04/07/06

Ropeadope Records Presents What Is Jazz?

During the mid ‘90s, Knitting Factory impresario Michael Dorf posed a rhetorical question with his What Is Jazz? festival, which served as a downtown alternative to George Wein’s perennial uptown clambake, the JVC Jazz Festival. A whole host of renegade artists and bands, including John Zorn’s Naked City, the Jazz Passengers, Sonny Sharrock, Thomas Chapin, Defunkt, David S. Ware and others were paraded across the stage of the old Knitting Factory to demonstrate a cutting edge sensibility toward the art of improvising. The upstart label Ropeadope Records adopted that same renegade theme for a recent tour showcasing four artists on its current roster -- guitarist Charlie Hunter, drummer Bobby Previte, bassist Christian McBride and DJ Logic.

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Charlie Hunter

Previte opened the show with a stunning solo set that had him juggling a universe of sampled sounds on his electronic dDrum kit. By deftly triggering everything from tympani and tubular bells to sitar and spoken word recitations, along with samples of the acoustic drum set itself, Previte played maestro from his drum chair, conducting his “orchestra” with the sheer command of Arturo Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic (or more accurately, Frank Zappa communing with his Synclavier). The endless palette of sounds that he had to draw from in constructing his digital symphony included sub harmonic bass lines, distorted electric guitars, traces of hypnotic gamelan, touches of cathedral bells, Chinese gongs, the sound of bombs going off, samples of kawali singers along with the sounds of rushing water, birds, insects and alien spacecrafts. To add a political edge to the sonic proceedings, Previte included a slowed down loop of George Bush proclaiming: “We have the terrorists on the run. We’re keepin’ ‘em on the run,” which he triggered from the dDrum pads.

While there was certainly improvisation involved in Previte’s presentation, it was a tightly orchestrated solo set that showcased the creative potential of digital sampling. And the fact that he was still basically slamming skins with typical manic fury to produce the myriad of sounds that came forth from the speakers provided a visceral, sweaty, human edge to Previte’s show that is often lacking when keyboardists try this same solo thing with drum machines and sequencers. And though the drummer has for the past few years been showcasing his orchestrating and improvising skills on the dDrum kit in tandem with eight-string guitarist Hunter (in the improvising duo Groundtruther, which in the past has included a third member in alto saxophonist Greg Osby), going solo was a daring way to kick off this Ropeadope roster showcase.

In between sets, DJ Logic demonstrated a similar sense of search and discovery melded with deft orchestration and dazzling technical facility as he spun records from twin turntables. His seamless pastiche of fat funk grooves, from Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” to James Brown’s “The Big Payback” to Miles Davis’ “Black Satin” from #On The Corner#, established a hypnotic undercurrent on top of which he showcased his virtuosic rhythmic scratching on vinyl. What Logic and others like him (DJ Olive, DJ Spooky, DJ Crush) do intuitively and so brilliantly on twin turntables has elevated this streetwise pastime to a new art form.

Logic’s set flowed right into Christian McBride’s killer quartet featuring Geoff Keezer on electric keyboards, Ron Blake on tenor sax and Tereon Gully on drums. They opened on an audaciously funky note with their take on The Spinners’ “I’m Coming Home,” a New Orleans flavored groove number which had Gully slamming backbeats and McBride slapping some bacon fat on his deep-toned bass lines. Blake proved to be an explosive, exciting soloist from the get-go with a gutsy Texas tenor tone while Keezer, who has racked up a wealth of acoustic piano experience in straight ahead settings with the likes of Ray Brown and the Jazz Messengers, wailed with fuzoid abandon on his electric piano solos, which throughout the set were laced with nasty distorted tones and cut with hefty doses of wah-wah. McBride got into the act too by incorporating echo, wah-wah and distortion into his virtuosic solo on this soulful opener. Clearly, he’s strayed from his early mainstream path under the tutelage of Wynton Marsalis. Now liberated from the restraints and expectations of Verve Records, he seems to be having a ball exploring his own subversive tendencies. And his current label seems to be strongly encouraging him to take it as far out in this direction as he wants.

For a faithful rendition of Sting’s mellow “Walking on the Moon,” McBride switched to fretless electric bass for some expressive playing, alternating volume pedal swells and wah-wah-inflected strummed chords with fleet-fingered single note lines. And on “Sonic Tonic,” the title track from Blake’s last recording that recalls Eddie Harris’ “Listen Here” or “Is It In,” McBride funked up the place on upright, at one point bowing with wah-wah pedal fully activated. While the powerhouse drummer Gully fuels the quartet with muscular grooves and both Blake and Keezer take star turns as soloists upfront, it is McBride who is the heart and soul of this jazzy jam band. Between his virtuosic facility on the upright and his ability to blend the grease and church factors in his playing, as on his Crusaders-sounding original, “Egad,” McBride remains a formidable presence on any bandstand.

McBride’s label mate Hunter came out with a newly aggressive attitude to his eight-string magic, string-bending and stinging with the kind of ice pick intensity the recalled the late blues master Albert Collins. Throughout his trio set with drummer Derek Phillips and tenor saxophonist John Ellis (who doubled on Wurlitzer electric piano and melodica), Hunter dialed up more fuzz tones than he’s previously played with. This more raucous, raunchy-toned attack gave the trio a more subversive edge than they’ve had. Ellis added a provocative quality with his odd intervallic leaps on tenor, reminiscent of Bennie Wallace, and his angular bass clarinet work.

For a rowdy encore, Hunter’s trio was joined by Sex Mob leader Steven Bernstein on slide trumpet and Eric Deutsch on Wurlitzer electric piano. Bernstein and Ellis blended nicely on some freewheeling Dixieland-ish exchanges behind Hunter’s simultaneous comping and bass grooves, as Phillips colored the proceedings with tambourine accents on his kit. All the smooth edges have come off of Hunter’s thing now that he’s rolling with Ropeadope. This is rough stuff.

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