In its second year, the scruffily charismatic Undead Jazzfest (held June 23-26) expanded to host 50+ bands over four nights, staggered among a fistful of clubs and performance spaces in the West Village and Brooklyn. The event may have doubled in size, but the promoters, Boom Collective and Search And Restore, have maintained a laid-back vibe that encourages listener discovery over profit. A full pass cost only $50, encouraging attendance but ensuring low pay for the musicians. In the NY Times, Nate Chinen reported on a petition that was circulating among Undead and Winter Jazzfest artists advocating to negotiate through their union for a minimum rate at future festivals. While this year’s edition went off without any issues, it is a situation to monitor.
Harris Eisenstadt’s Canada Day opened Thursday night with a sweetly swirling set inside the dank environs of Kenny’s Castaways. Drummer Eisenstadt’s nimble, darting compositions, buffeted by Eivind Opsik’s thick, comfy bass lines and Chris Dingman’s glittering vibes, made for a lovely aperitif. Nate Wooley’s trumpet cut against the grain, his throaty, robust tone offering a hint of the aggressiveness that would later come to dominate the evening.
Before the outbursts, though, there were the decaying sounds and suggestive silences of Paradoxical Frog, a remarkable group of restless experimenters. Pianist Kris Davis, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tyshawn Sorey all approach their instruments like writers for Consumer Reports, testing the limits of their tools to see where they might fall apart, eliciting heretofore unknown sounds in the process. Laubrock dipped her reed in a cup of water, blowing out a tone that sounded like a mermaid whistling underwater. Sorey tossed a cymbal on the ground, attacked the sides of his kit, even played a music stand at one point. His favorite move was scraping his sticks against the cymbal, producing the sound of an echoing, creaky door. It’s a familiar technique, but one he relentlessly pursued until it became an essential texture instead of a gimmick. Davis played off-kilter block chords and plucked her piano strings, but generally favored silence. It was a riveting display, all the more so for the way their pieces fit together. What started as a unified, meditative block of sound was whittled down by its players into its skittering constitutive parts.
Then came the end of silence. Tarbaby stalked into Le Poisson Rouge with evil intentions. The nasty supergroup of bassist Eric Revis, drummer Nasheet Waits and pianist Orrin Evans was joined by fire-spitting legend Oliver Lake on alto saxophone. They gave a rampagingly joyous performance, burning through post-bop tunes in muscular lockstep. These were virtuosos playing at full blast, but within incredibly tight rhythms. The compositions may have been unknown to me, but they clearly knew them inside out, so they could careen across lanes while always heading in the right direction. Evans played hard-swinging soul figures against Lake’s high-pitched exhortations, but it was the rhythm section that blew things out. Revis is a fairly new name to me, but he’s a ferocious player (as demonstrated by his backing of Peter Brötzmann at the Vision Festival earlier in June) who can pluck abstract lines and still stay furiously in the pocket. His give-and-take with Waits was a high-wire act to behold.
Afterward, I caught the end of a Gerald Clayton-Chris Dingman duo at Sullivan Hall; their crystalline version of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” was a thing of unadorned beauty. The Andrew D’Angelo Big Band was next, and tried to match Tarbaby for pure manic energy. D’Angelo, an expressively emotional sax player, premiered his hyper-charged compositions for big band. The noise rock-influenced tunes were churned out by an incredibly talented group. Metalhead Dan Weiss drove things forward on the drums, Reid Anderson of The Bad Plus added electric bass thump, and Ben Monder provided atmospheric shredding on electric guitar.
I had to miss the second night, which moved to Brooklyn for a round robin of duets between 16 artists at The Bell House, but I was wide-eyed for Saturday night in Gowanus, the most sparsely attended evening of shows. The main stage was at Littlefield, a fully fledged and brilliantly booked club, but the other spaces were a skate park and a gym, with echo-y sound, no air conditioning and improvised seating arrangements. Some of the performers took to the unusual spaces well, including vocalist Dean Bowman, whose booming bass ricocheted off the skating slaloms, but for some of the acts it was a chore.
Jeff Lederer opened at Littlefield, with the same band that made his Albert Ayler tribute album Sunwatcher (except for Chris Lightcap replacing Buster Williams on bass). While the album has yet to click for me, the live set worked immediately. Lederer walked in with a piercing, mournful wail, until pianist Jamie Saft took over with plunking cascades, extending the melancholy. Lightcap and drummer Matt Wilson, incredible technicians both, resonantly underplayed beneath all the weeping and gnashing. But when Saft brought up an electronic keyboard and placed it inside his piano, things got playful, weird and joyous.
