Masada/Cecil Taylor's AHA 3 Trio @ Rose Theater
Benevento/Mathis/Dillon @ Tap Bar
Anders Osborne @ Lion's Den
9 March 2007
I spent months trying to crunch the proverbial numbers, trying to work some feasible way for the family to travel to Langerado this year. I really wanted to make it happen, but alas, it was not meant to be (LangeradNO), the magic 8 ball read: all signs point to NO, wasn't in cards, no luck. But the live music gods weren't playing cruel tricks on me. Not at all -- in fact, maybe they were doing me a favor. While I was busy feeling sorry for myself missing some of my favorites like Widespread Panic, My Morning Jacket, Medeski, Martin & Wood and Apollo Sunshine (amongst others), good old New York City was coming through with its own heavy slate of can't-miss shows for the same weekend... like it seems to do every other week of the year; don't know why I was ever worried. Suddenly I looked up and my problem was more of the early-May-in-NOLA variety conundrum about what I was going to have to skip and not the opposite.
Of course, if I could help it, I wasn't going to miss anything... that's why they call it "can't miss." Well, one thing I wasn't going to miss was Masada (original, acoustic version) at Jazz @ Lincoln Center. Not after it was billed as essentially the last stretch of shows for this band evah (just building up cachet for the inevitable reunion shows in a couple of years, as every aging boomer musician knows, that's where the big bucks are!) and not after a semi-secret 50% discount popped up for John Zorn fans, and certainly not after I was able to get (relatively) cheap seats right on top of the frickin' stage.... no way, no how. The show was actually a double bill with Cecil Taylor's AHA3 Trio, but who are we kidding? I was schlepping up into no-man's land for Zorn & Co. and few others. I should flashback to earlier in the evening when I underestimated the traffic to the train station and got there about 10 minutes after the targeted train should have left (leaving me to take a later train and a serious hustle to make it to the venue on time). As fate would have it, though, as I pulled into the parking lot glumly I noticed a train arriving that was pointed westward -- this kind of thing never happens to me, but I was 10 minutes late and the train was 11 minutes late, with the strong wind of the music gods guiding me, I sprinted up the stairs and just made it through the closing doors. Maybe it was luck, maybe it was something deeper. The $6 surcharge for buying my ticket on the train was an acceptable tithe to set off the evening that followed.
Rose Theater and the rest of the Jazz at Lincoln Center is part of the brand new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle and is essentially like seeing top flight jazz in a shopping mall. At the same time, the venue was quite immaculate with 3 levels of box seats hugging the stage and orchestra sections quite cozily. We were literally the first box from the stage on the lower level -- I don't think we would have been better off dead center front row, they were that perfectly situated. Did I mention I had gotten these tickets less than 2 weeks earlier and somehow they were in the cheapest flight of available options? I didn't know the Deity of Good Seats ever made things happen for guys like me, but thank you very much.
A few minutes after 8, the band was announced and took the stage. The contrast between the band and the posh digs surrounding us, the uptown address and the blazers and ties on the techs was glaring. But, for perhaps the first time that I can recall, John Zorn was in HIGH spirits: joked around with the audience beforehand with some rare self-depreciation and seemed genuinely psyched to be there. It's weird, but the last three times (including Friday night) I've seen Zorn/Masada was at the 92nd St Y, Town Hall and now Lincoln Center. Anyone that knows anything about John Zorn can appreciate how this seems to fly in the face of his modus operandi -- we're talking about a guy who keeps moving lower and more eastern into the Lower East Side. From the Knitting Factory to Tonic to The Stone, somehow seeking purity by proximity to the East River, the mecca of the avant garde. But maybe he's softened, made amends with the Lords of Jazz. I won't speculate (but will add that the show was brought to me by the good people at Samsung and Cadillac, which may be more like the Devil Spawn of Jazz, but who's keeping track?), I was just happy to see him with such a grin on his face and a hop in his step. After his introductory remarks (it's rare to get any kind of banter from him, so you know he was feeling it) he turned to Dave Douglas, gave him a Don Corleone-to-Michael style smooch on the cheek and said "now let's have some fun!" One advantage of our slight perch above the stage was getting every nuance, breath and motion in high definition right before our eyes.
