Some Guys Are Only About . . .

Its tourist trade as Big Apple Americana notwithstanding, jazz no longer keeps a finger on the pulse of New York in the way that pedestrian hip-hop or sardonic grad-school pop can. With their music short on hipster currency, live-jazz devotees instead cash in on those moments onstage when the sound takes on a life of its own and “the thing happens.” It’s when an abstract dialogue between two or four or 16 musicians clicks into place for players and listeners alike—that vaguely defined moment when it all works. That thing is always likely to happen at AACM shows. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, formed in Chicago in the ’60s, was a progenitor of jazz’s preoccupation with sound colors and textures, as well as with ceremony and carnival, most famously in its showmen’s offshoot, the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Last week, founding AACM members Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, and Muhal Richard Abrams all performed in New York, where they’re now based.

A few years ago Jarman left the Art Ensemble of Chicago to pursue Buddhist practice. After some faltering steps back onstage in the past couple of years, the woodwinds player sounded like he’d emerged from the woodshed as well as the dojo during his 63rd-birthday performance at the Knitting Factory on September 15. Jarman’s trio and sextet played tunes from his self-released CD, Lifetime Visions. After the band opened with expected meditative musing, enhanced by the hypnotic drone of Myra Melford’s harmonium, Jarman’s soprano sax became forceful and full, and he galvanized the rest of his group into spirited collective improv.

The next night, also at the Knitting Factory, Henry Threadgill premiered a new group, Zooid. With his last ensemble, Make a Move, Threadgill took us on sonic deep-sea dives, suspending us in murky swells of accordion and a din of electric guitar and bass. Although Zooid is all-acoustic, in Threadgill’s hands electric-free frequencies can be dense too. Threadgill thickened Zooid’s textural weave with Tony Cedras’s accordion, Tarik Benbrahim’s oud, and Jose Davila’s tuba; the group was rich in Balkan, Indian, and tango influences.

But the actual music happened when it became “Serious Fun” (as AACM trumpeter Lester Bowie might have put it) and arrived at Threadgill’s preferred milieu: a carnivalesque underworld. Threadgill first tried out the Orpheus role on flute, over ponderous, shifting soundscapes, but the new band’s uncertainty made for an inchoate mix. Two tunes in, Threadgill picked up the alto sax and cut through the haze like a shot of ammonia. With his pulsing, acidic alto, he led the band to the other side by way of savage, cumbersome funk—rounded out by Dafnis Prieto’s hyperactive drumming and Davila’s lumbering tuba.

AACM godfather, pianist, and composer Muhal Richard Abrams performed on September 17 uptown at the Ethical Culture Society’s auditorium, where the sanctuary space emphasizes the music’s homegrown ethos. Sitting in its pews, the audience becomes a grassroots fellowship. Abrams’s daughter Richarda is herself well-versed in initiating events: As the evening’s emcee, she summoned players onstage like an announcer calling boxers to the ring. After “September Song”—not Kurt Weill’s, but an Abrams original for solo piano—the orchestra premiered “Five in Five,” a lengthy composition with five sections, mostly in 5/8 time. Abrams stretched sounds through tightly orchestrated passages to an anything-goes free-improv section, in which the players’ random blue notes sounded aural anodyne. A tremor of recognition went through the musicians and crowd when this catharsis took hold: The thing was happening. —Michelle Mercer

Handsome Boy Graduate

The king of drum’n’bass cool returned to Centro-fly in much the same fashion as he left it the last time he visited the swank retro-kitsch hot spot—drowning in reverb and synth symphonies, gently lulling you to dance. LTJ Bukem rides the Sultan of Smooth thing from beginning to end, with his designer clothes, designer shades, and designer-favored music. But he figured out, somewhere between his last gig in NYC and this one on September 19, that there is such a thing as too cool and too smooth.

When he first arrived with “Music” in the early ’90s, Bukem’s so-called “intelligent” drum’n’bass (“Are you going to dance smartly?” smirked my roomie before the show) served as the perfect antidote to the ‘ardcore jungle and natty ragga tunes. It’s déjà vu all over again, as the Neanderthals have repositioned themselves as the rulers of the d’n’b dancefloor, grunting with Teutonic fury: “Harder, harder, harder! Faster, faster, faster!” So when Bukem played a slew of Good Looking/Looking Good records—all of them dripping with rebounding effects, tinkly pitter-patter drums, and female vocals that oooh and ah and sigh—things seemed downright tranquil. (Even MC Conrad, for chrissakes, loaded his voice up with reverb.)

It was a welcome change of pace, although taking the long route to heaven can sometimes put you in a coma (which Bukem almost accomplished during the last go-round). But he broke out a group of ornery amen tracks, introducing chaotic rhythms into the otherwise softcore soundtrack. Bit by bit the DJ exposed the glossy veneer, pulling back the layers of echo to reveal a grittier base. Teasing each break out with a coax of the crossfader, Bukem roughly dropped trou, spilling breakbeats all over the floor, before reverting to his pre-Hyde composed self. Ending the night with a classic Doc Scott track, he converged the two faces—the roughneck of amen tearouts and the soothing grip of a cruising synth—and emerged as a new personality altogether. —Tricia Romano

Archive Highlights