Thursday, April 20, 2023

Out Of Town Music Visitors (And One Birthday)

I don't particularly like the phrase "photo dump." Aside from the scatological connotations of one of those words (despite not having used that phrase in several decades, it still haunts me), there's the notion that a bunch of photos are just being discarded, like they don't mean anything; you figure it out. So there is no dumping going on here. Instead, I give to you some rather overdue photos from a couple of live shows from the past couple weeks.

Darius Jones (alto saxophone) and Amirtha Kidambi (vocals) performed in the lobby of the Andy Warhol Museum on Thursday, April 6. Despite having a theater with excellent acoustics, the open space in the entrance has been reformulated, acoustically, for live performances and has hosted several, dating back to pre-pandemic days. The sound in the high-ceiling room can accommodate both electric and acoustic performers (and probably more audience members).

Jones and Kidambi performed a set of pieces that incorporated the writings of Sun Ra, in this case the literary works of the philosophical bandleader/composer. With just the two of them onstage, face to face, the set was of course a bit sparse but they filled the room with sound. Jones is one of the most unique alto saxophonists around, with a strong tone and a mind that can shift rapidly from extended technique to rich, flowing tones. Kidambi uses her voice like an instrument, often singing percussively, or toying with words and phrases. This was clear at the start of the set, as both players held long tones, starting things off in a bit of suspense about what was to come.

The duo really dug into the work, with Jones adding heft to Kidambi's recitation of Ra's words. The saxophonist, who has released solo albums of his own, sounded exciting during his solo flights and fit perfectly with his partner's performance. I'm rather particular about improvising vocalists, or those who sometimes approximate with their voice what free improvisors often do on their instruments. Kidambi is a skilled artist, who has done strong work with her own group Elder Ones and Mary Halvorson's Code Girl. But sometimes the repetition of key phrases, delivered in various dynamic ways or in occasionally shrill blasts, didn't stick, feeling instead just a little abrasive. 

Between that show and what follows, Pittsburgh saxophonist Ben Opie celebrated his 60th birthday on Friday, April 14 at Con Alma Downtown. I arrived later in the evening, coming straight from work, but caught a little bit of Ben's Thoth Trio + a few friends. I was too far from the stage to get a decent photo (though a friend sitting next to me had the smarts to take a photo of the mirror behind us, to get some good, reversed images). 

After Ben finally took a set break (he had been playing all night), Bombici got up to play. In a lineup that apparently that reunited their original personnel, the group played an exciting blend of Balkan ethno-fusion and Romani music that featured some strong improvisations over grooves in time signatures that were too loopy to count, and that are best enjoyed purely for their sound. Not to mention the tight delivery of the band. Happy belated birthday, Ben. 

This past Sunday, Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark finally made it back to Pittsburgh. (He was supposed to visit back in March 2020 and I even wrote a preview piece for that show.) His return also marked the performance debut of  Edition Redux, a group of what he described as "pretty fucking good musicians."  Along with Vandermark (tenor, baritone saxophones, clarinet), it featured Lily Finnegan (drums), Erez Dessel (keyboards) and Beth McDonald (tuba, electronics).   

The quartet's two sets combined spastic free improvisation with marches, 7/8 ostinatos and a little bit of uncertainty with an ending or two , which gave it more charm. Dessel could barely contain himself in his set, hulking over his keyboard, hammering on it aggressively but also getting some cool Fender Rhodes sounds, which thickened up the sound.

McDonald used her tuba to commingle with Dessel's low-end grooves but it also worked as a second voice, closely with Vandermark. In set opener, "Go Back To Your Jacket," she proved she was no ordinary tubaist by striking her mouthpiece with the palm of her hand, creating a sound that got looped and rolled around on the stage as the piece took shape. Later in "Aperto," a piece by Julius Hemphill, her solo sounded both funky and vocal.

Vandermark sounded a little understated in the first tune, but when the time came, his tenor playing breathed fire. Many times, he switched between saxes and B-flat clarinet, to the point where it was hard to tell if a piece had evolved into a new section or the group was playing a new composition. (It was always the former.) It was great hearing him on baritone again, and "Summer Sweater" delivered some great slap-tongue pop and growls.

While everyone in the band sounded top-notch, drummer Lily Finnegan nearly stole the show, to use a tired cliché that feels true in this case. Her moments of free playing had the kind of forward momentum that makes this music really exciting, with percussion grabbed mid-play and used on the drum heads. But she could also hold down a groove that felt fierce. When she and Dessel broke off into a free duet in "...Jacket," they looked like total opposites, him going wild and her remaining calm and collected. Yet, they still worked together to start a fire. Finnegan has no releases yet under her name, but it's best to keep her in mind and look forward to the day that she does. 

This show took place on a Sunday night and started at 9 pm, which was probably a deal breaker for some people. That might explain the small turnout, which of course didn't deter the enthusiasm of the performers. For this listener, the start time was ideal. Plus, Ken didn't keep us out to all hours of the morning. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Tomas Fujiwara's Triple Double - March On

Tomas Fujiwara's Triple Double
March On

A set of outtakes from a previously released album often connotes alternate versions of what appeared on the previous release or music that, for any number of reasons, didn’t make the cut the first time around. March On, a digital-only follow-up to Triple Double’s March, has a little of both of those qualities, but they’re executed in a different way. 

Lead by drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Triple Double lives up to its name with three instruments played two musicians each: drums (Fujiwara, Gerald Cleaver), guitar (Mary Halvorson, Brandon Seabrook) and trumpet/cornet (Ralph Alessi, Taylor Ho Bynum). Three tracks consist of brief improvisations edited from alternate takes of two different March tracks. “Smoke” and “Silhouettes” lift fragments (one lasts 45 seconds, the other 1:13) of guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook playing duets in “Silhouettes In Smoke” and uses them to bookend this EP. “Smoke,” the opener, builds from a single note and feels prettier, while “Silhouettes” closes the disc in a foreboding mood, coming across with the tight brevity of a film cue. “Docile Fury Duet” (from “Docile Fury Ballad”) features Seabrook skronking all over his axe while Bynum wails and growls in the background. 

The title track comes acts as the centerpiece of the release. The group recorded this extended track of free improvisation, which Fujiwara planned to cut into interludes between the proper tunes on March. The results of the 31-minute performance convinced the drummer to keep it intact. His feeling is understandable because it presents a good example of how group improvisation can work. No one steps on their bandmates’ feet. One horn executes a low growl, while the other wails high. The drums stir up a brew together. After Seabrook bangs out a rough chord, Halvorson does the same, with a clean tone for contrast. Even when things get chaotic, a sense of fun carries it. Things even settle down for a gentle moment halfway through, giving everyone a chance to listen to the space before proceeding. And the energy continues.