Better Than: That unimprovised Paisley/Cool J duet.
The format, in case you missed the emails, flyers, and Red Bull Music Academy promotional newspapers being handed out around the city, went something like this: One performer took the stage. He or she played for five minutes, at which point another performer would join them. They played together for five minutes, at which point a new performer would arrive and supplant the old one. This kept going and going (and going) through a list of twenty performers, until we were back where we started, with one performer soloing in front of the crowd.
After an opening set from RBMA participant Jameszoo and an unfortunately long wait (words that take two seconds to read but an hour and a half to live through), a representative from Undead Music came out to tell us the long version of paragraph one, not only explaining the rules but thanking us for our hunger, thanking us for our silence, promising that this would be one of the most personal experiences of our lives, and taking shots at people who Instagram concerts. The crowd seemed both thankful and amused, at least until the collective sigh that followed the announcement that the duets would begin with more Jamezoo.
Not a problem, as the show picked up quickly with ?uestlove following, ushering in a line of jazz musicians that included, sequentially, Matana Roberts, Mary Halvorson, and Thundercat, who was followed by Julia Holter, Dosh, and Roy Hargrove. Thundercat, a Flying Lotus-affiliated bassist, and Holter, the only performer to attempt singing, were great together, as were drummer Dosh and trumpeter Hargrove, though the former had to exit just as the pair were finding their groove.
Up next, James Chance brought out his sax, but sat behind the piano so as not to clash with the horn player already on stage, but even on saxophone he couldn’t make any sense out of Kim Gordon’s flailing and moaning. At one point the former Sonic Youth bassist regressed even to that old “experimentalist” stand-by of using the microphone to hit the guitar strings, and so former P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell couldn’t have arrived a moment too soon. As it turned out, he and Andrew W.K. were the highlight of the night, the latter sitting in as both a fellow musician and an awestruck fan, happy to push the tempo while Worrell’s synth intercepted satellite transmissions and riffed off everything from Deep Purple to the “Star Spangled Banner.”
If there was a failure — and I’m not quite saying there was one — it was a product of the show’s own marketing. Rather than a “once in a lifetime experience” featuring music that “has never happened before and will never happen again,” the program should have been billed as a cool thing at a cool location, worth checking out for that reason alone. In fact, it was the performers who brought this approach to their sets who made the best music. Like W.K. and Worrell, jazz pianists Vijay Iyer and Robert Glasper killed in part because they were visibly excited to be making music together. While Iyer was leaving the stage, he even pulled Glasper away from his Yamaha, asking him to stand-up for a show-stopping selfie. It was one of the best moments of the night. Searching the web this morning, I was glad to see that he Instagrammed it.
Overheard: [After the show] “What happened to that Mr. Softie truck? I could go for an improvised duet between some chocolate and vanilla ice cream.”