Live: Undead Jazzfest Shows Off Its Rock-Solid Vital Signs


Second Annual Undead Jazzfest
Kenny’s Castaways, Sullivan Hall, (le) poisson rouge, The Bell House, Littlefield, CrossFit Gym, Homage Skateboard Training Facility
Thursday, June 23 through Saturday, June 25

Better than: Stasis.

Pairing battle-seasoned veterans like inscrutable guitarist Marc Ribot, prolific multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp, and free jazz progenitor David S. Ware alongside a younger generation of innovators like Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase, bassist Eivind Opsvik, and vibraphonist Chris Dingman, this year’s Undead Jazzfest—the two-year-old sister of the Winter Jazzfest that’s the brainchild of Boom Collective’s Brice Rosenbloom and Search and Restore impresario Adam Schatz, along with a slew of other young promoters—demonstrates that the experimental jazz scene’s torch has not so much been passed as it has been used to light and relight an ever-growing bonfire.

An itinerant avant-garde funhouse, the festival brought forth sounds ungodly and sublime and all too real to be ignored, a counterpoint to glittering pop that tends to view reality either through a glass darkly or underneath blindingly bright lights. For some, the Undead Jazz Festival’s somewhat unhinged perspective can be a hard pill to swallow, but for a few, it’s the only time the world makes any sense.

Ribot seemed to be channeling Derek Bailey, Blind Willie Johnson, and Robert Quine during his phantasmagorical solo set at Le Poisson Rouge; in one of his patchwork medleys, he found an unlikely through-line between Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and his own “Fat Man Blues.” Seeing Ribot play is to hit the shuffle button on your most delirious dreams, fraught with spontaneous scene changes and jump cuts; his music is more about the journey through his helter-skelter inner sanctum than the uncharted destination, and he leads the way with the calmness and intensity of a Zen master.

Around the corner, indefatigable saxophonist Andrew D’Angelo’s big band electrified Sullivan Hall, solidifying his reputation as one of the most exciting bandleaders and composers on the scene today. The explosive band, aided by the rock-solid wizardry of consummate guitarist Ben Monder and The Bad Plus’ bassist Reid Anderson, effortlessly married Gunther Schuller’s third stream with an almost-danceable polyrhythmic funk groove. Throughout the set, D’Angelo stood up and wailed over the band, his alto saxophone tilted skyward like a phoenix rising from the ashes of Fela Kuti.

Night two featured a round-robin performance of improvised duets underneath the Gothic chandeliers of the Bell House’s cavernous hall. The revolving-door jam conjured the dreamscape of David Lynch’s Club Silencio, and began with Dean Bowman, in a Paul Robeson baritone, chanting, “Wake up the dead.” This was followed by John Zorn regular cellist Erik Friedlander and violinist Charlie Burnham engaging in a plaintive call-and-response that climaxed in a Bartok-style pizzicato. Sharp then emerged from the wings with a curved soprano saxophone, and his tremulous duet with Friedlander sounded akin to the sputtering of a car radio that had just met its doom at the bottom of the Gowanus Canal.

The Bad Plus drummer David King then performed with agent provocateur Jim Black on one drum kit, playing a piece that at times echoed the syncopation of Ghanaian rhythms but gradually morphed into antic sound effects appropriate for a Keystone Kops routine. The evening reached a fever pitch when keyboardist Jamie Saft and trumpeter Kirk Knuffke took to the stage for an epic battle of the beards (Saft’s beard is of Biblical proportions, peerless among the lot). The two melded their instruments into a wall of sound resembling the high-frequency whirring of an unearthed desert spaceship lurching into cantankerous motion.

Night three opened at Littlefield with saxophonist Jeff Lederer’s Sunwatcher quartet, featuring Saft, drummer Matt Wilson, and bassist Chris Lightcap playing with a gritty hard bop feel. Andrew D’Angelo joined them for the closer, a straight-ahead, uptempo tune that showed how the echelon of experimental musicians are also impeccable technicians. This stood in stark contrast to husband-and-wife duo Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman, the avant-garde equivalent to the White Stripes, who ping-ponged between bracing lyricism and frenetic note clusters, sometimes within the same two-bar phrase.

Across the street at the CrossFit gym, saxophonist Briggan Krauss mined the outer limits of the sonic universe with H-Alpha, a trio featuring Jim Black and Ikue Mori on electronics. Krauss exhibited phenomenal control over the saxophone, creating a sound like a motocross bike skidding through a particle collider. A few doors down at Homage Skateboard Training Facility, Bowman performed a solo set, paying tribute to the canon of black spirituals. Bowman has a voice reminiscent of Johnny Hartman and a hypnotic yodel like Leon Thomas. The audience clambered into the tight skate park cheek-by-jowl to hear Bowman croon “John the Revelator,” “Wade in the Water” and “Take Your Burden to the Lord” while illuminated by votive candles.

Playing through the wee small hours was saxophonist Jeremy Udden’s Plainville, a cosmopolitan jazz group with a down-home bluegrass twang and a wistful sense of Americana-fueled nostalgia. “It’s 2 a.m., and we’re still here,” Udden told the few left who stuck it out. As he played the quaint melodies from If the Past Seems So Bright, it seemed for a moment that no one else was in New York, and that all that mattered were the wooden skateboard ramps the audience was perched on and the sound of windswept plains.

Critical bias: Stache envy for Adam Schatz’s killer crumb catcher, like if Super Mario’s mustache and Burt Reynolds’s mustache met in a New York bar, legally wed, and had a baby.

Overheard: “He studies masturbation addiction. Yeah. That’s what he’s dedicating his life to.”

Random notebook dump: “I had an apartment with Mark Feldman once, and I left a large couch. He had it reupholstered eventually, but it was the size of a small ship. That’s a piece of furniture for a lifetime.”—Jeff Lederer