“Straight ahead jazz, no fusion or con-fusion” promised Lou Donaldson on Friday night at the Village Vanguard. Donaldson kept good on his promise, starting with his 50s classic “Blues Walk” and running through a set of the hard bop and soul jazz for which he’s famous.
As the nominal head of his quartet, Donaldson was the show’s star personality, working through a set of tunes and jokes (Viagra, 50 Cent, “when Miles still played jazz”) that the internet tells me has seen little change in years. Donaldson’s playing is a joy to hear, but at this point he sits back (literally) to let the younger musicians come forward. Though he certainly keeps up on his sax, at 83 years old Donaldson’s in more of a torch-passing role than a trailblazing one.
The younger players’ technical prowess shined on speedy jams like “Fast & Freaky” and “The Alligator Bogaloo,” which were broken up by slower songs “What a Wonderful World” or the plodding blues of “Whiskey Drinking Woman.”
The show was far from unpredictable. Reviews show that Donaldson tours with a limited set list, and every song had the same format — Donaldson intro, guitar solo, organ solo, Donaldson with drum fills (maybe a solo), ensemble to close. Structure and timbre were relatively static, with the exception of an extended drum solo by Fukushi Tainaka. “You can tell by his name he’s from Alabama.” This music was all about rhythmic and melodic dynamism.
While Lou Donaldson took the lead, Tainaka expanded the music’s sonic horizons, and guitarist Randy Johnston wowed the crowd with his blazing runs, it was probably organist Pat Bianchi who brought the most unique element to the group.
Bianchi performed behind a mysterious Hammond with an alien Leslie rotor amp, complete with exposed tubes that I watched heat up before the show. It was a great sound to hear live, and Bianchi is an intense and soulful player, beginning his solos with a few way-finding stabs and ramping into nonsensically virtuosic bop grooves.
Although I don’t share Donaldson’s disdain for “fusion and con-fusion” and prefer jazz that he might deny is even part of the genre, it was good to get a break from the usual madness and hear a few traditional virtuosos do their thing.
As much as anything else I was exploring in undergrad, it was a 2001 CD release on Improvised Music from Japan that led by extreme example and a year later changed the way I would think about, enjoy, and make music. I’m not sure how I came to know about it — it might have been a review or reference in Wire – but downloading this 10-CD set threw me deep into a world of sound that trampled my familiar musical conventions.
This is where I first heard Toshimaru Nakamura. The release gives 35 minutes to Nakamura, now known for his work on the “no-input mixing board” (NIMB), basically a mixer with no external sound generators running through its inputs. Line noise, feedback, and electricity itself generate the audio.
Nakamura brought his NIMB kit to Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room last night for a 45 minute set in the dark. It’s hard to describe the music — pops, highest-pitch drones, bassy beat frequencies, split-second white explosions. Unlike the music of other noise artists with such an “electric” sound palette, there was something unaggressive and at times even soothing about this music. Long drones, near silence, and exclamatory screeches formed their own vocabulary for tension and release.
With no verbal references or melodic phrases and few timbral motifs, the music was very physical — heightening awareness of the audio’s interaction with the space and one’s body. High pitches tickled the ears, clicks resonated in the back of the neck, and sheets of bass bubbled between the walls.
Music like this may require some primer or familiarity. I once saw Nakamura at REDCAT in Los Angeles, and after my cousin’s girlfriend left because of a “headache,” two guys stood and profaned the performance with shouted curses (which most of the audience seemed to enjoy). This time the two friends who were with me enjoyed the show.
In one of WNET.ORG’s exciting new developments, our new street-level, viewer-friendly studios at Lincoln Centerwill open with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in April, leading up to the premiere broadcast of Need To Know in May, 2010. The new studios, at the corner of West 66th Street and Broadway next to Alice Tully Hall, are the country’s first street-side public broadcasting facilities.
This weekend I was in Los Angeles for the Paid Dues hip-hop festival, but I also managed to catch a set from techno champions Acid Circus on Friday night.
