If the David S. Ware Quartet cannot sell out the flagship club of a festival sponsored by the phone company, then new jazz has a major problem on its hands. Playing at the Knitting Factory Friday night, the group clashed like stallions, rancorous and terrifically intense. The fractal roar that erupts out of Ware’s saxophone seems to come less from breath than from sheer force of will: a long unaccompanied solo, ending in a spiral around a single note, drew audible gasps. Then guest Alex Lodico picked up his trombone, blew Ware’s note back at him— flatted and blatted — and went into a solo of his own that tried to unseat the alpha male. Ware is one of the most important new avant-jazz leaders (“new” here meaning “of the last 30 years”— things move mighty slowly in these parts), and his band includes two of the others, William Parker and Matthew Shipp. So maybe it was the festival’s stratospheric ticket prices that kept people away, or maybe they just couldn’t bear the James Earl Jones voice-over that introduced every show at the big venues. But there were empty seats.
As somebody who’s come to improvised music via alt-rock, I want fresh stuff all the time, so I mostly stuck to Bell Atlantic’s artier, louder, and more listening-intensive shows. (But not “out,” as Parker insisted at his Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra’s Saturday-afternoon roof-raising at the Tonic: “If you love your wife, you don’t say ‘My wife is out‘.” Fair enough. Of course, Tonic wasn’t part of the BAJF, but that’s another story.) And this festival has fabulously catholic booking policies. There was more pop than usual this year, it seemed, but what the gene pool gains from Sonic Youth and the Dirty Three is worth the inclusion of, say, the Toasters.
The BAJF’s smaller rooms had some of its more frontier-minded young bands. Over at the Lotus Club, Sideshow’s kinetic new-music reinterpretations of Charles Ives songs made 100-year-old compositions into fresh-cut brain-twisters. And a couple of shows in the Knit’s downstairs Old Office gave a glimpse of the German new-music scene they’re hoping to pump up, or cash in on, with a Berlin branch of the club. The most interesting-sounding scheduled acts from that bunch never turned up, but Shank’s PiL-ish electric bass and trombone-through-effects built up a woozy throb that made the best use of new technology I saw at the festival.
The New Thing’s old wave ripped it up, too. Pharoah Sanders was a marvel, shaking his bells through extended jams with a two-percussionist quartet (including a bass player who kept busting out into song) and occasionally standing up for crinkle-cut sax blurts— plus a bit of croaky but inspired call-and-response singing with the audience. And the week’s nicest surprise was Equal Interest, uniting violinist Leroy Jenkins and wind-instrument switch-hitter Joseph Jarman, both AACM veterans, with much younger pianist Myra Melford for a series of ravishing notated pieces that started with solemn tone rows and opened up for elegant, speckly rapid-fire solos. Even when she was karate-chopping the black keys or pulling at a harmonium’s bellows, the drones at the core of Melford’s playing refracted the older men’s fluttering improvisations like the surface of a still pond.
With all these exotic neighbors, John Zorn’s Masada came much closer than usual to passing for a straight-up jazz quartet Tuesday night. Masada essentially treat their venue as a rotating fifth member, and it took a while for the Angel Orensanz Foundation’s echo-heavy converted church to establish rapport with them. So the group’s affectionate flexibility carried the show, drummer Joey Baron swung firmly but politely, and they stuck to the looser, mellower end of their book until Zorn poured an alto bloodbath over the end of the late set.
The next night, a quartet with Dave Lombardo (ex of Slayer), Fred Frith, and Bill Laswell (who should
really lose that beret) brought out Zorn’s worst tendencies— formless shrieking endlessly testing audience endurance— though all the Xtreme Noiz Dudes wearing Mr. Bungle T-shirts ate it up. Frith spent most of the set being drowned out; Thursday night, though, he pulled off a magnificent, playful improvised duet with Joey Baron at Angel Orensanz. A virtuoso of tone, Frith constructs extended arguments from the guitar’s less-used bits— tuning pegs, unamplified strings, paintbrushes (well, his gear includes them). Sometimes you know it’s a guitar; sometimes it’s a set of versatile electric pickups with some wood attached. He led, Baron followed (visibly itching to go bang but keeping it down), and they got a standing ovation.
On the Is This What They Call Jazz Over There? front, Osaka’s bizarro Boredoms bummed out a big crowd of devotees. Their new lineup relies on duration and repetition, a blast on record. But in the boomy South Street Seaport Atrium, with three drummers prolonging climaxes for 10 or 15 minutes straight, it was numbing. French prog-rock heroes Magma, on the other hand, had the clock on their team at their first NYC appearance in 25 years or so. I spent half an hour (meaning the first two-thirds of the first song) snickering at their excesses (extended tweedly solos, a row of vocalists harmonizing in the language that drummer Christian Vander invented, Vander’s geekgasm faces) before I noticed my middle and ring fingers curling into the international “this rocks” sign.
The biggest rock buzz, though, came from the New York Art Quartet’s 35-year reunion Sunday night at the Seaport Atrium. They had the makings of a great rock’n’roll band: a charismatic vocalist (poet Amiri Baraka, who introduced himself with an EEYAAARRRGH that swiveled heads throughout the Atrium’s food court), energetic (free-form) beats (from the masterful Milford Graves, who also contributed some speaking-in-tongues and a bit of interpretive dance), and hoots of delight from a very young crowd (most of whom wouldn’t have thought of coming if Sonic Youth hadn’t been headlining). The Youths themselves, with Ikue Mori sitting in on extra percussion, make a better guitar band than a jazz unit: their songs were confident and idiosyncratic, their improv-based piece pretty dismal. Still, they’re pointing their fans toward the fringes they love, which addresses the problem of the moment more directly. There’s no shortage of excellence in the trickier reaches of jazz right now— just of people around to hear it.