various drums in different places in the performance space, many with the electric toothbrushes vibrating in them. 

In addition to the performance itself, it pointed to the fact that there seems to be a new batch of players around town who are into free improvisation. Namay mentioned weekend sessions at Kingfly Spirits and a couple other gatherings. When you're not out very all the time, it can be hard to keep up with this.(Thanks, day job.) Hopefully it continues, with even some crossover to some of the most established free-thinking players around town. 

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