Their performance followed headliner Tiefschwarz at Avalon, right in the club epicenter of Hollywood & Vine. This intersection is a strange late night spot, and I’ve yet to find something like it in New York. I’ve definitely passed by some clubs on Houston and on other streets with Hollywood-like crowds, but not the same strange mix of cultures, ages, and crazy automobiles. There’s something extra special about the “club scene” that makes me dread going to Hollywood. Maybe I can find an NYC crowd like this at Pacha or Cielo (haven’t been)? Somewhere else?
Despite my aversion to the particular scene, one thing it can offer is serious sound, and Avalon is a pretty good example. Although I prefer the system at Love in Greenwich Village, I’m yet to hear an installed dance-oriented system in New York as BIG as Avalon’s. Acid Circus did their thing and got to sound great doing it.
These guys haven’t been brought to New York since I moved here, which I suppose I find surprising. To put them in New York terms, they have the personality / vibe / stage energy of Trouble & Bass, the (computer-based) mixing bravado of someone like Bunker‘s Detroit transplant Derek Plaslaiko (who has played their events in LA), and a contemporary, but history-infused dance aesthetic somewhere near Levon Vincent (whose tracks they’ve been playing out in recent sets – catch his “Late Night Jam” 28 minutes into the mix). Circus finished sometime near 5am, and I had to head home to get sleep for Paid Dues the next day.
I actually went to LA for Paid Dues, which was on Saturday. The lineup was worth a flight from New York, and I doubt we’ll see much of the same size and quality from hip-hop this year. There is of course Rock the Bells, the LA-based parent festival that makes its way to New York, but I’m curious to see how it manages to top this past weekend.
Murs & 9th Wonder
12 hours of quality hip-hop + an engaged audience + smartly-EQed systems that actually allowed the lyrics to be heard = worth the trip. I’ll avoid a gushing laundry list and pull out a few highlights. Afro Classics (Scarub + Very) jumped on the smaller stage early with an ultra-energetic set of fast rhymes and coordinated tradeoffs. Underground stalwarts Freestyle Fellowship closed the same stage with a similar energy, matched with impossible coordination and speed and a truly unique style. Myka 9 is a beast. The highlight for me was possibly festival organizer Murs, who performed with producer 9th Wonder an exciting set of favorites and material off his upcoming album Fornever, which I was able to buy from his mother at the merchandise booth. The album is another set of strong tracks from the duo and worth checking out, despite one embarrassing song.
The festival was on point with a tight schedule, strong showmanship, quality rhymes, and a supportive crowd. Hopefully Guerilla Union has something just as special to offer when they send Rock the Bells to Governors Island this summer.
On Wednesday night, Norwegian ECM pianist Tord Gustavsen led an ensemble of five musicians through a sublime program of European jazz.
The players here were Tore Brunborg on tenor and soprano sax, vocalist Kristin Asbjornsen, Mats Eilersten on bass, Jarle Vespestad on drums, and Tord Gustavsen on piano.
The group’s musical base lay in a cool, Bill Evans-related zone, but with an epic, tidal dynamic and flowing stylistic palette, incorporating folk melodies, bluesy orientations, cavernous textures, and sung poetry.
I’m usually not the biggest fan of jazz vocals, so I came to the show slightly apprehensive, but Kristin Asbjornsen’s gorgeous contributions raised the music to new heights of meaning and human emotion. Although there were a few effective moments of bluesey, American-style jazz singing, most of her work lent an ethereal feel, with evocative lyrics (such as W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby,”) and wordless passages of reverb-drenched vocal atmospheres.
Tore Brunborg’s tiny saxes lent the ensemble an airy, ethereal haze missing from Gustavsen’s outstanding trio recordings, and Mats Eilersten played inventive bass lines including a surprising solo song transition.
Drummer Jarle Vespestad of Supersilent showcased his supremely delicate touch, letting tiny cymbal gestures build into rich sonic textures.
Tord Gustavsen was, of course, the backbone, and the only performer to play on every song (the program featured various combinations of these players). He elegantly slid from the seductive, contemplative lines of “Being There” to syncopated stabs of improv ecstasy. Gustavsen played with a devoted emotion that led his group to do the same.
The ensemble sounded full and beautiful in the hall. Their current album title track “Restored, Returned,” which I questioned on the recording (and now enjoy most), was simply fabulous live, an immense, anthemic crescendo of everything the group had to offer.
