Had a first last night, a concert doubleheader in which I saw the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble (a seven-piece group led by Ken Fields of Birdsongs of the Mesozoic) at the Kennedy Center at 6pm, and then went over to Twins Jazz for a show by Rova Saxophone Quartet at 8pm. Talk about a study in contrasts! The former group plays accessible New Orleans-style jazz, danceable in a highly rhythmic kind of way, with four horns, two drummers and a bassist; the latter plays very intricate and demanding not-really-jazz-at-all sans any rhythm section whatsoever.
Ken Fields’ group was a lot of fun, and one of the best-attended Millennium Stage shows I’ve seen (that wasn’t held in a larger space, like the Jaivas or Tord Gustavsen shows were). Decked out in absurd costume, they played an intriguing mix of original compositions and covers of New Orleans standards and pieces by free-jazz icons like Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. These latter pieces were reshaped through a New Orleans lens to such an extent that I wouldn’t have guessed their origins at all had Fields not introduced them. Everything was very accessible, with only a few slightly strident solos here and there to break up the onslaught of danceable rhythm. Fun, if not especially challenging — my biggest problem was that Fields’ sax seemed very much under-mixed, giving his solos a bit of a wheezy feel. You should be able to view a video of the full performance at the Millennium Stage archive.
Rova’s sets, on the other hand, were nothing if not challenging. Their show was the polar opposite of the accessible Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, not to mention the visceral fist-pumping free jazz of the last show I saw at Twins Jazz, Atomic. For me this was a purely intellectual exercise, and one for which my mind was sadly overmatched. I just couldn’t make sense of most of the compositions that were played — although I didn’t feel so bad about this after Steve Adams held up the score for one of the pieces and helpfully explained (and I paraphrase liberally), “these black and white parts are where we pretty much play what we think the markings mean; these color sections are where we do whatever the hell we want.” After this he replied to an audience inquiry and referred to “the beauty of randomness.” Maybe no one, not even the musicians, could really follow the structure of these pieces. Anyway, despite the over-my-head factor of the show, I quite enjoyed it. The first set in particular had a lot that caught my ear, and the interplay between these four is unbelievable, though hardly surprising since they’ve existed in their current form for nearly twenty years. There were a lot of places where a lone lyrical melody would rise out of the chaos, or where Jon Raskin would suddenly break out into a funky baritone line underpinning a raucous improv. I was most impressed, though, by Larry Ochs on tenor; his free blowing was often breathtaking.
The audience was appreciative and medium-sized, and both the band and Larry Appelbaum, who booked them, seemed fairly pleased with the turnout. It wasn’t the packed house of 80 for Atomic, but I’d guess some 40-50 paying customers showed up throughout the night. Their case may have been helped by this article (PDF, and sorry for the large file size) in Friday’s Washington Post. Not bad at all for a group whose music frequently flirts with the outer limits of the avant-garde.