On a hearty quick count by their fearless leader, the quartet broke into one of their signature numbers like an explosive running back hitting a gaping hole untouched for a big gain. This band has played together off and on for well over a decade and when they are on they are the jazz elite like few others. Dave Douglas, Greg Cohen, Joey Baron -- that's the modern day dream team -- and of course, Zorn himself. He's a lot of things for sure -- a composer, a band leader, a label executive, a talent scout, a producer, the most recognizable figure of an underground musical movement.... it's easy to forget that the guy is also an impressive musician in his own right. This came back to me within seconds of the opening number as he and Douglas played overlapping solos that poured out of them like sweet, sticky sap from a maple. You could almost see the musical staff and notes taking shape in the air between them as they spat out minutes upon minutes of beautiful, soulful top-notch horn playing. But these notes weren't just black splotches on white paper, but breathing creatures that took on a life in the air they occupied. When they finally finished the piece, I felt I could have left right then and have been more than satisfied. Undoubtedly the best music I have seen these four play, and I've seen them play plenty of awe-inspiring stuff.
The rest of the set didn't wane too much from that. While recent shows have been heavy on the new Book of Angels compositions, this set was closer to the old standard, solid, material Masada fans fell in love with. On top of that, Zorn, encouraged by the setting ("there are more young faces in here tonight than they've ever had!") actually fell back on more conventional jazz protocol. Before several numbers he would say "this one features Joey Baron on drums" or Cohen or Douglas and allow the spotlight to shine on these guys that are, in some cases and some way, bigger stars than he is. The mood was certainly infectious and from our vantage point, it was easy to zone in on each master individually or take it all in en masse. The rhythm section seemed particularly on it Friday night, just completely controlling the flow the whole way. Greg Cohen is like a one-man scenery, prop master and set decorator; without his playing, everything else would come off as line recitation on a blank stage. With each number he brings the music to life, transporting the players to mountaintops, wind-swept deserts, dank jazz clubs, bitter shtetls, vast palaces, maybe even Masada itself. Sometimes Cohen holds a chord for measure after measure and builds tension in his repetition, hypnotizing the audience whose ears interpret this static note as a dynamic blur. This counters perfectly with Baron who is undoubtedly the most melodic drummer I have ever seen. He gets as many notes and chords out of his drum kit as most pianists get out of their 88 keys. Frankly, I could have just watched Joey all night, he's that good... in my opinion, he is the direct antecedent to my favorite drummer, Joe Russo. (Russo is like the rhythmic love child of Baron & Bonham). There is always a sexual component to music, but Baron's playing, the way he caresses and coaxes his drum kit is almost pornographic, in the best ways possible, of course.
As usual, there was plenty of weirdness -- fluttering squeaks from the saxophone occasionally fought for space with trumpet flatulence, but it was more of a deconstructive counterpoint to the sheer beauty of the bulk of the set; a natural extension of the music at hand and not an end unto itself, which it sometimes can become when Zorn is in a more aggressive mood... or just plain ornery. There are plenty more details, plenty of gooey adjectives to try and describe the too-quick 60 minutes of music Masada treated us to. It was a treat, musical ambrosia -- the food of the gods. Not much more to say.
The second set was Cecil Taylor's AHA 3 with Taylor joined by Henry Grimes on bass (and violin) and Pheeroan akLaff on drums. I wasn't sure how long I'd stay for this one, I decided to let fate decide for me as the set wore on... and as it did, I found it more and more difficult to leave. I don't know what I was expecting, something more traditional than Masada, for sure. If anything it was way more untraditional and I'm not sure if I can describe it that well. The band was introduced again over the PA and the guy says that Cecil asked him to announce the tunes they would play. He proceeds to read about 10 phrases which sounded like they were generated by some random word selector: Banana Leaves on Mars or something equally ridiculous. I didn't know if it was a joke or not. The band comes out and their appearance is equally as random: each is wearing a different hat or headgear (Grimes wearing a headband) and Taylor wearing a silk print shirt untucked with baggy black pants stuffed into mammoth beige tube socks pulled up past his knee. Weee-erd!! He proceeds to read some scatter-shot beat poetry that started off either in another language or (more likey) some made up silly talk -- this is like an 80 year old man doing what can best be described as baby talk that eventually made its way into more randomness. Eventually the language became recognizable as English but was stilol plenty random (I'm pretty sure I heard him recite Avagadro's Number at one point). While this was going down the drummer was, of course, playing the bongos. How could I leave now?
