Posts Tagged ‘Kennedy Center’

Two shows in one night, my brain hurts

Monday, February 12th, 2007

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.

Tord Gustavsen: I fell asleep, but he was great

Friday, December 8th, 2006

Last night I got to see Tord Gustavsen do a free show as part of the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage program. As he is apparently a pretty well-known dude, he didn’t play at the regular venue, but rather in a large concert hall upstairs (the Kennedy Center is freakin’ enormous and has something like four or five full-size performance halls, plus two “Millennium Stages” and a huge patio on which they often set up stages for outdoor concerts) — complete with ushers. More ushers, in fact, than audience members for many shows I’ve been to. The place was pretty full, although one of the quirks of a free show is that people just kind of come and go as they please. I was amazed at how many people would just up and leave in the middle of a damn song, even if they had to make everyone else in their row get up to let them out.

I hadn’t heard any of Gustavsen’s music before, but based on the strength of reviews for his latest release on ECM, The Ground (see, for instance, AllAboutJazz or PopMatters), this one was a no-brainer. The concert was more or less what I expected: very melodic, beautiful, low-key stuff, with a noticeable Keith Jarrett feel at times, but Gustavsen definitely has his own style and some of his extended solos were real highlights. Overall, though, it was a little too sleepy for me: I prefer my jazz to be a little edgier, a little more dissonant. Still, well worth the time (an hour) and money (zero dollars) I spent.

You can already watch this concert through free streaming video — link at the bottom of this page. Don’t be scared off by the major distortion in the sound at the beginning, as the sound engineers quickly corrected the problem. Still not a great recording, but what do you expect from streaming video…

Recent shows - Gjallarhorn, Cline/Kotche, Carl Grubbs

Monday, September 25th, 2006

Time for some live show recaps — saw three last week and will be seeing two more (Yo La Tengo and Massive Attack) this week. The first one is the one I mentioned in the previous entry: Gjallarhorn at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. This is a Finnish folk group, although they apparently hail from a small isolated region of Finland where Swedish is actually the primary language. Their music is pretty firmly in the style typified by the Northside label’s group of artists — traditional Nordic folk music (in this case, Finnish, Swedish and Norweigian) arranged for different instruments with a rock influence creeping in at times. Without a doubt the centerpiece of this band is vocalist Jenny Wilhelms, who has a remarkable set of pipes and put them to good use, particularly on the rather adventurous final epic song (sadly I’ve forgotten the title). Otherwise, most notable was the band’s use of a rather absurd-looking large, blocky instrument that I thought was a mutant didgeridoo but turned out to be a sub-contrabass recorder (!!!). The mere fact that such an instrument exists is amusing.

Overall, Gjallarhorn seemed like mostly straight-up rockified folk music with a few interesting twists thrown in. They are listed at ProgArchives (a website in which debate about a band’s “progginess” gets seriously intense) for some reason, but there are definitely more interesting Nordic folk bands out there. Jenny Wilhelms’ vocal performance was worth the trip to the Kennedy Center, though.

The next day was a solo/duo show from Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche, both current members of the almost unbelievably popular indie-rock band Wilco. I had no idea what to expect from this one, but came away pretty delighted. Cline was up to his noise-freakout tricks, playing a dense, intense, and pretty shockingly inaccessible set full of electronic manipulation and looping. I’ve never heard him any noisier than this; maybe a good point of comparison would be the ear-shattering chaos of Immolation/Immersion, the trio album with Cline, Wally Shoup and Chris Corsano. If there were Wilco fans in the audience hoping for a solo guitar rendition of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” well, they probably headed for the doors after about thirty seconds.

I found Kotche’s solo percussion set to be more interesting, actually, and I’m inspired to go check out his solo records. He played a pretty wide variety of things, including a Steve Reich piece and a really awesome composition called “Monkey Chant for Solo Drum Kit,” which ostensibly was a setting of a Hindu epic story with each character represented by a different instrument. Kotche was endlessly creative with timbres, eking all kinds of sounds out of his kit, even revealing for “Monkey Chant” a table covered in small boxes containing… chirping crickets! One of the guys standing near me said, “I’ve officially seen it all now.”

Cline came back onto stage to play a couple final pieces with Kotche as a duo, and these were also pretty great — Cline was no less aggressively avant-garde, but tempered his volume and overall intensity a bit to allow the nuances of Kotche’s playing to shine through. Overall this was one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, up there with the Satoko Fujii/Natsuki Tamura show in terms of both how demanding it was and how enjoyable it ended up being. Too bad I won’t get to see these guys again when Wilco comes into town next month.