Across the way at the Cross Fit Gym, I sat on a weight bench and sampled saxophonist Briggan Krauss’ H Alpha with drummer Jim Black and Ikue Mori on electronics. Mori created a landscape of noise on her Macbook, a morphing horizon of clanging bells and screeching textures, which Krauss and Black adorned with cantankerous noises of their own. Krauss muted his nickel-plated sax with a ball of damp paper towels, his whimpering sounds bubbling underneath Mori’s soundscape. Black played above it, an all-over attack of sawing cymbals and skittering snare. Their pieces were strangely weightless, but when the three instruments lined up, they gained a passing solidity before shimmering back into the ether.
Matt Wilson held together a rapt crowd at the Homage Skateboard Training Facility in a solo drum performance of precision and humor. The segments I caught exhibited a tectonic minimalism—he was repeating and slowly layering rhythms, until one slipped off and he erupted into a quake. Towards the end, he covered “I’ll Be There,” and led the immediately willing crowd in an off-key sing- and whistle-along.
Dean Bowman provided vocalizing of a different kind—deep, resonant and full of religious intensity. Standing in front of votive candles in the underlit space, I could only detect his outline as he belted out traditional Black spirituals and gospel songs, from “Go Down, Moses” to Son House blues. His voice was rich, rounded and articulate, enveloping the space instead of dissipating into it. One began to learn, and to feel in your guts, the allure of religious revivalism. David S. Ware’s solo reeds performance immediately afterward was religion of a different denomination—post-Coltrane free jazz—but he was reaching for the heavens just as intently.
In a reversal, Saturday night was for worship, and Sunday for cutting loose. With four dedicated performance spaces and robust crowds, Williamsburg turned out to be an agreeable place for the Undead. At the back-room Cameo club, saxophonist Jon Irabagon (profiled in Burning Ambulance #3) and drummer Mike Pride ran through a fractured version of their epic I Don’t Hear Nothin’ but the Blues album, which was one 45-minute improvised track. That piece was elaborated off of one repeated riff from Irabagon, but here he shredded it from the start, with Pride attacking it with bass drum fills.
I couldn’t stay to see whether Irabagon would return to the theme, as I booked from their skronk shuffle to catch The Claudia Quintet at Public Assembly. Their lineup, with vibes and accordion to go with sax/drums/bass, allows them to introduce unusual textures into composer/leader John Hollenbeck’s twirlingly intricate tunes. Anchored by his fidgety rhythms on drums, the quintet lays a dizzying groundwork in which Ted Reichman’s accordion and Matt Moran’s bristlingly lucid vibraphone can add unexpected accents, cueing changes that shifts the entire rhythmic ground.
Shuffling around the block, I heard shards of Erik Friedlander’s graceful and jaunty solo cello show, in which he drew on the cool Western swing of his strong, recently released Bonebridge. It was a calming, offhandedly virtuosic display, his embrace of limpid melody a salve before I returned to the fire-breathing deconstructors across the way. Marshall Allen was throwing down some space-blues with Elliot Levin and his UB313 band at Cameo, but it was all a precursor for the closer, Peter Brötzmann’s Full Blast trio.
On my way back to Public Assembly, I walked by Brötzmann having a smoke. Sitting alone in his trenchcoat, puffing on a cigarette in the moonlight, he seemed inviolate. Wishing to pay my respects anyway, I said hello, and brilliantly asked him how he was doing. “Not so good,” he replied. U.S. Immigration Services had refused entry to his bassist Mariano Pliakas, who had to fly all the way back home. Looking a little tired and haggard from the day’s stresses, he called the U.S. a “police state” in his burnished German-accented drawl.
A pissed off Brötzmann, I thought, would surely raze Willamsburg to the ground. My surmise was correct. He gave a blistering performance, his saxophone and clarinet shaking with emotional roars of astonishing clarity and depth. The obscenely dense volume was matched, and often exceeded by his jaw-droppingly skilled drummer Michael Wertmüller, who was dropping black metal-like blast beats in the middle of extended improvisations. Mike Pride, a drummer with interests in rock and metal, kept walking near the stage, and at one point took video of Wertmüller’s monstrous, and seemingly robot-enhanced, chops. It was pure aggression, but also a conversation, as Brötzmann pushed and pulled with him, exploring the outer reaches of their instruments. For their encore, they played a short, strangled cry of a ballad, which the saxophonist dedicated to Pliakas.
The 2011 Undead Jazzfest, like its crazier older sister, the Winter Jazzfest, proved the ongoing vibrancy of experimental music, and the possibility of attracting audiences to hear it. For while crowds seemed smaller this year, The Claudia Quintet still packed a room, and real live young people paid to see it. If these kids go to a few more shows a year because of it, this music might have a more viable economic future. Hopefully the musicians’ union can meet with the bookers and come to an amicable financial settlement in the coming months, because this momentum needs to continue, whether or not they scale back down to two nights (which might be wise). No other festival buzzes with such endless drunken possibility, because behind each dingy bar or club door lies the very real chance you’ll hear something revelatory and new.
—R. Emmet Sweeney