Saturday, April 23, 2022

To The Bop Stop to See Ballister and Vandermark/Wooley/Lytton

This past Tuesday (April 19), it was time for a road trip to Cleveland. The Bop Stop was presenting Ballister, the trio of Dave Rempis (saxophones), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums). I was already mentally committed to the trip, having gotten way into Rempis last year after hearing several of his album. Then at some point, the trio of Ken Vandermark (reeds), Nate Wooley (trumpet) and Paul Lytton were added to the bill. Talk about a double-whammy! Vandermark & Wooley were slated to come to Pittsburgh in March of 2020 and I had even written a preview about it, one of my last pieces for Pittsburgh Current. But it was one of the first shows to be cancelled. I wasn't going to miss them this time.

It was encouraging to see that the Bop Stop's small parking lot was filled up when I arrived, about 10 minutes from the start of the show. This was the first time I've been to the venue and seen it pretty crowded. Glad to know that Cleveland's free jazz crowd still goes out to dig the music. Of course, things were starting at 6 pm, so no one would be out too late either. 

Vandermark, Wooley & Lytton's began with the drummer clattering on his snare. Throughout the set, he pulled a number of accessories out, placing them on the drum. In fact, his floor tom served more like a table for tiny cymbals, chains of what looked like paper clips and sticks as thin as pipe-cleaners. It was fascinating how much sound he produced by manipulating these items on the snare head. Early on Wooley began droning with his horn, producing a phase shifting sound - approximating a flanger pedal - just with his mouth. Vandermark's tenor sax was trembling in his hands and he wrenched some growls out of it, building in intensity. 

The music was totally free and may or may have been completely spontaneous. I add that qualifier because there were several pieces that ended with Vandermark and Wooley landing on a unison pitch or melody together. It could say simply be evidence of the rapport between these two or a bit of composition. Regardess, the blend of free moving sounds and a gentle conclusions kept things exciting.

For the second piece, Vandermark switched to clarinet and Wooley began by holding a piece of metal to the side of his bell, producing extra vibrations. He also used the piece as a mute, which created more jarring sounds. This part of the set in particular felt like a real three-way conversation. Lytton's approach to the drums felt less like a percussive role and closer to something melodic that fit in with what his bandmates were playing. By the end of the set, now that the floor tom was clear, he was swinging all over the kit.

Ballister started their set sounding slow and tense. Rempis had all three saxophones ready but began with tenor. Thing were free but as they proceeded, they opened up until they sounded like a rock trio. Maybe that had a lot to do with Lonberg-Holm's effects pedals, which were out of my sight-line as he sat sideways on stage, but that added to the mystery of the set. While I scribbled several pages of notes for the previous set, I spent most of Ballister's set just watching in fascination.

There were several peaks and valleys in the music. Rempis blew some lines that felt like the notes were melting as they left the tenor, Then he switched to baritone during a transition. Lonberg-Holm turned off the effects and bowed a clean sound, making things meditative. Nilssen-Love picked up a few shakers, using them when it felt right, pumping the kick pedal for accents, and eventually getting his own solo space, with dual floor toms on either side of him.

The band played continuously for about 25 before stopping to catch their breath. When they resumed, Rempis was on alto, which I could have listened to all night, with or without the rest of the group. He told me later that alto was his first saxophone, so that might have something to do with it.) But his melodic imagination was on full display, in a duet with Lonberg-Holm that again drew on clean sound and advanced lines rather than the visceral aspects. They were equally skilled at both ends of the sound spectrum. 

Before long, they were rocking out again though. It seems like a crazy comparison but their energy reminded my ears of the Stooges, not just their wile "L.A. Blues," either. By that point, loose hairs could be seen hanging from Lonberg-Holm's bow and Rempis was blowng some repetitive altissimo lines, while Nilssen-Love was windmilling with his shakers.

There were hints that both groups might play together for an encore, but that was dashed when the sound tech was removing microphones and the drummers were taking their kits apart. Not too much of a disappointment though, as this scribe needed to find some dinner and hit the road. Sometimes the drive home can feel tedious, but I left the Bop Stop feeling pretty refreshed ready to hit the road. 

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