Steven Lugerner and Matana Roberts Stimulate the Ears and the Economy


If teachers’ unions represent “a moneyed special interest,” as Chris Christie recently asserted (and if he keeps threatening elderly women with a bat, maybe we should start calling this thug “Big Pussy”), what does that make all those supposed small businesses that Republicans extol as job creators—including, by their calculation, S-Corps and LLCs like Koch Industries, Bechtel, and PricewaterhouseCoopers? There’s no business like small business, goes the current refrain, and even many elected Democrats have joined the chorus, unless they’re just mouthing the words until their turn comes to call the tune again.

As it happens, I’m both a National Writers Union member (we’re affiliated with the UAW) and, by virtue of earning more than $400 annually as a freelancer, proprietor of my own small business, though hardly one likely to be saluted as an economic engine. Performing artists, too, run the smallest of small businesses, some of which do create jobs; think of the musician contributing to the livelihood of others by forming his or her own band, even if only for an off-the-books gig with everyone splitting the door. For all but jazz’s marquee names, it has ever been thus—and I doubt small-time rockers have had it any easier. But with the recording industry in a tailspin, emerging jazz musicians also face the necessity of having to release and distribute their own CDs in order to nail down gigs, becoming into-the-breach entrepreneurs despite lacking sufficient capital or the requisite money lust.

Conventional wisdom says the album (like privacy) is on the endangered list. Market conditions would seem to bear that out; aside from your own website and other online outlets, where can you be sure your CD will be available? Why, at your shows. (You shouldn’t need a marketing consultant to tell you this is an ass-backwards business model.) Yet to judge from my mailbox, more jazz albums are being released than ever, and I’d estimate at least a third are DIYs—and maybe about half of them debut efforts by young performers I’ve never heard of.

Case in point: Steven Lugerner’s Narratives/These Are the Words, a double album combining two discrete projects. Narratives, which features the 23-year-old multi-reedist and composer’s working septet (comprised, one assumes, of recent New School graduates like himself), is merely promising, and I wouldn’t be commenting on it if not for Lugerner’s self-assured writing on the companion disc.

Lugerner has said that the seven pieces on These Are the Words (where he’s joined by pianist Myra Melford, drummer Matt Wilson, and Bay Area trumpeter Darren Johnston, all better known than he) are based on verses from the Torah and draw their “intervallic relationships . . . time signatures, and tempo markings,” as well as their melodies, harmonies, and improvisational gambits, from his application of an ancient practice known as Gematria, “a method favored by medieval Kabbalists” involving assigning numerical values to Hebrew letters. I hope being told this doesn’t give the impression that Lugerner’s music is arcane and emotionally impenetrable, because nothing could be further from the truth. Composers all seem beholden to their own idiosyncratic methodology these days, for which we probably have Arnold Schoenberg and Joseph Schillinger to blame. What counts is how the results fall on the ear, and in Lugerner’s case, this means a textured, nearly seamless blend of composition and improvisation of the sort that die-hard jazzists might complain is really modern chamber music—a distinction that ought to be so much water under the bridge in light of the past 30 years. Though Lugerner cites Steve Reich’s Tehillim as an inspiration behind These Are the Words, Reich’s direct influence is discernable only in the cyclical piano figures that set the closing “The Evening Episode” in motion, and not to an extent likely to strike anyone as derivative. Part of what impressed Lugerner about Tehillim, he says, was Reich’s restraint in setting Hebrew psalms to music that isn’t expressly Jewish. Minus voices and more abstractly, These Are the Words achieves something very similar; Johnston unfurls a few cantorial inflections during his masterful solo on “Sustenance,” but the piece itself is more like one of Ornette Coleman’s tempo-less dirges than anything identifiably Hebraic. Where Lugerner does resemble Reich (and Philip Glass, for that matter) is in expressing weighty ideas via means associated with minimalism—specifically, pivoting motion against stasis, a strategy for which jazz precedents date back to Anthony Davis’s gamelan-influenced pieces of the early 1980s, to say nothing of Monk. On “In the Wilderness”—equal parts piano concerto and (one surmises) evocation of 40 years wandering the desert—this takes the form of Melford and Wilson improvising freely over and around a repeated, rising-and-falling phrase played by trumpet and bass clarinet voiced an interval apart. Lugerner here and elsewhere achieves orchestral color by assigning his horn and Johnston’s a role usually given to bass, and along with the free rein he allows his fellow improvisers (the wonderful Melford, in particular), pieces that might have sounded rigid and schematic come across as spontaneous and engaging.

In his own infrequent solos here, Lugerner makes even less of an impression than on Narratives. But his bass clarinet adds plenty of tug to the ensembles and duets, and soloing doesn’t seem to be what he’s about anyway. He figures to make his mark as a composer, and he’s off to a great start.

You can learn all sorts of things by listening to jazz today. Thanks to These Are the Words, I can drop “Gematria” into a conversation, even if I don’t pretend to understand how it works. And without the cover version of his “My Sistr” on Matana Roberts’s Live in London (Central Control), I might never have heard of Frankie Sparo, a gloomy Canadian singer/songwriter from about 10 years ago and a new favorite of mine, with as expressive a monotone as Nick Drake’s or Street Hassle–era Lou Reed. Even if Roberts’s 27-minute expansion captures just enough of the tune’s fretful drone to send you out in search of the original, it does prove her ability to hold your interest throughout a largely improvised performance of epic length—in lieu of one long outburst, the Chicago-born/New York–based alto saxophonist and her British rhythm section break their statements up into thematic episodes of varying length and intensity, and you’re with them from beginning to end. That Roberts, whom many of us first heard with Greg Tate’s Burnt Sugar a few years ago, has a mile-wide vibrato like Albert Ayler’s without the lunge is just one of the reasons Live in London conjures images of Village coffeehouses and lofts circa 1964; there’s also pianist Robert Mitchell’s Cecil-like attack, drummer Chris Vataloro’s shades-of-Milford Graves tabla rhythms, and an overall sense of big things about to break loose. The live set, taken from a BBC broadcast, seems oddly inverted, with the more outside stuff at the beginning and a chordal romp and Monk’s “Oska T” (miscredited to Ellington) together toward the end. But this is hardly a complaint.

Roberts, who is coy about revealing her age but appears to be in her early thirties, has an album called Coin Coin due in May. There’s also something new coming from Lugerner: For Brian Wilson, by a trio he belongs to called the Chives. What’s the point of being young if you’re not going to be prolific, too? Never mind if it’s good for business.