Gameboard, Gwen Laster (independently released, 2018)
CD review by John Pietaro
Violinist/violist Gwen Laster has a career spanning New York’s creative tapestry, from Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, Thurman Barker, the Sun Ra Arkestra, the New Muse 4tet, and the Go: Organic Orchestra to Alicia Keys, Nona Hendryx, Aretha Franklin, Rhianna and the Roots. A presence at the Vision Festival and the AACM 50th Anniversary Concert, Laster’s also been featured in chamber and orchestral music and on stage for the 2008 Obama inauguration, yet remains new music’s best-kept secret. With the release of Gameboard, her third album as a leader, she’s hoping to change that.
The music herein serves as an aural component of Laster’s metaphysical and creative inspirations, social activism and call for compassion (sustenance to artists during these Trump years), threading global sounds with improvisation and strains of pop. The ensemble pairs a world music octet with a string section, boasting such downtown notables as bansuri flutist Steve Gorn, violist Jason Kao Hwang and guitarist Marvin Sewell. However, guitarist Freddie Bryant, a regular in the Laster ensemble, is also heard to excellent effect, particularly when paired with Brahim Fribgane’s darkly sparkling oud and the South Asian and Near Eastern percussion of Tripp Dudley and Tim Keiper. Tabla, tar, dumbek and other hand drums, as well as an array of small percussives, carry the rhythm with the whole-earth electric bass of Damon Banks, the album’s producer. Banks too has had a varied career but exhibits a special connection to this rather rootless music based in many traditions. And while so much of Gameboard alternates between the inner and the outer (atmosphere, tonality and consciousness), the album also contains one vocal piece, “Maestro”, drawing on the crossover pop/jazz genre. However, Hwang’s presence here, in a whirling sound ballet with cellist Rufus Cappadacio, assures a striking authenticity to the genre. Steve Gorn is also on this piece and the next, “The Baju”, which features another powerful Laster segment.
While the leader cites the direct influence of Noel Pointer and Jean-Luc Ponty, her solo statements reveal the deliciously disparate echo of L. Shankar and Stuff Smith. Her bow doesn’t simply glide over the strings but often seems to bite into them, adding an earthy, blue, extra-rhythmical quality rare to bowed string instrumentalists. This texture is downright compelling on “Yoga Gridlock”, another work that captures the ear between first and third, so to speak, worlds. Listen here for interplay between Laster and cellist Nokia Workman (yes, that would be Reggie’s daughter).
The opening and closing cuts are free works that fade out prematurely, leaving the listener simply wanting more. But then maybe that was the whole idea.
1. Collective Free (intro)
3. Maestro (intro)
5. The Baju
6. Yoga Gridlock
7. Collective Free (outro)
Gwen Laster: violin, viola, vocal / Damon Banks: electric bass / Steve Gorn: bansuri /
Brahim Fribgane: oud, cahon / David Ellenbogen; gongs, lap steel guitar / Tripp Dudley: tabla, percussion / Tim Keiper: percussion / Freddie Bryant: guitar / Marvin Sewell: guitar / Manu Koch: keyboards
violin-Duane James; violas-Jason Kao Hwang, Aurora Mandel, Alva Anderson; cellos-Rufus Cappadocia, Melvin Greenwich, Nioka Workman
Produced by Damon Banks