It’s hard to think about anything but honey in the presence of jazz legend Cassandra Wilson. The deep, rich tones of her voice evoke the gloss and viscosity of honey. Her band drips expansive and static arrangements of originals and reimagined standards over the audience like honey. In fact, her much-lauded interpretive style could be likened to slathering sweet languor over even the most banal material, transforming it from dry pastry into baklava. Wilson’s glowing skin, her cascade of braids, and her onstage physicality all bring that slow, golden brown substance to mind. You might expect all the chairs at her week-long run at the Blue Note to be occupied by bears.
At times it may seem as if only bears could fully enjoy so much treacle. On record, Wilson’s flights of fancy sometimes come off self-importantly mystical, presenting her as a combination anthropologist and shaman. She gathers together slide-guitar blues, jazz, folk, and pop into a mélange that nods to the past, yet in a contemporary style. The frequent comparisons to Billie Holiday (though Nina Simone seems more appropriate) also give her the armor of a righteous woman in pain. Contemplated in isolation, her drawn-out phrasing, note bending, and the dreamy atmospheres they’re set in can get downright precious. Yet to see her in person is an entirely different matter, like watching a first-run movie instead of renting. Her 11:30 show on Tuesday seemed casual, thrown away even, with the inviting spirit of a jam session. Refreshingly free of diva-isms, Wilson let her musicians build songs up like sand castles, until she decided it was time to haunt them. Often watching the band as intently as an audience member, she slid through material from an album to arrive in March, her version of Robert Johnson’s “Come on in My Kitchen,” and standards like “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” as if she was just another soloist, every so often commenting on the action, or changing endings around. “I like that, let’s try that again,” she told guitarist Marvin Sewell, after she adjusted her pitch when he played a wrong but plausible chord. But her mesmerizing encore of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” illuminated not only what Miles Davis saw in it, but what anyone has ever seen in it. As they say, you catch more flies with honey. —James Hannaham
Upstream of Consciousness
Used to be a fairly cut-and-dried process to sort the local instrumental improvisers into (1) bands that played for dancing, Guatemalan-clad, Phish-worshiping Wetlands dankheads and (2) those whose constituency consisted of shorthaired, basic-black, stiffly standing Knitting Factory snobs. Not anymore. More often of late you’ll find bands usually associated with the “Sweatglands” scene infiltrating the other Downtown milieu.
The latest to make this very real crossover is the Slip. The young Rhode Island trio’s sound is indeed so slippery as to defy pigeonholing, although jazz/rock/world pretty well covers it. Almost literally a “basement band,” the Slip is legendary for playing all-night parties around the Northeast. Now they’ve moved from Wetlands’ basement “lounge” to the Knitting Factory’s downstairs Tap Room every Saturday this month. Seeing them in the Tap Room on January 9, though, was not unlike enjoying a band playing clear at the other end of a smoky, claustrophobic, and boisterous subway car. Yet they fit right in, with music as distracted as its environment. Most groove bands—by definition—are about repetitions with a difference. The Slip, on the other hand, was working against the current, holding no collective thought for more than a few measures before moving on to another upstream-of-consciousness idea.
Prone to idle Wes Montgomery riffs while waiting for inspiration, Brad Barr gets a wide spectrum of fat metallic toneage from his hollow-body guitar. And his drummer brother, Andrew, has studied enough with Mali master percussionist Abdoul Doumbia that swinging is hardly an imperative. The evening began with a trio of punningly titled tunes—”Co-opcity,” “Tempus Forgetit,” and “From the Gecko”—but, writing aside, the Slip seem to simply signify pure process. Riffs, tunes, even gigs flow together as a single long-running conversation between the two brothers and their melodic bassist, Marc Friedman. Indeed, nothing I heard that night sounded anywhere near as lithe and transparent as their 1997 album From the Gecko—but considering the atmospheric density of the room, who’d expect as much? —Richard Gehr
Sex in the City
Any show entitled “Songs of Sex and Solitude” is bound to capture the attention of New Yorkers blissfully caught up in the cycle of horniness and alienation. Needless to say, new-music group Sequitur’s winning romp at the Knitting Factory last week pressed all the right buttons.