This kind of melted away and akLaff started banging away at his drums.... and didn't stop... at all... for like an hour. The "music" that followed can best be summed up as a nonstop crescendo, the unending climax to a song that doesn't exist. Just crazy intense energy, wig-flipping drumming at full-tilt with accompanying banging away at the piano and humming bass underneath. It was utterly anti-melodic and yet haunting and beautiful and mesmerizing nonetheless. There were a couple of breaks, like every 10 minutes or so and large swaths of people got up and, as politely as possible, left for the evening during them. I kept thinking "next break I'm out of here" and yet the God of Crazy Fascination kept me glued to my seat a good 30 minutes longer than I intended. I know it sounds pretty awful, some wild experimental noise, but it wasn't at all... at least to me, it wasn't. After a while, melodic shapes took shape in the morass of sound coming from the stage -- like staring at clouds and seeing everyday objects as clear as day. Spellbinding stuff. After an hour the music had gone absolutely nowhere and yet, was completely stimulating and satisfying. I can describe it no better. I finally broke myself free of the trance and made my way out. Walking out behind me, I heard a guy murmur to his friend, describing the proceeding hour as "torture" amongst other things. I can't say I disagree with where he was coming from and yet, it was anything but for me. It was like a deep, painful massage on my ears, a thorough loosening of my live music muscles and I left as enlivened as ever. Those Music Gods know what they're doing, don't they?
I gave myself plenty of time for the next leg of my trip, but I made a quick detour to grab a bite to eat and by the time I got into the subway flow again, I thought maybe I would be late. My ambitions wouldn't be as worthwhile if I didn't make it to the Knitting Factory right when the music started and I was about 45 minutes late when I walked into the Tap Bar. Of course, I shouldn't have been worried, the music had just started, I had missed less than a song. Now it was Marco Benevento, Mike Dillon and Reed Mathis playing keyboards, drums and bass respectively. Well, on the face of it, that's what they were playing, but in reality they were real-time redefining each of those instruments on the Tap Bar stage. While the room has changed a bit since way back when, the Tap Bar is where Marco and the aforementioned Joe Russo turned the silly notion of an organ-and-drums duo into a capital D DUO and did some redefining of their own. The magic of those Thursday nights was in full effect this weekend as these three brought the acetylene torch to my sanity once again. Marco is reinventing himself as a full-fledged brand and this group is sort of an outcrop of his Tonic residency a few months back -- in fact, the gig was supposed to feature Matt Chamberlain on drums repeating that trio from back then. Personally, I am thankful that Dillon was filling in -- it was weird to see him playing behind a drum kit, or at least his mutated version of a drum kit, but he absolutely brought the energy to some impossible places. While you might expect this to be some sort of one-off freeform jam session, that couldn't have been further from the reality. The gods brought these guys together, no doubt, and they played like a band, a well-polished vehicle, a transportation device bringing minds and bodies through the universe of good music. There were a few originals, new material that Marco debuted at Tonic that has been through the wash a few times and seems to fit these three like a well-worn pair of jeans. There's one of these in particular that is a sort of instant classic, a melodic masterpiece that could easily lodge itself in my ear canal for months on end. The kind of brilliance that Benevento brings to his Duo compositions with a little more maturity and depth. With songs like that one, the set started off slow and pensive with a weird crowd that was half seated on the floor and half penned up standing behind them like a river stopped up by some fallen branches. The music poked and prodded at the audience with some seriously dark, evil grooving (the kind that just don't quit til you get off your ass) until finally cracks in the damn formed and then a bearded jackass hopped up front and WHOOSH, dancers overtook the sitters and the whole place was flooded with the pulsing energy of a dance party. Immediately the music filled the room with a different flavor, a liquid that conforms to the space available to it. Never looked back.
