by Michelle Mercercopyright © 1999, Michelle Mercer
At the opening night of the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in New York, Knitting Factory commandeer Michael Dorf did his part to greet the crowd-but technical difficulties prevented James Earl Jones' recorded welcome from playing at the given prompt. With Darth Vadar silent, Bell Atlantic seemed to be the one remaining place of respite from Star Wars hysteria. Not that the Knitting Factory's multi-tiered performance space lacks entertainment opportunities-its wealth of simultaneous music-making on four separate stages lured me, despite other intriguing festival-related performances at the South Street Seaport, the Lotus Club, Dharma and Sweet Basil.
In the Knit's Main Space Ravi Coltrane led his quartet on both soprano and tenor saxophones. If he tended toward flurries of notes on soprano, on tenor Coltrane took more time to rest, as if to fully contemplate his approach to the sound of each new phrase. His pauses paid off with a clean sound and measured phrases, although less tentative playing might energize his sound.
Bassist Darryl Hall is a particularly inventive improviser and his solos had a distinct narrative sense, warming up with angular formations before sweeping into rapid runs over sustained low bent tones. Drummer Steve Hass and Hall managed to tease grooves out of the minimalistic repetition from pianist Andy Milne, whose sense of interplay was far too often limited to mimicry. Perhaps the ensemble's sense of interplay would benefit from a less deliberative approach from their leader?
Between sets, I descended to the Old Office, the most intimate of Knitting Factory performance spaces, where exposed brick walls and red velvet curtains set off sponsor New York magazine's banner. It was perfectly centered, in fact, above the head of tabla master Samir Chatterjee, who sat crosslegged on stage in between guitarist Jerome Harris and reedist Ned Rothenberg in Sync, Rothenberg's trio. The opportunity to experience the sensitivity of Jerome Harris' playing was undermined by his poor amplification-surprisingly enough, in such an intimate venue. In this quiescent setting Chatterjee put the tonal quality of the tablas to good use in pairing with Rothenberg's long intricate melodic lines.
Up one floor in the Tap Bar, the crowd enjoyed the expansive beverage selection and half-listened to Michael Blake's Free Association's jocular fusion. I missed Joe McPhee in haste to get back up in the main space, where an anticipatory crowd had packed in for Steve Coleman and the Five Elements. Coleman's introduction was this time successfully preceded by Jones' voice, hailing us from a less asthmatic Dark Side with warm resonant Festival wishes. Coleman-with Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Sean Rickman on the set, and Anthony Tidd on bass-put out such pounding polyrhythms he managed to excite the notoriously static bodies of the jazz audience into violent head-nodding. At especially good moments, the ensemble suspended its relentless pulsing and Coleman treated us to more exploratory solos with rumbling low drums from Rickman as his only accompaniment.
Back at the Knitting Factory's Main Stage for the fourth night of the festival, we first heard from the trio Equal Interest, named for the cooperative nature of the project involving Leroy Jenkins on violin, Myra Melford on piano and harmonium, and Joseph Jarman on woodwinds. The tranquility of much of their music, which includes compositions by all three, might evoke comparisons to new age. Tonight they were in fact at their best on more meditative tunes, but there's nothing vacuous about this group; its members' attentive listening simply yields quietly confident playing.
Melford's tensile rhythmic sense is notable enough on the piano but even more pronounced on harmonium, its bellows stretching droning phrases in and out of time. The force of Jenkins' improvisational ideas is never sacrificed by his intensity, which tends to mount thoughout solos. Some of the most remarkable group work came during Jarman's flute solos (his tone, quavery to begin with, steadied as the night progressed) when Melford hit staccato lines to match Jenkins' pizzacato or Jenkins bowed long legato phrases to accommodate Melford's broad, rambling chords.
It seemed the ideal group setting to highlight the collective skills of three musicians who all have highly individualized voices and who are experienced enough to know that they have time to say whatever they need to.
Henry Threadgill's group followed Equal Interest on the Knit's Main Stage. Threadgill is known for his ensembles' unusual instrumentations, but he featured a fairly tame approximation of his Makin' a Move group this night. Harmonium player Tony Cedras (on tour with Paul Simon) was replaced by vibist Bryan Carat, with the quintet rounded out by Stomu Takeishi on electric bass, Brandon Ross on electric guitar, and JT Lewis on drums.
Any normalcy of instrumentation was offset by the eccentricity of Threadgill's compositions, which make moves both horizontally and vertically. The band's multidirectional complexity is such that the players must keep their eyes on their music stands. Some listeners may consider the resultant sound forbidding . . . and tonight's music did take the audience on a deep sea dive, suspending us in pressurized, murky swells. Threadgill sliced through the group's umbral effects with the lucidity of his flute, which he favored over the alto sax for most of the evening. Brandon Ross's supple adaptation to Threadgill's tone was representative of the earnest musicianship Threadgill seems to demand from his band members.
Michelle Mercer is a year-long veteran of New York City and concentrating on expressing her perceptions of music in prose. She's just starting to write for Downbeat and Coda and taking the opportunities presented by New York City's summer jazz fests to report exclusively for Jazzhouse. Michelle is a new member of the Jazz Journalists Association, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.