Monday, May 27, 2019

performance review: Ronnie Burrage: Tribute to Hamiet Bluiett

May 25, 2019, Sista’s Place, Brooklyn NY

Ronnie Burrage-drums, percussion, poetry, electronic keyboard, voice;  Kelvyn Bell-electric guitar, voice;  Donald Smith-piano, synthesizer;  Darrell Mixon-upright bass;  Kendrick Smith- straight alto saxophone, soprano saxophone

Performance review by John Pietaro

By the time Ahmed Abdullah greeted the capacity crowd at Sista’s Place, it sizzled in anticipation of this personal tribute to Hamiet Bluiett. Abdullah, who’d held Sun Ra’s trumpet chair for decades, serves as Sista’s music director and reminded the house that the late baritone saxophonist was a frequent performer at the Bedford-Stuyvesant night spot. This favorite son of St. Louis made an impact far beyond state-lines and generations, casting an art enraptured in African American culture and pride.

The concert was driven by drummer Ronnie Burrage, but a child when he first encountered Bluiett via the Black Artists Group (BAG). The saxophonist was a founding member of the legendary cultural activist organization and Burrage had come of age within its programming. By design, the band held strong connections to both leader and honoree: guitarist Kelvyn Bell followed Burrage to New York, circa 1978, and they worked together for Bluiett, Arthur Blythe and others. Pianist/synthesizer player Donald Smith is a veteran of various Oliver Lake ensembles, and bassist Darrell Mixon, another old friend, traveled from St. Louis for this event. He arrived in town with 28-year-old saxophonist Kendrick Smith, one of Bluiett’s final students, a formidable talent brandishing a sound rising from his feet through the length of his straight alto saxophone. Smith wields the horn’s lows masterfully, casting melodic flights as singular as his choice of instrument. His solos, cry-singing blue over fiery scarlet, inspired resounding applause that shook the room (especially on Bluiett’s moving “Deb”), but such responses were not limited to any one member of the band. 
Left to right: Donald Smith, Ronnie Burrage (obscured),
Kendrick Smith, Darrell Mixon, Kelvyn Bell. Photo by Pietaro

Bell’s stinging, rapid, sustained improvisations, classic by this time, were matched by a vocal with distinctive hand-manipulated vibrato. Donald Smith’s piano, thunderous, impressionistic and compelling, drew hollers, particularly on the band’s riveting take on “Oasis”, also an explosive Burrage feature. The drummer’s tireless montuno improv peppered by crushing accents threatened, it seemed, the very foundation of the club. But it was the woefully little-documented Mixon, he of high-end pizzicato runs and chop-heavy expansive techniques, that inspired riotous responses and calls for “More!”. Judging by the crowd throughout the set as well as the elation on stage, the spirit of Bluiett overwhelmed both the space and celestial ground well above.

Monday, May 13, 2019

CD review: GREEN DOME, Thinking in Stitches

NYC Jazz Record – May 2019

GREEN DOME, Thinking in Stitches (Case Study, 2019)

CD review by John Pietaro

Zeena Parkins- acoustic harp, concept, direction
Ryan Sawyer- trap and percussion
Ryan Ross Smith- prepared piano, electronics, modular synthesizer, live coding
If there’s a hidden soundscape between acoustic and electronic, live and tape or free and freer, Green Dome commands it. Rich in reverb, swathed in darkest colors, subtly haunting and almost hinting at a reconstructed score of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, harpist Zeena Parkins returns to the forefront with one of her boldest units. And that’s a wide swath for Downtown royalty like Parkins. One-time Rhys Chatham drummer Ryan Sawyer revels in artful subtlety and this line-up allows him welcoming atmosphere. His deft touch and masterful drive place him somewhere between Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones in the continuum, a floating, pelting, balladeer of percussion. Brake drums and metals accentuate his kit, or is that the modular synth, electronics and live coding of Ryan Ross Smith? Probably both. Smith is a composer and sound designer, so his approach here is focused and deeply alert to the macro experience. His prepared piano is an ideal counterpart to Parkins’ harp, whether colorfully trading phrases (as in “Hexagon’s Frame”) or blending sonorities (“Cyprus Lace”). And with Smith’s array of other-worldly echoes, Parkins is liberated from the arsenal of electronics she usually affixes to her harps. For this outing, she goes purely acoustic, and the natural chiming, singing resonance of the instrument is compelling. But listen as well to the industrial-sounding escalation of “Margaret Lace”, with Sawyer’s cymbal shading almost bending pitch, his growing attack downright merciless. 