In this new setting, the originals made way for some sweet cover selections. Actually, it was a brilliant take on Pink Floyd's "Fearless" (a staple of all the various incarnations of Marco's residency) that was the final straw in the sitters vs. the dancers. The way they just became one with the song, like they were having a two way conversation with a piece that was written 4 decades ago, sucking DNA out of it's amberized fossil and bringing it to life Jurassic Park style. That residency was a wonderful stretch of shows and a successful undertaking by any measure -- they're releasing the choice picks from the run as a CD set which I'm sure will be a must-buy the day it comes out. And yet, I'm not sure that the release as an entity will be anywhere near as unbelievably thrilling as the first set Friday night. These three guys were like a choice cocktail, three distinct flavors whisked together over ice and generating a completely unique and discrete flavor with a bite and a kick that is hidden behind its undeniable deliciousness. Can I say anything about Marco that I haven't said before? Maybe, but the fact that he continues to exhibit such otherworldly connections with musicians beyond his one-mindedness with his better half, JoRu, continues to blow me away. He was deep in the zone Friday night, barely looking up at his band mates or the occasionally delirious audience crowding over him. He had one big electric Yamaha, kind of like a mini-baby-Grand that played vanilla piano tones as well as those thick, meaty distorted sounds that send many an electric guitarist home to sacrifice their Fenders to the Shredder Gods. On top of that he had a mini little synth which seemed to afford him all the range he would need for this gig, and that's it (oh, and a laptop wired in there and a bunch of cracked toys (Bob the Builder would be aghast to see what was done to one of his buddies!) and everything else short of the soldering gun used to fuse it all together strewn about on top). It seems that whatever set of keyboards Marco needs, whatever sounds he needs at any particular moment no matter who or where he's playing, he's dialed in. Reed was, to but it bluntly, bad ass the whole set. It's like between him and Benevento they had their keys and their bass and they also had two or three guitar players folded up inside their instruments. Mathis channels the music through his whole body, a quivering antenna that receives and transmits the grooves in the air. As with Marco, he knows exactly what noise he needs at each moment and hits a pedal or a combination of pedals and sends wild, low end howls into the mix at will. Dillon's strengths aren't necessarily those of a straight-up drummer, he's a percussionist extraordinaire and if there's a guy who plays the vibraphone like he does, I have yet to see it, but he looks kind of awkward behind the kit. And yet, that being said, I don't think there was a drummer in the room (a room that had both Russo and Bobby Previte checking out the music (a good measure of a band's greatness is the greatness of the musicians who come to see the musicians)) I'd have rather had playing. What Dillon lacks in straight ahead chops he more than makes up for with utter energy and pure creativity. Even his drum kit screams "I'M MIKE D!" with it's awkward set-up and too-tall/too-skinny marching-band style bass drum that didn't quite thud as completely reverberate for full seconds each time it was struck. That's not to mention the occasional foray on the tablas and the rest of the whatnot that Dillon exudes. Who are we to question the trio the God of All-Star Lineups have provided for us?
So they played some sweet stuff, but there was a stretch of music in there, a three song cover medley that was as brilliant as anything you'll see anywhere. Another good litmus test of a band's greatness is often in its choices for cover songs -- if you don't understand what's going to sound good when you're playing it, chances are you're failing on a more fundamental level. On this count, the Benevento/Mathis/Dillon trio (name, please!) may be one of the best bands ever. The thing is kind of a blur, so I may even be getting the order of it all confused, but I believe it started off with The Zombies' classic "She's Not There." It began almost as a goof, a traditional take, a throwback to another generation, reaching back even further than Pink Floyd... further than most modernists can stretch without being ironic. But it didn't take long for the crowd to succumb to the trio's version, to buy into the hidden grooves and nasty undercurrent of the music. Each verse seemed to climb one more rung of the ladder until it had no choice but to go through the ceiling. It did, it did, in some improvisational derring-do, bringing the tune to places you didn't know it had... maybe that the entire era from which it sprung had. This was three guys with chemistry, guys who were meant to play together just totally getting it on to the nth degree. It was one of those quintessential, "holy shit, tell me someone's taping this!" moments. And despite the "I hope this never ends" vibe in the room, it did come to a landing, but as the vessel came in and the ground was in site, Marco gently swerved the crew to other worlds unknown. The tips of our fingers just barely brushing against the treetops as the quietness never quite got to silence and Marco slowly and surely injected a new melody, something undoubtedly Radiohead. What was nearly the end of one masterpiece unfolded perfectly into the beginning of a new one, with Marco getting intimate with "2+2=5" (another oft-played tune from the Tonic residency). If Joey Baron's playing is porno, XXX isn't strong enough to describe Marco's masterful domination of this material. This song was Benevento's bitch, he brought it to its knees and it did his bidding. Weaving in and out of the opening progression he brought the composition in and out of focus with his own fuzzy blurring of the themes. It was a thing of beauty and Mathis and Dillon patiently waited -- they did not need to go to Marco, he brought it to them and they took the thing and just exploded. Reed, in particular, was right on Marco's tail, perfectly infusing some next-level bass playing everywhere it was needed. I've been oft-impressed with Mathis on a few occasions, but I was really feeling him Friday. And for that, I give thanks, Deep Thunder Bass God. If I've never heard Radiohead covered quite that well before, that was nothing to prepare me for what came out of an awkward stop-start out of 2+2=5. It wasn't a true segue like the previous pairing, but close enough as they did a She's Not There >> 2+2=5 > wait, that's the Beatles... that's... [half the room is singing "Saw Her Standing There"]. Ain't nothing like a Beatles tune and this one was another kind of unpredictably perfect selection for the set. A surprise that started off with a giggle and then somersaulted into something a bit more grandiose and certainly more groovalicious. The set waxed and waned after that wallop of a song trio, but it was a moment within a moment that I didn't expect to be reproduced. The stars had aligned perfectly on three musicians playing three songs with the crowd buying into what they were selling -- the kind of astrological event that only the music gods could orchestrate.