My personal experience and connection with the music may mean more than any comments I can offer about the individual musicians.
The concert led me through a range of strong emotions, the clearest of which was simply joy. I’ll definitely check out Gustavsen’s group the next opportunity I get and recommend that anybody who loves this music do the same.
The first time I saw Nosaj Thing perform was in 2007, and I was supposed to be doing visuals for the night. I showed up with my gear at Cinespace in Hollywood to learn that the A/V tech was out sick that day. His replacement knew nothing about the video system and how I might connect my computer, and he wouldn’t let me into the control room. The only thing he knew how to do, my only option, was to play a DVD that would appear on the screens in the club. Since the only DVD I had in my car was R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, parts 1 – 12, I played that. It worked perfectly.
You might think this says something about Nosaj Thing’s music, but Trapped in the Closet on 15 screens can’t avoid perfection.
You can actually hear his set from that night here, although his sound has evolved in the time since.
So Nosaj Thing was first up at Le Poisson Rouge last night, and he started right on time to a sold-out, attentive house. As you can hear in the MP3 above, Nosaj plays electronic dance music within a hip-hop beat framework — an appropriate opener for Flying Lotus. Los Angeles is the unrivaled leader in this arena (with Glasgow making its own moves), and Nosaj’s live set has evolved into an undeniable representation of the typical Low End Theory sound. His hard and heavy beats worked well on the audience (while exposing the limits of LPR’s bass). Mastery over live tweaking and pads, along with an energetic stage presence made for an exciting presentation. Unfortunately the effects became a bit familiar and predictable as he worked through somewhat transparent Ableton sequences. Nosaj was smart to save the best for last and let shine his developed album cuts, which feature compositional elements beyond the usual chopped beats and remixes.
Next up was Kode9 (Hyperdub head), who played a diverse set of dubstep, UK house, and international vocal cuts. This was definitely a change of pace, and the crowd only seemed interested when he would drop massive hits like “Poison Dart” or “Pon de Floor.” A sold-out LPR is an uncomfortably packed space. By the time Kode9 went on there was no room to stand, let alone dance, so being packed in for this music was awkward (though not atypical here in NYC).
Around 1:30 Flying Lotus appeared to much fanfare and proceeded to deliver a set of his well-known releases, bootleg remixes, and upcoming material.
Flying Lotus has two strong weapons in his live performance arsenal. The first is that he’s worshipped. He makes great music that a lot of people respond to, and he receives a lot of love for it. When he points, the crowd goes wild. When he smiles, the crowd goes wild. A hype crowd and confident performer go a long way.
What actually makes his performance special is the music for which he’s received the attention. Flying Lotus’ sound transcends the genres to which it’s related. It sounds like it’s from LA, but it doesn’t sound like he’s following The Glitch Mob, Madlib, Daedelus, or anyone else. This comes through clearly in the live setting, as he takes a multi-dimensional approach to the same software that everyone else is using. The music is unmistakably his own, but familiar enough to alienate few listeners.
The most unique aspect of his set is an organic movement from rhythm to rhythm. Instead of locking himself into a constant BPM and occasionally derivating, he lets the beats fall apart and reconstruct over passages of ambiance or noise.
It wasn’t really that long ago that I saw Flying Lotus play on a single monitor for about 15 people in the middle of the day. Now he appears on magazine covers and sells out shows worldwide. It’s an explosion well-deserved.
Saturday was a bit of a music bust for me — Beyond the Machine festival was sold out, as was the “secret” Erykah Badu show (figure that one out).
Fortunately, on Friday I made it to Brooklyn Bowl for performances by The Ruby Suns and Chazwick (Chaz) Bundick, known as Toro Y Moi. Toro Y Moi’s debut album for Carpark, Causers of This, takes sincere and personal songwriting and frames it in a reverb-heavy, summery wash of electronic sounds. Although the album knowingly or unknowingly references an overwhelming array of sources, the most heavily present are the filtered sounds of French house. The slower tempos and heavy compression have also drawn comparisons to J Dilla and Flying Lotus, who performs in New York this Wednesday.
