30 January 2008

Review: Edmar Castaneda|Brad Mehldau

Jazz Standard|Village Vanguard 23 January 2008

So, I got "shut out" of Marco last week, you'll have to do without my pontificating until tomorrow night's residency closer. Luckily, I did make it out to see someone else for once, a nice jazzy twofer last Wednesday.

I couldn't make the early set, but I've been wanting to check out Edmar Castaneda for a while after getting repeated recommendations of the "you've got to see this guy!" variety from the same folks who brought you my obsession with the Bad Plus and "we're driving to Hampton for Panic, giddy-up!" So, I got my butt in gear and made it to the Jazz Standard for his late set. I'm not sure I've ever been to JS after having already eaten dinner and let me tell you it was tough. I walked in with stomach full and the minute I got a whiff of that smoky Blue Smoke aroma, I was instantly famished once again. It took all I had to hold off ordering a rack of ribs and a cheeseburger, but I did go for some pie just to keep my stomach gurgling from overtaking the music.

Castaneda is a Columbian harp player -- he is both from Columbia and apparently the instrument he plays is called the "Columbian harp. Anyway, he looks like he's about 12 and plays something fierce. A couple weeks back when watching Lewis & Clark open for Benevento I joked that I was predicting a big year for the harp in 2008. Unfortunately for all the wannabes out there, Edmar Castaneda probably has them all beat. There is something naked and pure about the instrument itself, like a piano has been stripped of all its clothing... or alternatively, a guitar has mutated into something unrecognizable. Castaneda has an intimate relationship with his instrument, his fingers dance over the strings: shuffle, boogie woogie and ballet, there is an amazing combination of grace and power. The resulting sound is exotic and comfortable, disorienting (how is he making those sounds?) and exhilarating. With his body taking over his harp like he's curling up in bed with a lover, he manipulates the strings and makes some fantastic music.

The quartet was one of the stranger mixtures of players you'll find. Joining him on the vibraphone was Joe Locke who wore a necktie around his bare neck and there was Marshall Gilkes on trombone and David Sillman on a stripped-down drums/percussion set-up. Are the harp, vibes and trombone the elements of good music? Good question. For the most part, Castaneda as band leader did a good job corralling the tangential sounds of his ensemble and made great music. With Locke on one side and Edmar on the other, there was a otherworldly quality to the sound. There were solos for everyone in each tune, but within each number there were ample stretches of improvisation: dreamy interludes where the harp ducked down deep in the sound and got hypnotically subtle. Edmar's playing is of the master class level: bass notes and melody and rhythm all bundled up in an ear-pleasing tone. Watching him play is to watch someone entranced by their own talent; eyes closed, mouth pursed as if kissing the notes as they come off his fingers, it is as if he would crawl in between the strings and feel the vibrations directly if he could.

The music is a kind of Latin-infused straight jazz. They played exclusively originals as well as some traditional Columbian music that Castaneda has rearranged with some improvisational sections. The compositions were good, but it was the band that made them worthwhile. And while Castaneda on his own was worth the price of admission, it was the addition of Joe Locke's vibraphone that brought things up that extra smidge. Locke was perfectly in tune with Castaneda, working him back and forth and taking wonderful leads on his own. One tune opened with a long intro on the vibes which drifted into a familiar sounding riff... at last I recognized it: Neil Young's "Ohio." If you're wondering if that can be made to sound good on the vibes, the answer is a resounding yes. Good times, the pie was decent. I highly recommend Edmar Castaneda who seems to play regularly in the city.

I had designs on a possible double feature knowing that Brad Mehldau was playing across town at the Vanguard. We're talking about one of the premier jazz cats in the world at the Vanguard... every time he comes through I hope to make it and more often than not I'm doing something else. I wasn't sure it was even possible to make the set, but I had to give it a shot... although I played a little bit of "let the train decide" and opted out of the taxi ride for a shot on the subway. It was 11:01 when I hopped back up above ground and quickly made my way hoping to the club hoping they'd start late. I got to the top of those stairs and saw there was still a line waiting to get in, no music playing yet... I made it! Of course, even on a Wednesday night for the 11pm set, the place was packed front-to-back. I don't recall ever sitting so far in the rear, but I didn't care. I quickly went to the bathroom and almost knocked a guy over... looking up it was Mehldau coming out to the stage, thankfully unscathed by our near-collision. Some day I will take a musician down, and you will be the first to hear about it.

It's funny as I was looking around the crowded room, I noticed that there were a lot of couples there for the show. Usually at a jazz club it's a lot of dudes and maybe a few dates that had been dragged to the show. For Brad Mehldau, it was probably about 50/50 for men and women and I got the sense that there were just as many men dragged by their ladies out late on a winter Wednesday night as vice versa. I guess it's not surprising. Mehldau is the perfect combination of brilliant chops, highwire improvisation and pure accessibility. The set on Wednesday was almost entirely originals, mostly with names like "untitled" and "no name yet" as well as "MB" his tribute to Michael Brecker and a couple others. And yet, they all had a familiar quality, a deja vu appeal, almost like I could have started singing along with them if only I could remember the words. The one cover was a song from "A Light in the Piazza" which sounded like some indie-pop arrangement.

Mehldau's trio plays like a direct descendant of Keith Jarrett's. Not that they sound similar, but that their approach share the same mentality. The songs are just starting points, the diving board before the flipping, twisting maneuvers the diver does in midair before hitting the water. Actually, the Olympic sport most apt for metaphor for Mehldau's playing is figure skating. That is because there is no friction in his piano, the notes come out one after the other like a metal blade slicing through ice, gliding in figure 8's and launching triple axels and the like. Except what appears to be delicately choreographed movement is actually pure improvisation. If Brad's piano is the ice skate, the bass and the drums are the rest of the pink-sequinned body, arms extending from the center of gravity and then pulling in, centrifugal force generating perfectly controlled velocity and momentum. It is a wonderful balance. The resulting music is of the "everyone should love this" variety, pure beauty -- just adventurous enough to pique the excitement of the musical thrill seeker.

There was but one disappointment in the evening (other than my regret at not having splurged on some 'Cue) At the end of the set, not a dull moment in the 70 minutes, the audience gave it their all, all but demanding a return to the stage, but were denied an encore. I believe it was the most enthusiastic response I have seen to a set of music that was not rewarded with an extra spot of something. Clapping, clapping, clapping, then rhythmic clapping, then screaming then more clapping, even as the lights turned on. Nothing. Lame. What gives, Mehldau?


Anonymous said...


-Bob Frapples

Anonymous said...

I love Edmar. I'm glad you like it. Please correct: it's ColOmbia. With an O. Not Columbia. Tx!