|The Jazz Composer’s Collective Review
||Author: Keith Scott
Posted on: Monday, February 3, 2003
The Jazz Composer’s Collective: Peace Pipe and The Frank Kimbrough Trio
The National Arts Club 1/17/03
by Keith Scott (Gotham’s liberal arts correspondent)
The last time I saw Ben Allison play was at Tonic in early December,
in a trio with long-time collaborators Michael Blake (tenor and soprano
sax) and Michael Sarin (drums). They provided the underbill for Cyro
Baptista, the Brazilian musician whose percussion ensemble, joined by
venerable guests (and Tonic mainstays) Marc Ribot and John Zorn, had
driven the packed room to a sustained and sweaty climax of rhythm and
grooves. Allison, Blake, and Sarin followed with a casual yet generous set.
But by one o’clock or so they were forced to compete with the rumbling
bass from Tonic’s basement dance club (Subtonic) and were facing an
audience barely large enough to field a baseball team. The music hardly
suffered for it, though, and the set had the satisfying feel of an
improbably talented late night jam session.
Cut to a month or so later, and I’m watching Ben Allison and company
perform at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park, an expansive
building whose interior is just the right shade of charming threadbare. The
lighting is flattering, the conversation is muted, the crowd is august,
and a low slung couch is never more than a few feet away. Wretchedly
“tasteful” art-by-the-yard covers the walls. These are the rarefied
environs in which the Jazz Collectors Collective put up shop on Friday,
The Collective is exactly what its name implies. A non-profit group,
the JCC has been around for just over ten years. And in a necrophiliac
era in which mainstream jazz often seems on the brink of becoming a
museum piece (thank you very much, Ken Burns), the JCC places a premium on the performance of new and original compositions. Of the thirteen pieces being performed this evening, eleven of them were composed by one of the men on stage. I may do the Collective disservice by focusing too much on Mr. Allison. But my impression is that this gifted bassist is the lynchpin of the organization, and he is the leader of two of the many groups which emerge from the Collective’s talent pool -- Medicine Wheel and Peace Pipe.
The turnout for this two-set performance was nearly overwhelming. In
addition to gracing this website’s homepage, it was listed in The New
Yorker. And it was free. Yes, free. Hence, standing room only, and then
some. And as someone who bristles and rages over chatty jazz club
crowds, this respectful, hushed audience of 200 or so was ideal.
Ben Allison’s Peace Pipe performed the first set. “Peace Pipe” won’t
be challenging “Jazz Messengers” for Best Jazz Group Name anytime soon, but everything else about this quintet sparkles. The group consists of Allison, the aforementioned Blake and Sarin, the pianist Frank
Kimbrough, and the kora player Mamadou Diabate.
Their first number was “Third Rail”, a sexy, pulsating piece with an Arabic accent. As with most of Piece Pipe’s tunes, it was tightly orchestrated, with melodic changes arriving in quick succession. During the opening measures, Allison was strumming his bass with a MetroCard, creating an interesting sound and clarifying the subway-minded title (and reminding me of a Zorn/Ribot set at Tonic a few years back in which Ribot began playing his guitar with his keys).
The second number, “Peace Pipe” was the title track of the ensemble’s
most recent album (one that was included in the The New York Times “Top 10 Jazz albums of 2002”) and it may have been the most masterfully
composed tune played that evening. Allison begins the song with a
remarkably melodic bass line. It is rare in jazz to hear the bass state the
theme, but Allison is unafraid of exploring the higher registers of an
instrument ordinarily reserved to a supporting role, and his results are
revelatory. This composition encourages ensemble playing with rich, full
tones, and revealed Peace Pipe as the rare jazz group that’s not afraid
of playing an actual “song,” and as an energetic band that makes a
unashamedly joyful sound.
The next tune was Mamadou Diabate’s composition, “Dakan,” which
translates as “destiny” in Manding, the kora player’s native tongue. The
kora, a 21-stringed African instrument, produces a sound like the love
child of a harp and a sitar. “Dakan” is a funky, driving composition that
shows off Diabate’s ability to produce scintillating cascades of notes
with otherworldly speed, effortlessly filling a single measure with
dozens of notes. In this tune, and throughout the set, the kora was
seamlessly integrated into the ensemble’s sound, discouraging any questions of a novelty factor. Peace Pipe features the kora not because it’s ‘exotic’ or self-consciously “multi-culti” sound, but because the instrument fits so snugly and so richly into the groups palette of sounds.
The pianist Kimbrough is also to be applauded for his sensitivity to the group’s sound. In many of these compositions, traditional jazz piano tones would have sounded incongruous. Kimbrough was more than up to the challenge, though, as he often played minimally beautiful figures with just his right hand, and also reached into the piano box to mute notes for a compelling effect.
Allison is ever the showman, a visually compelling performer who
practically dances with his upright bass, something made easier by the fact that he stands a broad-shouldered six foot three. With his quick smile
and infectious charm, it’s not hard to imagine him assuming the role of
jazz’s next matinee idol.