Chaz was kind enough to spend some time with me before the show for an interview, which I’ve transcribed below. After that is my review of the event itself.
Bijan: So you’ve played at Brooklyn Bowl before. How do you like it? Chaz (Toro Y Moi): It’s fun. They treat you really nice…they give you food.
B: Could you describe your live setup? TYM: I run Reason live. I have a MIDI controller up there with me, and then I’m also controlling vocal effects, doing a live mix pretty much.
B: So do your sequences come out pretty different from what’s on the album? TYM: Yeah, I redid a lot of the songs – not all of them, but some of them – to have a different feel when they’re live.
B: Are you going for something harder on the rhythm, or… TYM: It’s more up-pace, and then it’s also more like a conversation, more involved, as opposed to me just pressing play and singing. There’s lots of looping and tempo changes. I try to keep it as organic as possible while using software and still try to maintain the integrity of the song.
B: What’s your main musical interest and background then? Electronic music, or… TYM: No, I started playing guitar and writing songs on guitar when I was 12, piano when I was eight years old. So seriously my first songs that I was writing were folky and rocky.
B: I read in some interviews that you’re working on a few albums that are oriented differently. TYM: Oh, yeah… well I’m not a DJ, I’m not into that much electronic music, just pretty much house. So I want to try that other side that I’m more involved in too. Before Carpark came to me and there was pressure to finish an album and put stuff out, I was working on what was soon to be Causers of This at the same time that I was working on this current album that I’m working on now, which doesn’t sound electronic at all. I get bored pretty easily, so I’ll do an electronic song and say, “That goes for this album,” do like a folky song – “that goes for the other album,” and go back and forth. Causers of This just happened to come out first.
B: So how did you get into electronic music and production, then? I’m curious to hear of any specific influences. TYM: Seriously when I was a freshman in college I got a laptop for the first time, and then I found out about electronic music. My friend gave me a program, Fruity Loops, and I started messing around with it. I figured out how to sample with it, which was pretty much all I wanted to do with programming stuff – I just love manipulating samples. That was about when I was 18.
B: How do you decide which album you’re working on? TYM: It’s really whatever comes out that day. My whole spiritual connection to the song is more with the lyrics. Granted I will write a fast-paced song if I’m in more of an uppity mood, or some sad song if I’m upset, but it’s mostly just whatever comes out.
B: Will you then tour with this new material? You’ll have to deal with people expecting a certain sound… TYM: I’ll try it, but it’s really hard. I don’t know a lot of musicians yet, and I don’t live in a place where there are a lot of musicians there into what I’m trying to do. It’s like – if I moved to New York, I’m pretty sure I could make an album and find musicians who would be totally down to help me out with it. So touring it would be awesome, but I don’t know if it’s going to work yet. The album’s not done yet, and it’s kind of weird-sounding, and I don’t know how or if it’s going to work live.
B: Are you considering moving anywhere? TYM: I lke the South, but I’m pretty much ready to move out of Columbia [South Carolina]. I’ve been there for 23 years, and I still live there now. My lease runs out in August, so I’m looking. I don’t know where. I don’t know if it’s going to be New York or out West or where.
B: You have a pretty aggressive tour schedule. How’s that going? TYM: It’s kind of ridiculous. I’m really new to this lifestyle. I was in a band before where we toured, but it would be DIY-booked, two-week long kinds of things. We didn’t even leave the east coast. So this is a total change for me. I’m not used to it at all.
B: Have you encountered anything unexpected? TYM: I’m surprised by how many people I’m meeting. I don’t know if that’s as juicy as you want it to be, but I’ve met so many people within the music business and musician world, and it’s so ridiculous how small it is. You would think, being on a small label like Carpark, “yeah, you have to work your way up>” I’ve met publicists and artists that I never thought I’d meet. It’s crazy how connected it is behind the scenes.