The cabaretlike atmosphere of the presentation helped set the tone. Indeed, the bulk of the songs performed were penned by German exile–turned–Hollywood composer Hanns Eisler, with texts by Bertolt Brecht, importing just the right touch of smoky Berlin, steamy and seamy. The first Eisler on the program, “Ûber Den Selbsmord” (On Suicide), had forlorn baritone Richard Lalli scouting bridges around town for their jumping-off appeal. The piano accompaniment was sparse, smartly quoting the opening of Schubertequally desolate song cycle Winterreise at the get-go. Eisler loves to show off his education, so in his sardonic “Küppellied” (The Couple Song), he ironically quotes Wagner’s yearning Tristan chord, to underline what really turns on women: money. Some songs sound like pure Kurt Weill: “Solidaritätslied” (The Solidarity Song) could easily be a reject from Threepenny Opera.
Richard Adams’s “Under Oath,” which sets Lewinsky’s testimony from the Starr Report, had soprano Kristin Norderval, decked out in Monica-wear, singing a kind of “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” for the Clinton era. The colorful Dora Ohrenstein tackled Lewis Spratlan’s hilarious “Vocalise With Duck,” quacking noises provided by a clarinet mouthpiece. The same soprano also expertly pistoled the cunning linguistics of Eleanor Sandresky’s witty, liberating “My Goddess.”
Relief from the relentless ostinato patterns was provided by David Soldier’s magical “Letter to Ausonius,” with a moving text by Paulinius of Nola. Soldier created an exquisite pastiche of Franco-Flemish ars nova, with delicate yet funky polyphony. His faux Machaut glowed. However, the opening and closing megasongs, Thomas Adès’s “Life Story” (a sleazy precursor of his opera Powder Her Face, based on a text by Tennessee Williams) and Anthony Davis’s “Lost Moon Sisters,” while ambitious and attractive at times, were too muddled and meandering, both in composition and performance, to make any impact—non sequiturs in Sequitur’s otherwise unimpeachable sequence of quickies. —Robert Hilferty
The ad for last Wednesday’s Marc Ribot show at the Knit promised a “Django Reinhardt Invocation,” but with Ribot and fellow experimentalist Eyvind Kang as the lead musicians, that could have meant just about anything. What it ended up meaning, though, was great jazz.
Despite Ribot’s avant-garde pedigree, he doesn’t bend tradition out of shape. The guitarist puts himself in the middle of a genre, finds people who can play the music with him, and adds touches of his own Downtown angularity. He’s done that on his recent record with Los Cubanos Postizos, a lovely, lively, sharp-edged take on Cuban music.
Last week Ribot found himself in the middle of another intensely swinging folk genre: Reinhardt. Again, there were good musicians all around. Kang, a violinist and new-music kid, found himself playing the role of Reinhardt’s most famous partner, Stephane Grappelli. Kang did a credible job; his playing was lyrical and not predictable, but his solos never rode the music, never took it over. Backing up were Joey Baron and Greg Cohen, the rhythm section for John Zorn’s Masada. Their nimble, light-stepping way with a groove matched the songs perfectly. Baron was cracking up as usual, having a great time with his brushes, acting like this old-timey music was all a goof. But he was also swinging it with effortless precision.
The songs were done pretty straight: folk songs, dance songs, dark ballads, jazz at its most unvarnished. Ribot’s guitar provided the center. He comped generously for Kang and duetted brilliantly with Baron. Only at a song’s beginning or end did he bother with abstraction, and even that was sketchy and quiet. He shook the up-tempo numbers loose with fast fingers. At these points, the music ceased to be a historical exercise and gained a momentum all its own. At other times, Ribot lingered, wringing his lines for all the deep, reserved feeling they were worth. He had no interest in updating anything, in fusing old and new. Rather, in his arrangements, this quaint, very unmodern style was pulled out of its time. At its best, the band played the music not with any particular reverence, but as if it could be lived. Baron had the jaunty spirit and Kang, despite his limitations, had the rawness. Ribot searched out its depths. —Steve Tignor