The set ended with a technical malfunction and the decision needed to be made -- stick around for the second set (could they top the Houdini-level magic of the first?) or bolt for potentially greener pastures. I raised my sail and let the wisdom of the group mind push me in the direction it (or fate) had mapped out and within the blink of an eye my bow was aiming toward the Village... we were Lion's Den bound. Sure, there was a chance that the show there was already deep in the second set, that we'd get there just as things were winding down, or worse that we'd walk in on mediocrity and abandon the sure thing of the Tap Bar's offerings. You know where this is headed right? Was it all predestined from before Langerado was even a glimmer in the universe's eyes? Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't, but I really don't care. When the God of Decisions, Decisions, Decisions actually graces you with the right choice, you don't quibble with what might have been... you just shake your ass, as hard as you can, repeatedly, stopping only to imbibe (gotta appease the Deity of Hard Boozin'!).
Sure things are sure things and then there's Anders Osborne. We walked in just as he was working out sound kinks in anticipation of the second set. The place was crawling with faces that were more than just friendly, they were infested with big, fat (the term is "shit eating") grins. Buy that man a drink, let's get it on!! Praise be thee!! A beer and a whiskey later I was drowning in good times: my cheeks hurt from smiling, my body was pulling a John "Cougar" Mellencamp and hurting so good and my cup overfloweth with nasty, nasty Nawlins party music. Anders was on fire: a brilliant, perfect mix of Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The room was aswelter in the heat he was giving off -- I can't recall being in a room in the city where everyone, I mean everyone was smiling and dancing their asses off. Every once in a while the spirit of New Orleans, the sweaty, dank funkfest of 2am NOLA escapes to the northern climes. Early Saturday morning, Osborne, with Kirk Joseph, Eric Bolivar and Tim Green marching lockstep in the parade, was spraying that spirit on the faithful at the Lion's Den. It's one thing to have that New Orleans vibe t, but it's another to have it while being so fucking talented and Anders is nothing if not a blisteringly good guitar player. Shredder through and through. He sang song after sweet sweet song about his home town, about rains in the Crescent City, partying til dawn and everything else and we just kept on dancing. For much of the set a trumpet player sort of camped out just offstage, trying to get in there to jam. Finally, Anders, who had no idea who this guy was, invited him up and he blew some mediocre horn -- it was a quintessential NOLA moment, the spirit of interaction of the jam session of just showing up to play. It's rare around these parts, but Osborne didn't hesitate and didn't try to force the guy off after a solo or another one or another one. He certainly overstayed his welcome, but despite that, did nothing to slow the momentum. If anything, it spurred the other guys to bring it up a notch, to overwhelm his "eh" playing with a sustained ass-kicking. That summed up the set perfectly. The gods were maybe testing Anders & Co -- let's see what you really got!! Great people, great music, is there anything else that needs to be said?
That aural massage from Cecil Taylor was paying off dividends at this point, I could have boogied my way across the scummy Lion's Den dance floor until the sun came up, but the gods know what's best for me: the set ended right at the last possible moment for me to have time to get in my good-byes to the bug-eyed late-night faithful, hop in a cab up to Penn Station, buy my return ticket and easily make that 2:55 train home, getting me a good hour or two extra sleep in the process. Oh, Sleeping One Off God, what did I do to deserve your kindness?
With both Marco et al and Anders playing follow-up shows on Saturday night, the only question left was whether I should tempt fate and go back for seconds... may as well leave that one up to the big guys on Mount LiveMusiclympia... the Ouija board spelled it out for me in no uncertain terms: Don't press your luck!