B: I see you’ve done a lot of interviews in the past year or so. Is there anything that you’re sick of answering? TYM: Well, there’s lots of questions, but I’m not sick of it. People want to know what’s up, but it can be tiring. But the questions I get the most are obviously about chillwave…
B: Oh yeah! I wanted to ask you about that, and I thought that would probably be the most annoying question… TYM: It’s the most asked. The most asked question is “what do you think about chillwave,” or “what do you think about being labeled as that,” and I always say it doesn’t bother me, because I’m not one of those sticklers who’s like “ahhh, I don’t put labels on things!” If I was listening to a new genre that was unclassified I would probably go with the first thing that the majority of the people are calling it, so I’m not going to bash it. It just helps people connect to your music and your sound, even though I don’t sound like Washed Out, I don’t sound like Memory Tapes, but people are going to get the idea “okay, it’s sort of poppy, new wavy, summery, one man kind of thing.” So all of those things get put into chillwave, and I’m fine with that. But then again I don’t want to disappoint people when the next album comes out and it’s not really chillwave. But that’s fine.
B: One more thing that I’ll press you on again … you didn’t name any specific electronic musicians. TYM: Oh, yeah. When I first started listening to electronic music it was seriously like Daft Punk, all the French house crew, like the whole Feadz and Oizo and Ed Banger Crew and Digitalism. You know, DJ Falcon. I like French filtering, samples…
B: I can definitely hear that in your sound. Alright, well…. thanks. TYM: Thanks.
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For those unfamiliar with French house’s filtered sound, check out one of Thomas Bangaltar’s early Chicago-influenced classics (Ventura / Trax on da Rocks / Roulé / 1995),
trace it through 10 years of Daft Punk (Bangaltar + Homem-Christo) (Emotion / Human After All / Virgin),
and find it in Toro Y Moi (You Hid).
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As for the event, I got to Brooklyn Bowl at 6pm. I live in the neighborhood and had been by a few times but never inside. The place is immense. We had dinner. We bowled.
I’ll start with the good things: Chaz’s music is plenty of fun, and his live performance techniques seem like all the right moves for the music he makes: live sampling and looping of his own voice, heavy reverb effects, live keys, dancing, guitar, and a playful stage presence. My primary critique is that he simmers the crowd in various genres but never once lets the music explode. More “digital love” than “rolling n scratchin,” but I suppose that’s why it’s called chillwave.
It could have been enjoyable, but it wasn’t. I’m going to skip the minor complaints and get into the bigger ones.
The sound was TERRIBLE.
True, last week I was in a place quiet enough for two performance monitors to make the audience want earplugs, and this week I was watching a show in a bowling alley. I get that TYM uses plenty of reverb, a word that usually gets paired with “wash,” or “haze,” but this stuff was muddled like crazy. I’d see Chaz on the keys and not be able to hear what he was doing. The bass was imprecise and unpleasant. It just sounded really bad, at least where I was standing (front and center).
This could have been Chaz’s own mix. It could have been the sound guy. The system and acoustic space were definitely a big problem. Ultimately there was no denying the fact that the sound coming out of the speakers and into that huge space was just poor. Proper sound still might not have made up for the fact that the place itself is LOUD. I blame the crowd.
I don’t know why the people surrounding me were at the event, but it certainly wasn’t to hear music. It’s a concert, people talk. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with everyone around me, at the front, talking loudly throughout the entire show. Why?
Why do they do this?
Why do you pay money, come to the front, and spend your time yelling your resume into my ears? TYM deserved more from the audience. So did I.
I didn’t stay for The Ruby Suns. I crawled back into my cave.
“Whatever It Takes” chronicles the struggles and triumphs of an innovative public high school in the Bronx. While the learning environment is a safe haven compared to many of the students’ former schools, principal Edward Tom’s ideals run up against reality midway through the school year. More than half of his students are failing, detention hall is overflowing, and gang members start recruiting at the school. Often acting as a surrogate father figure, Tom uses motivation and discipline to get students to focus on a rigorous and meaningful education and become college-bound scholars.
Independent Lens had a chance to speak with director/producer Christopher Wong about the making of the documentary in this interview.
“Whatever It Takes” airs Tueseday, March 30 at 10pm on THIRTEEN.
Independent Lens: What impact do you hope this film will have?