The next number, “Slap Happy,” was the most disjointed of the set.
Compositionally, it’s a musical grab bag full of stops, starts, shifts in
tone, and perhaps a bit too much indulgence. Horn-man Blake took up both his tenor and soprano sax and played them simultaneously; this effect is interesting the first half dozen times you see it, but soon calls to
mind the joke about dogs whose punchline is “because they can.” The
effect of disjointedness was amplified by the drummer Sarin, who seems to relish playing slightly against the beat. While the effect can be
jarring, he does so with conviction, and the result is rhythmic tension --
some good, some not-so-good. When Slap Happy’s lurching coda came to a close, Allison admitted that it is the group’s “space out tune.” To my
mind, an ensemble capable of such richly imagined compositions doesn’t
really need a throw-away like that.
In the past few years, we’ve seen more and more “serious” jazz
performers who don’t shy away from covering pop and rock songs. While the sound of Wes Montgomery cruising through “Eleanor Rigby” or “A Day in the Life” is anathema to many purist’s ears, such stigmas seem to have been softened in a post-modern artistic environment in which the lines
between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art have been dramatically blurred. Take, for
example, the pianist Brad Mehldau, who may be the single most influential
jazz musician under the age of forty. Mehldau has built his reputation on
exquisite dynamics and fearless soloing (hence the endless Bill Evans
comparisons), but often peppers his sets with renditions of songs by
Radiohead, the Beatles, Elliott Smith, and even James Taylor. While the
results can be mixed, it’s clear that Mehldau performs these songs not to
pander to his audience, but because he’s truly interested in what
musical truths he can unearth.
So it is with Ben Allison. At the aforementioned set at Tonic, the
trio performed the Beatle’s “Across the Universe” in a manner which didn’t
immediately reveal the tune’s origin. Tonight he was more forthcoming
before playing “Goin’ Back”, a song by one of Allison’s “favorite
non-jazz composers”, Neil Young. Despite “Goin’ Back”’s rock and roll
pedigree, Peace Pipe’s rendition was subdued and reflective, with a pianissimo tone.
The set’s closer was “Guinea,” a tune penned by the under-appreciated
trumpeter Don Cherry. Diabate opened the song with a dazzling kora solo
which led into a lilting head. The song allowed Blake his most extended
solo of the set, as he blew on the tenor and turned an alarming shade
of beet-red. Peace Pipe doesn’t feature solos in the expected way --
with the ensemble’s rich, churning sounds, it takes a lot of energy for
one instrumentalist to sculpt any sort of extended, defined solo, an
effect exacerbated by Siran’s drumming style, which focuses on bursts of
rhythm and veers more towards the choppy than the fluid. But this is a
group that refuses to play it safe -- they can stop on a dime, and they
often do. And judging from the crowd’s rousing ovation after “Guinea” ’s
conclusion, they couldn’t have been more invigorated by the risks
they’d seen played out on stage.
Frank Kimbraugh Trio
Blake and Diabate exited the stage for the next set, setting the stage
for a piano, bass, and drums trio. All of the material was penned by
the pianist Kimbraugh, a pensive presence on stage who prepared listeners for “brand new music composed in the last few weeks. It’s as new to us as it is to you.”
“Affirmation,” the first number, is a dreamy, mid-tempo composition
which began with a lyric passage by Kimbraugh, and featured a choice
Allison solo. The loping, breezy song was handled gently by the trio, with
few hard edges surfacing through the sound. “Moon Flower” was a rather
free-form tune, featuring more delicate, introspective piano work, and
both “Ode” and “New Ballad” continued in the same vein. These songs
were clearly of the same ilk, and suffered a bit from their sameness. The only musical tension in these pieces tended to be created by Sarin and, to a lesser extent, Allison. While Kimraugh’s piano was generally subdued,
the rhythm section seemed to be pulling the music in a more frenetic,
urgent direction. In “Eventualities”, a more dynamic song, this effect
created a sound like the sum total of three musicians soloing
simultaneously, as if there were a “No Vamping” sign hung above the stage. Unique, yes, but also somewhat sonically cluttered.
The set took a turn for the better with “Lullablue-Bye,” a blues-flavored song which was more uptempo and ‘jazzier’ in general. Rhythmically adventurous and featuring riskier piano by Kimbraugh and a downright groovy solo by Allison, this was clearly the crowd’s favorite number of the set. The night’s final number was “Whirl,” a dense, herky-jerky piece whose tone sometimes bordered on hectic. But as with all of the set,
there was exemplary musicianship to be found, as all three musicians flexed their muscles in extended, parting-shot solos.
The Kimbraugh-led set was a far more cerebral affair than Peace
Pipe’s. While both featured bold compositional strokes and expert playing, I found that Peace Pipe’s sound-scapes provided far more of those
excruciatingly pleasurable moments that just make you squirm in your seat, grateful for your ears -- in other words, those moments that drive you to isten to jazz in the first place. Don’t miss the Jazz Composers Collective when they play again here in the city.