Spiritual Unity with the Joshua Light Show
Issue Project Room
The pleasures available at the Issue Project Room on Friday were classically heady: a boxy loft space, free jazz, tripped-out crap on overhead projectors, and pure summer heat. With the Joshua Light Show’s giant white screen blocking presumed ventilation sources, the Brooklyn venue’s newish home in an old can factory across the Gowanus Canal might’ve been an ark to another era if the proceedings weren’t so timeless. The crowd on the floor, folding chairs around the perimeter, sweat veritably dripped from the unused multi-channel speaker set lining the ceiling. Joined on the penultimate night of his four-gig residency by Spiritual Unity—Marc Ribot and Henry Grimes’ tribute to Albert Ayler’s 1964 LP—White’s iconic effects, honed at the Fillmore East, were deliciously pre-digital.
Beginning with a petri dish of pulsing red genomes, or perhaps out-of-focus marbles, the quartet eased into action, coalescing as White released a torrent of crimson dye. The 72-year old Grimes—who played bass with Benny Goodman, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, and Ayler himself before disappearing for 30 years—stood at left, his snow-white muttonchops at odds with his baby-face. “How’s Albert?” he reportedly asked when found by a social worker in 2003, of his ex-employer, dead for 30 years. Using the scuffed green upright donated by William Parker, the head-banded Grimes played busy lines beneath Roy Campbell Jr’s keening trumpet. The avant-statesman Ribot, about to finish his third full decade of service as jazz guitar’s premiere provocateur, frequently used a seemingly new sound in his deconstructivist’s vocabulary: a high, wavering vibrato akin to a singing saw, or perhaps a theramin.
Finally, after nearly 15 minutes of peaks and valleys, the band landed in the first of the album’s themes, treating Ayler’s gospel influences with a loose-limbed New Orleans swing. Campbell and Ribot sketched the melody, in broad but joyous agreement, and the band was back into the ether. Backbeats occasionally appeared suddenly at the hands of drummer Chad Taylor, disintegrating just as quickly into careening counter-thoughts. It was head jazz to listen to with one’s eyes closed, except that would mean missing White’s contributions, the warm hum of his projectors filling the room whenever the band got quiet enough.
White cued claustrophobic barcodes, spinning shape flecks, film loops of shooting sparks, and a dozen other atavistic hallucinatory triggers. The quartet went everywhere and nowhere at once, staying as close to sublime freedom as possible. The resultant one-and-a-quarter-hour performance was less a tribute than it was using Ayler’s music—symbolically and practically—as an access point to the timeless mission of the avant-garde to pull grace from discord. Ribot, who has called himself “more a semiotician than a guitarist,” isn’t one for nostalgia. It’s hard to be nostalgic when covered in sweat, anyway.
After they’d run out of Ayler to play, filed back behind the white screen from whence they came and half the crowd went gasping for the cool May evening, the quartet came back anyway, looked at each other and dropped full gallop into a new jam. The four pushed it forward for five minutes, Taylor turning in a brief solo like gearwork tumbling from a clock face. Finally, there was a Campbell melody that sounded like colorful crayon scrawl shaded chaotically across white paper. He came to the end of a phrase, the big idea neatly at a conclusion, and they stopped.