Christopher Wong: My plan is to integrate WHATEVER IT TAKES into a larger movement that seeks to inspire at-risk, minority students to take full advantage of their high school years, with the ultimate goal of getting into and succeeding in college. I hope educators will be able to use WHATEVER IT TAKES to hold practical discussions regarding what they believe results in true change at the high school level. Finally, I’ve always thought that this documentary could go a long way towards breaking stereotypes.
IL: What led you to make this film?
CW: For a number of years, I had been actively searching for the right opportunity to make a feature-length documentary. So when I heard that my long-time friend Edward Tom was going to trade in his career as an executive with Saks Fifth Avenue for the job of a high school principal in the South Bronx, I instantly knew that this was the right project. It had everything I was looking for: a compelling storyline, a natural narrative structure, and a strong Asian American character.
IL: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
CW: While money is always a challenge — we basically didn’t have any — I found that putting the film together in the editing room was the hardest task of all. As a new filmmaker, I was experiencing everything for the first time.
IL: How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
CW: Since principal Edward Tom and I had been friends for years, he trusted me completely — even when I said that there was a good chance that I’d have to show him falling on his face and failing miserably. And because the students and parents trusted the principal so much, they also were willing to be incredibly open with us.
IL: What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
CW: There were five other students that we followed in-depth whose stories didn’t make the final cut of the film. While I would have loved to share these stories, I had to make the decision to concentrate fully and solely on my main character, Sharifea.
IL: What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
CW: Thus far, the audience response has been tremendous. When we premiered WHATEVER IT TAKES in Los Angeles, we had to move the film into the biggest theater at the Director’s Guild of America in order to accommodate the crowd of more than 500 people that showed up.
Both principal Edward Tom and his former student Sharifea have seen the film multiple times. I’m happy to say that they were both thrilled with the story we told because they felt we had captured the genuine reality of who they were and what the school year was like. Having said that, they both found various parts of the film difficult to watch, precisely because we hadn’t shied away from showing everything.
IL: Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
CW: WHATEVER IT TAKES is a great fit for public television because its audience has such a built-in representation of educators, parents, and people who really want to know what is going on in the world around them. It’s hard for me to think of another broadcast partner who would be so interested in the themes and characters we explore in the film. Also, I’d hate to have my documentary interrupted constantly by commercials!
IL: What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
CW: I certainly didn’t get the opportunity to spend as much time with my family as I would have hoped. My daughter was born right before I started WHATEVER IT TAKES, and my son was born just as I was finishing the film. So I have to give my wife a ton of credit for patiently bearing with me through this long ordeal. I also didn’t get to pad my savings account — rather the opposite, in fact — but that’s a small price to pay for getting the chance to make this incredibly rewarding film.
NY Export: Opus Jazz, to Robert Prince’s score, with sets by Ben Shahn, is one of Jerome Robbins’ “sneaker ballets,” considered by the choreographer as a sort of abstract counterpart to his West Side Story Suite. While it is enjoyable to see these two works performed by New York City Ballet at the Koch Theater, they can both suffer from feeling lightweight, aided by spanking white Keds, spotless jeans, and a ballet dancer’s general lack of thuggishness. Two soloists from the company, Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, have produced a 45-minute film version that has some welcome verismo and grittiness, to premiere on PBS on March 24 at 8pm on Great Performances: Dance in America. Filmed in locations around the city, the film captures both the anomie of being a youth in the city, as well as an adrenalizing antidote in the form of dance.
Bar and Suozzi enlisted filmmakers Henry Joost and Jody Lee Lipes, who shot the film in 35mm format, resulting in a high quality snapshot of this big city that both saps and inspires us. You may recognize Coney Island, McCarren Pool, and the Highline before it was renovated, settings for some of the dreamier scenes. But providing equal texture are shots set in a diner, a school gym, a wall-less warehouse or garage space, and a timeworn theater. They are reminders to those of us who migrated here as adults that kids indeed grow up here.
