Luminaries from divergent improvised music scenes-Boston, the Netherlands and Chicago-joined forces Feb. 1 at MIT’s Killian Hall in Cambridge, Mass., to help celebrate the music and spirit of the late soprano sax innovator Steve Lacy. The group, dubbed the Whammies, loosely followed the lead of Jorrit Dijkstra, the reeds experimenter and Berklee/NEC teacher who has previously plumbed the depths of Lacy’s catalog with the Flatlands Collective. But in an ensemble featuring the collective talents of fellow Dutchman Han Bennink (drums), Pandelis Karayorgis (piano), Jeb Bishop (trombone) and Nate McBride (bass), he acted more as a ringmaster for the flights and ecstasies of the band, each contributing to a cohesive whole.
It was a testament to that wholeness that the musicians seemed fundamentally at ease and explorative as they tackled an array of Lacy compositions, from the squawking, rollicking “Duck,” which touched on the jagged rhythms of Captain Beefheart and sounded very duckish indeed, to the second set’s “As Usual,” a kind of martial, throbbing lullaby written to honor the artist Piet Mondrian. Opener “Bone” set a rambunctious, playful tone, and Lacy’s “Precipitation Suite,” a meditation on various foreboding weather phenomena, sounded appropriately atmospheric and melancholy, with guest violinist Mary Oliver conjuring tingling melismas.
Far from a dry recital, this was well-listened, deeply collaborative music; the band dug into the structures, at times little more than implied, with gusto and rapt attention. Bennink, as always, proved captivating and divinely idiosyncratic as a drummer. He intruded bombastically into the band’s drones, breaking and reshaping the rhythm, attacking the kit with such conviction and force (not to mention his right foot, which at times he swung up onto the tom head to alter the pitch) that at one point he broke through a snare head and called for a mid-song pit-crew repair; there may not be a more powerful snare player in the business, and his field hollers and grunts punctuated the band’s motions with an undeniable style. McBride matched Bennink’s abstractions with nimble power, often using his instrument’s bow to create subterranean drones, and Karayorgis pounded intricate, viciously precise lines on piano (that at times, unfortunately, were difficult to register over the rest of the band).
Bishop’s transcendently dirty expressions were rendered humanlike by deft use of mutes. He proved, as in their previous collaborations, to be an excellent foil for Dijkstra, whose soaring alto sax work and ramblings on the lyricon, an electronic reed instrument and signature Dijkstra tool, lent insectoid beeps and metallic bass hums to “The Wire,” a Lacy composition that began in the realm of electroacoustic chirps, and transitioned into barn-burning skronk.
In the collective spirit of the evening, the Whammies touched on compositions from Dijkstra and Karayorgis; the latter’s “Roll” was a piece of shimmering bop, grounded in the ecstasy of Dijkstra’s high, lonesome tones. The lone “standard” expressed was Thelonious Monk’s “Locomotive,” which found the band more than comfortable at more conventional musical climes. It was less brittle than the original rendition, replacing the veiled tension an with insouciance and confidence, and the conclusion might have been a stand-in for the show as a whole-as Dijkstra’s ascensions derailed the martial melody, Bennink and McBride’s rhythm section launched thumping missives over Karayorgis’ mounting chords. The spirit and animation of the composition remained, while the musicians swirled and improvised around the base. Lacy would have been pleased.