Three Nights of Undead Music Festival
Night One – A Greenwich Village Marathon
This relatively young festival of shifting sensibilities started midweek on an unassuming muggy night, taking over three village venues once again for a marathon of all types of jazz. Things kicked off early at Le Poisson Rouge with Heather Greene and Ursa Minor’s jazz-infused smooth rock invoked the spirits of Tonic, the Lower East Side jazz et cetera club that served as the unifying element for the slate at LPR. Nearly every performer had a story to tell about that familial haunt and many scene vets seemed to come out of the woodwork for a taste of the magic once found therein.
Alchemy was afoot all around, so quickly downing our free Stoli cocktails, we departed across the street to Kenny’s Castaways for the more straightforward jazz of Secret Architecture, whose breathy melodic sax and plodding bass were sadly not enjoyed from cozy couches as the balcony was closed for the evening. Sullivan Hall offered the first hint of the avant, with the Kris Davis Trio punctuated by drummer Michael Sarin’s cymbal squeaks and precision brush work.
From there, the night slipped into the customary festival whirlwind pace. Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut was just that, swinging their way through a set that begged for a smoky lounge. Positive Catastrophe spilled off the stage at Sullivan with their Latin-tinged, anything goes big band. Back at LPR, Jamie Saft’s New Zion Trio infused their calculated compositions with dub rhythm, The Refuseniks freed the accordian from zydeco, and Dougie Bowne’s Peninsula ran the gamut from klezmer to bop. Back across the way, in a highlight of the night, the Chicago Underground Duo cycled through thumb piano/muted trumpet elegies, ambient sounds and looped EDM beats.
A short documentary about Tonic and the bid to save it was made shorter by computer malfunction, but nonetheless drew some of the loudest cheers of the night. More Tonic stars followed. Billy Martin led a short improv session. Yuka Honda augmented her keyboard with an iPad, a sequencer and an array of electronics in EUCADEMIX’s exhilarating exploratory sonic excursions. In yet another high point, which seemed to be in long supply as the hours grew late Chris Dingman’s Waking Dreams painted a sleepy euphoric soundscape with dreamy vibes.
White Out played some adept blues riffs and Elysian Fields told tales of Tonic trysts over medieval harmonies. Steven Bernstein had many a story as well, regaling us before Sex Mob’s truncated New Orleans-inspired set. Even on a weeknight, the festival pushed well past midnight as the masses dwindled. Though several quality acts loomed, we soon departed to conserve energy for the next night’s festivities.
Night Two – Medeski Martin and Wood with guests
The marquis event of the fest took place at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, a spacious throwback sanctuary. Despite night two limiting the music to a single stage, the stylistic variety expected of a festival night pervaded. As promised, the night featured three sets – one with only the trio, one with guests subbing for trio members every song or so, and one with the trio augmented by a seemingly endless stream of guests.
One of my favorite things about MMW is their ability to converse with each other via their instruments. Entering their 21st year of existence, they know each other’s musical voices quite well, and their improvisation is always a spectacle to behold. So it was interesting anticipating how this repartee would accommodate additional interlopers. Guest-laden concerts can often yield mixed results, but this night was pretty stellar throughout.
The first set was standard Medeski Martin and Wood, mellow jazz excursions seguing seamlessly inro breezy cerebral funk for the dance floor, with the threesome jamming a full show’s worth of their full instrumental onslaught into just under 45 minutes, each member utilizing the breadth of his arsenal in a fierce opening salvo. The audio technicians solved the echoes that have plagued some Masonic Temple performances, and the lights were simple and effective, casting the band in ominous hues.
Then, after a brief intermission, the real fun began. Anthony Coleman opened the set in the keyboard spot and provided a capable hand if no match for Medeski’s organ attack. Next up was bassist Oren Bloedow, the man responsible for the band’s eponymous moniker. Drummer G. Calvin Weston opened and closed his brief stint on the skins with some impressive trumpeting. Marco Benevento injected the mix with equally distinctive organ swells. Instead of another bassist, Bob Stewart provided a warm brass low end with a stellar turn on the tuba. Closing out the frenetic second set was crowd favorite heavy hitter Adam Deitch, possibly the smoothest fitting alternate cog to the 3-piece machine, stirring the energy forward with stark hip-hop-influenced funk breaks. As he exited the stage to much fanfare, he revealed a T-shirt emblazoned all-caps: “Dubstep Ruined My Life.”
Following a proper set break, set three commenced with So Percussion accenting the trio with all manner of timbre. Anticipation built as Vernon Reid’s rig was brought on stage. Soon percussion yielded to the Reid’s pervasive shredding. In a dark corner of the stage, two turntables emerged and DJ Logic joined the party, scratch-happy as ever. Charlie Burnham emerged on violin for a spell. Charlie Campbell’s soulful expressive steel pedal guitar gospel spiritualized things in a holy crescendo. Finally, Cibo Matto’s Miho Hatori joined in to conclude the evening with her otherworldly vocals. No encore was offered or needed.
Night Four – Improvised Round Robin Duets
After taking a night off to refuel, we arrived at 92Y Tribeca midway through the curiously formatted round robin duets. Apparently, downtown Saturday night jazz starts on time nowadays. Who knew? Having begun with a single drummer, the continuous performance featured a haunting cello/bass interlude as we walked in. This was by far the most staid audience of the festival. Musicians filtered on and offstage to applause, but explored their pondered notes to a silent rapt crowd. Bass duets bled into tenor sax attacks and concurrent drumbeats. Alto sax and piano gave way to crisp staccato guitar lines. Musicians, though nimbly adept at their crafts, mostly yielded to the communal nature of the structure.
Towards the end, two soloists made their presence known, stretching the borders of free jazz to the limits of sonic pleasantries. An unannounced free spirited cat ambled on stage and plugged in a whamola, that homespun gutbucket substitute known best to most as the source of Les Claypool’s especially strange low end wobbles. After a thorough walloping of the thing, he switched to a similarly cobbled together banjo-like bass contraption for his next duet. In the evening’s (and the festival’s) last gasp, Graham Haynes coaxed feedback-laced effect-laden screeches from his trumpet, blurring the lines between experimental music and noise, punctuating with squelch.