This film features a number of wide shots that reduce each dancer to the size of a shrimp, and some of the scenes shot in daylight appear flat and washed out; the interior lighting is much better controlled, as you’d expect. We also get to see some elaborate choreographic formations from the occasional overhead perspective that we’d never be able to see in the theater. The cameras follow Rebecca Rutherford and Craig Hall—seeking to get away from their rowdy friends—as they perform a romantic duet atop the weed-covered Highline, lit by the sunset. A big gymnasium scene channels the kids’ pent-up energy and rebelliousness. Close up shots remind us that these dancers are athletes, throwing themselves into the movement with skill and daring. It’s wonderful to see some of the city’s (and the world’s) finest young dancers perform in this New York choreographer’s ballet about the city, set in the city. It’s an excellent reminder of why we choose to live here. And if you miss it on March 24, it will be on Sunday Arts on March 28 at 12:30.
Image: The ensemble cast of dancers of the New York City Ballet, Andrew Veyette and Ashley Laracey in the foreground, in the “Improvisations” section, filmed in a school gymnasium in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Credit: Kate Reeder.
Here at Thirteen.org, we’ll be producing more written content. I’ll be writing about music, often covering events happening in the city, sometimes discussing broader musical topics.
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Last Friday Yuka Honda and Nels Cline, best known for their projects Cibo Matto and Wilco, united for their third or fourth performance as Fig, a sort of electro-acoustic experiment pairing Honda’s diverse sound sources and computerized rhythms with Cline’s genre-crossing guitar work.
I first encountered Nels Cline performing in an impressive revisit to Coltrane’s Ascension with ROVA Orkestrova, Otomo Yoshihide, and a group of Downtown artists including Fred Frith and Ikue Mori about five years ago in San Francisco. I had never seen Yuka Honda live, but had enjoyed her solo releases on the Tzadik label. I came to the show curious to see what the pair would produce.
A long line quickly sold out East Village experimental haven The Stone, where I somehow landed in the chair closest to the performers just before people started sitting on the ground. Calling The Stone intimate is probably an understatement. With no refreshments, a bathroom positioned to be off-limits during performances, and two small sections of fold-out chairs, it reaches capacity quickly.
After some setup trouble, the duo went downstairs and re-emerged, Honda wearing a sort of black leotard-jumpsuit-dress-with-fabric-cubes-down-the-shoulder, ready to perform.
The hour of music was well-programmed, beginning with a playfully simple moment of bells and kalimba with unprocessed flute tones. The set energized with Honda on keys and drum patterns, Cline on guitar, both using noisy electronic toys of all sorts.
What Cline described as a “Mickey Mouse setup” came with early technical miscues. One microphone had a series of violent feedback interjections while a PA monitor died repeatedly. The troubles were disruptive enough to make Honda scream and have Cline jokingly chant into the microphone “We were paid for this, we were paid for this…”
Fortunately, the performers and Stone crowd had the right sense of humor about equipment trouble, which often comes hand-in-hand with any experimental, improvised, or rough electronic music. The musicians managed to work through the technical issues and play the set for which we had all come.
One of my favorite pieces was a song called “Tokyo Night Janitor,” which began with a visual, evocative poem of a janitor leaving for work as everyone else returns home, set to Cline’s sweet and inviting guitar melodies. A mention of the janitor’s thoughts and daydreams erupted in a pummeling noise jam as aggressive as any other.
Most songs developed around Honda’s machined drum patterns, allowing the duo to meander their riffs loosely and then tightly around a reliable groove.
Just when I was ready to criticize one of Honda’s electronic rhythms as a plodding bore, she used a Tenori-on to develop an infectious skittering sequencer rhythm to which Nels played along. For those who can fit their sequences and fingers into its somewhat cramped form, the Tenori-on is a great performance piece from the audience perspective, as its transparent backside allowed us to watch the pattern sequence without requiring the awkward but effective back-slant of a setup like Daedelus’ monome.
Another song featured a more traditional drum palette and heavy guitar riffs that reminded me of King Crimson. The set ended softly with a sublime guitar-poetry duet.
Ultimately, it was a set of playful, enjoyable music that could probably gain from some tech polish. Although they functioned beautifully in a live environment, these explorations would sound great on a studio album, something I’m hoping we’ll hear about soon.
Speaking of recordings, Yuka Honda has a new album out on Tzadik that I recommend, Heart Chambers. Great sounds and guest contributions. Nels Cline always has a lot going on, which you can check on his website.