The Write Stuff

The 1950s brought forth a contradiction as far as jazz composition was concerned: on one hand, more great writers of more great tunes than at any other time— and few composers are more highly regarded by musicians than trumpeter and occasional bandleader Kenny Dorham (1924­1972), who was honored in a six-night celebration last week at the Jazz Standard. But at the same time, the '50s were also when marathon solos began to take over— the composition itself was now relegated to the briefest of 32-bar "head" statements at the beginning and end of each tune. When you celebrate Dorham the composer, are you re-creating full orchestrations the way you would with Ellington, or are you merely jamming on his heads?

The answer is that, with great writers like Dorham, the act of composition goes beyond the head and tail— it entails creating a distinctive band sound through instrumentation, tonal color, and rhythm, and giving the soloists guideposts to follow. Dorham's ensembles sound a lot like two more famous leaders whose bands he helped launch, Art Blakey and Horace Silver, but trumpeter and organizer Don Sickler made the point that KD's ensembles had a sound and approach all their own: economical and steeped in the blues, at once whimsical and funky. Sickler, who as publisher keeps many of Dorham's compositions in print, gathered an all-star rhythm section, including KD band vets Ronnie Mathews and Ron Carter and firebrand drummer Kenny Washington, and a variety of different horn front men, such as Roy Hargrove, Ralph Moore, and Mark Shim, who though all too young to have heard KD live let classic tunes such as "Blue Bossa," "Una Mas," and "Prince Albert," inspire them all to play the best that I ever heard them play. Which is precisely what a good jazz composition is supposed to do. —Will Friedwald


Remembering Kenny: Sickler and Shim
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
Remembering Kenny: Sickler and Shim

Dots and Loops

Although he pioneered ambient music in the 1970s as a member of the influential German electronics duo Cluster, Hans-Joachim Roedelius's music is less audio wallpaper— and even less chill-out chintz— than an airy and impressionistic Etch-a-Sketch of geographies and moods. Performing solo at the Knitting Factory last Wednesday, the sixtysomething musician began his set with a 20-minute piano meditation that distended "Greghale," his recent ode to Lanzarote, the dry, volcanic Canary Island. Firing up a digital piano, Roedelius generated some breathy atmospherics reminiscent of a shakahuchi flute while improvising on acoustic piano. Then he seemed to get bored, abruptly ending two other pieces before whipping out his "very American" showstopper: an off-key version of "Oh Susanna" played on a tiny harmonica. Talk about minimalism.

Cluster's legacy hinges on a pair of mid-'70s collaborations with aural atmospherist Brian Eno. Brian's younger brother, Roger, has lately been performing his own experiments in progressive ambience with Lol Hammond, formerly of the techno duo Drum Club. Eno first performed a few solo tunes on piano, introducing his high-contrast works (loud/soft, fast/slow, etc.) with self-deprecatory overkill— e.g., "This piece is called 'In a Room Where Nothing Happens.' Does that ring a bell?" Upon Hammond's arrival, and for the remainder of the show, Eno embellished repetitive left-hand figures while Hammond and a third keyboardist added medium-tempo beats along with an all-too-familiar vocabulary of bleeps, loops, and sound effects of the birds-and-waves variety. The result was less polished and seductive than on the duo's recent Damage, unfortunately, and time, more than once, seemed to stand. Still. —Richard Gehr


Merge's Acquisitions

So who's a fan of the Merge empire? Bespectacled boys discussing dissertations and how "new wavers" were at the bottom of the food chain. Trenchcoaters reading horror novels. And one dude in a Bruce Springsteen shirt. Tuesday's edition of Mergestock attracted folks as quirky as the label's aesthetic: ramshackle jangle-pop with fuzzy edges. But Merge's eclecticism is just an extension of the ever-evolving Superchunk sound— since '94's Foolishthe band has been smoothing punky wrinkles taut over its pop hooks, anticipating the shimmering textures (strings 'n' horns) of '99's Come Pick Me Up. It's no surprise the bill— the Rock*A*Teens, Versus, and Superchunk— transformed the Bowery Ballroom's vibes from raucous to chimey back to raucous again.

The Rock*A*Teens chucked the ethereal tones of their Golden Time for a Replacements sense of recklessness— overly cranked guitars collided when little melodic embellishments embellished the wrong chords. But underneath the big presentation was an urgency that made the ladderlike notes of "Across the Piedmont" 's chorus start at gut level and climb to prickle the back of your neck. Versus followed with a smugly sensitive set that fell somewhere between what the pianist at Nordstrom plays and the R.E.M.-esque dribble light-rock stations prefer.

Finally, Superchunk came in with a set that leaned on the Come Pick Me Up side, but without studio trickery the record's lush pop came off just as pop. During the springy numbers from the band's back catalogue, like "Package Thief" and "Skips Steps 1&3," the audience pogoed to remarkable heights of adrenalized ecstasy. Mac reached a comparable level of euphoria as he bounced around the stage, plucking gorgeous jazz-inflected melodies from his guitar. But the show's thunder went under when drummer Jon Wurster, in a punk-induced lather, darted from his kit to yell Black Flag lyrics. —Lorne Behrman

 
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