Such a trio with varying palette and erudite arrangements, has more in common with a chamber ensemble than might normally be heard in a jazz context. But Thinking in Stitches’ set of experimental, improvisational works based on lace knitting patterns, are more fire music than 12-tone, particularly with Sawyer rounding the edges in flurries and coordinated assaults. But the rhythmic pulsations are communal as Parkins leans into her instrument intently on “Chevrons”, pulling at the strings and conjuring minimalism of a whole other sort. Here’s a sound journey into windblown fragments, art deco pathways and magical vistas.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Essay: First Annual UpSurge!NYC JazzPoetry Festival

The UpSurge!NYC JazzPoetry Festival Takes Midtown

by John Pietaro
Photos by Sherry Rubel

The tendency of poets to break out of the page’s boundary is often seen as a post-War phenomenon, yet poetry was oral long before written language emerged; this lineage extends back to the oldest of folk forms.
And within the African American jazz tradition, itself begotten from a brutal melding of divergent cultures, a certain boundlessness was cast, easily lending itself to the contours of spoken word art. The music’s central swing and bop allows the poet to emote and embellish with shifts in meter, stress, dynamic, repetition and, surely through improvisation. And it was that very boundlessness which was feted at on April 27, 2019 at the First Annual UpSurge!NYC JazzPoetry Festival.

Held, most appropriately, in the conference space of the National Writers Union’s midtown Manhattan office, the Festival opened with words by Raymond Nat Turner and Zigi Lowenberg, organizers of the event and the leaders of UpSurge!NYC. Even here where jazz clubs are plentiful, its rare to find an afternoon dedicated to JazzPoetry, though the practice of formally fusing the two has existed at least as far back as Langston Hughes’ earliest publication. Raymond closed off his introductory statement with the performance of a poem liberally incorporating a vocalized bassline and scat singing that absolutely lifted the room.
David Henderson

The performers offered a wide range of sounds and styles, but each had significant connections to the jazz tradition. David Henderson, a veritable hero of the artform, read from some of his many published works, particularly, De Mayor of Harlem. Henderson’s career extends back to the late ‘60s and he’s performed and/or recorded with the like of Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. An original cultural warrior of the Black Arts Movement, the poet’s sense of history is invaluable and vast. Henderson’s recollections of some of the great musicians performing in the clubs added rich background to the poetry, and it left the audience with vivid imagery of magical moments in Slugs, the 5-Spot and the Village Gate, among other venues lost to time.

Another survivor of the Black Arts Movement is poet/multi-instrumentalist Ngoma. A one-time collaborator of Amiri Baraka, he presented a lengthy set of powerful works propelled by his performance on guitars, wood flute, violin and percussion. Uniquely, Ngoma supplemented his soundscape with a phalanx of pedals to capture loops of his own instrumental playing, the end result of which added layers of accompaniment.

Stephanie JT Lewis
Stephanie JT Russell
a poet living in Poughkeepsie NY, performed original pieces which made great use of her own jazz and torch-song vocals, though Stephanie ironically opened by telling the audience that she was far out of practice. She interspersed original compositions into spoken sections of a compelling suite performed with equal portions humor and urgency.

Turner and Lowenberg’s band UpSurge!NYC exemplifies the artform in a manner that blurs the distinction between the spoken word and the music. At the Festival, the band included drummer Lou Grassi and bassist Hilliard Green, celebrated veterans of the music, and a young lion of the saxophone who’s been getting a lot of attention, Lee Odom.  Burning through a series of compelling arrangements incorporating both original and standard melodies and solo segments for each musician, the poets filled the house with pride, irony, history and fearless fight-back and transformed the room into a working-class battle zone, a series of newspaper editorials and a cabaret for the end of time.

Flames of Discontent
Flames of Discontent
It’s not often that I can both perform in an event and write about it, but this was far from the standard gig. My duo, Flames of Discontent, featuring the electric bass of Laurie Towers and my own poetry and percussion, offered a set of new pieces directly inspired by jazz: “Blue”, “the Lonely”, “Burroughs Inferno”, “Impressions” and “Langston”, among others, as well as some social justice works. Reading and playing in this atmosphere was quite electric.

Festival poster, designed by Pietaro

So, how is it possible that there hasn’t been a showcase for JazzPoetry in New York prior to this? For every reason, this inaugural event must be assured an ongoing lifespan. The artform is too important to be neglected, especially right now when outspoken artists are as vital to our democracy as is the vote.

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