Finally, last Saturday I made the trek up to An Die Musik in Baltimore with my girlfriend to see Carl Grubbs do his John Coltrane birthday tribute concert. This was a fun one as well; Grubbs stuck exclusively to Coltrane’s more accessible repertoire, which was too bad, but the playing was tight and energetic and the setting was, as always, fantastic; An Die Musik has become one of my absolute favorite venues. I only recognized “Naima” and “Giant Steps” — ironically the only two pieces that were actually announced — but one of the pieces I thought might have been inspired by “My Favorite Things,” although maybe that was just because Grubbs played soprano on that one (which also happened to be my favorite of the set). They only played for an hour and I felt like they never really stretched out to their limits, especially the drummer, but I had a good time.

I also meant to go see the Ed Palermo Big Band in Baltimore last Thursday, but three nights in a row just got to be too much, and work was interfering anyway. And Forever Einstein played in DC on Saturday, but I decided to go to An Die Musik because I thought my girlfriend would enjoy that more. Oh well, too much live music of interest is a good problem to have, anyway.

Birdsongs of the Mesozoic live video

Thursday, September 21st, 2006

Fans of this Cuneiform band might want to check out free streaming video of a full Birdsongs of the Mesozoic performance from back in 2003. This was at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage — a sweet venue with a free concert at 6pm literally every day. Last year I saw Los Jaivas there, and they regularly get interesting world, folk, Americana, etc sorts of bands there. Virtually all the old shows are archived in the video database, too — although I can’t get the Los Jaivas video to work and have e-mailed them about it.

Incidentally, I went to a show there on Tuesday (Gjallarhorn), but more on that later.

ProgDay ‘05 and Los Jaivas live!

Wednesday, September 14th, 2005

It now seems fairly clear that the Cathedral reunion announcement I cited is probably a hoax. Joke’s on me. I should know better: don’t believe everything you read on the Internet — especially bulletin boards.

A couple live shows I saw that I should have mentioned earlier: ProgDay, and Los Jaivas. As regards the former, I actually only saw four of the eight bands due to prior engagements and the fact that my girlfriend lives in Chapel Hill, and my trip down to NC was as much to see her as to see the festival. To be honest, I was totally unexcited by the lineup anyway, and the only band that I was really interested in seeing was Cuneiform chamber-rockers Far Corner; however, I was happy to support the festival by buying two weekend passes, in the hopes that every little bit of help will encourage the organizers to move ahead with a 2006 incarnation.

Far Corner didn’t disappoint. I am lukewarm about their studio disc; it has moments I adore but a lot of the quieter, more ambient parts lose my interest quickly. Their live performance was more intense and rocking than anything on the studio album — including a sweet jam that the band seamlessly segued into after Dan Maske’s keyboard rig lost power during a new composition. William Kopecky was a joy to watch on the fretless bass. After seeing this performance I’m a bit more understanding of the comparisons to other chamber-rockers like Present, and would gladly see these guys again. However, seeing this performance still didn’t do much for my appreciation of the studio album. Oh well.

The first band I saw was The Spacious Mind, which had some moments of brilliance, but I think they’re the reverse of Far Corner in that I’d probably enjoy their studio work better. The long, spacy sections lost my interest live, where in a different environment — say, sitting in my apartment in the dark with headphones on — I could get lost in them instead of them being lost on me. Happy the Man I was as indifferent to live as I am to their records. The band just doesn’t really do it for me, although I did enjoy their extremely high-energy NEARfest show back in 2000.

The next day I saw Far Corner and the Glenn Phillips Band before having to leave. Glenn Phillips is a pretty phenomenal guitarist. Unfortunately, his band is definitely his band, in that they basically play little more than a backing role to his incendiary solos. Fun, but it got old without more compositional rigor — guitar solo after guitar solo, no matter how excellent they were, wasn’t really my bag. I did have a tremendous amount of fun just watching him rock out, though.

Just a few days after the ProgDay weekend I was treated to an amazing outdoor show by Los Jaivas, playing at the Kennedy Center here in DC. The crowd was quite large, probably at least 500 people, most of them Chilean. At times I almost felt like I was at a soccer game. The band was tight and incredibly energetic (and incredibly loud — I was really thankful the show was outside). Since they have an enormous discography — after all, the band was founded over 40 years ago — I didn’t recognize a lot of their set; however, they did play a fair amount of stuff from Alturas de Macchu Picchu and Canción del Sur, stuff I am familiar with. In particular, seeing hundreds of people blissing out to “La Poderosa Muerte,” a truly progressive piece of music in the symph-prog sense, was pretty awesome. Also, seeing the bewildering array of native/traditional instruments used to create the sounds found in those old classics was really fun. In contrast, listening to the studio albums now just doesn’t cut it; the live sound was so much better. An awesome, fun show.