Sunday, May 17, 2009

PLOrk and Pharoah

Just finished a great weekend of performances. I must admit playing with PLOrk, Matmos, and So Percussion on Saturday was some of the most fun I've had making music in a while. We had a great crowd response and I thank everyone who came for stopping by.

I'm listening to Pharoah Sanders's masterwork "The Creator Has A Master Plan" from his album "Karma." Hearing the richness and variety of his sound, I'm intrigued thinking about what a Pharoah Sanders-PLOrk collaboration would sound like, especially considering how well Riley Lee was able to fit in with some of our pieces. Well, that's for another time. In the mean time, here's a review of Pharoah Sanders's performance at the Iridium in New York from this past December.

Though Pharoah Sanders is still best known as the powerfully anarchic tenor saxophonist that frequently appeared alongside John Coltrane in the mid-1960s, in the years since his stint in Coltrane’s band, Sanders has asserted himself as one of the most creative and original voices on his instrument. Sanders possesses a rich, vibrato-laden sound in addition to a slew of squeaks, squawks, and other distorted timbres. But in addition to having this uniquely recognizable sound, Sanders has always experimented with the sounds behind him. On his 1969 album, Karma, Sanders used a large ensemble featuring a host of exotic percussion instruments and the powerful vocals of Leon Thomas. On his 1980 album Journey to the One, Sanders played over synthesizers and almost hip-hopish dance beats. He has played with African, Indian, and Far Eastern instruments, in addition to more traditional jazz groups. With this track record, Sanders’s performance at the Iridium Jazz Club on December 12, 2008, was anticipated as an eclectic affair.

Instead, Sanders’s set was unexpectedly straight-ahead with a heavy nod to tradition. Instead of pushing forward with new music, Sanders and his band, channeled the music of Sanders’s former boss, John Coltrane, particularly of his early ‘60s, “classic” quartet. The set began with Sanders’s original “Doktor Pitt” from his Journey to the One album. However, the tempo was increased dramatically, turning the lightly funky tune into a ferocious burner, highly reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Impressions.” After a few false starts due to a faulty microphone, Sanders launched into his first solo. His playing was a study in extremes, jumping from dense be-bop-like lines, to long tones, to his trademark sound effects, all with plenty of space in between. For all of the contrasts in Sanders’s solo, the rhythm section remained oddly static. Drummer Mark Johnson propelled the band with high-energy insistence, but his lack of dynamic and textural contrast created a strong feeling of monotony by the end of Sanders’s solo. Pianist William Henderson did not help relieve this monotony much, as he remained locked into the same two-chord vamp for much of the tune. Though Henderson filled his solo with some gracefully swinging lines, they were covered up by Johnson’s unyielding beat and the effect of that contrast was lost.

The feel of the second tune was thankfully more subdued, yet still very much in the Coltrane vein. Henderson played a minor modal vamp with classic McCoy Tyner voicings while Johnson and bassist Nat Reeves set up a relaxed, Latin-tinged groove. This helped clear space to put Sanders front and center and he took full advantage. Sanders’s dynamic solo featured the same extremes in sound as in his first, but with the rhythm section in its restrained state, the contrasts became much more apparent and effective. In a particularly stirring moment, Sanders jumped from a low growl all the way up to a high, singing note, then sliding into a lyrical improvised melody. However, even this musical climax revealed shortcomings of the performance. The rhythm section remained passive during Sanders’s solo, not matching his energy level and not creating any interplay. Also, it showed how Sanders is still in top form on his instrument, suggesting that he could be playing much more interesting new music with more capable and dynamic sideman and is not challenging himself, content to play in an old established style.

After the Latin tune faded out, the band jumped right on to the next tune, another modal vamp, but this one was instantly recognizable: Coltrane’s famous version of “My Favorite Things.” Coltrane’s version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is so definitive, bordering on the trite, that most jazz musicians today stay away from it. Although it is certainly a nice tune to play and long overdue for a reinvention, the performance by Sanders and his band was no such reinvention and came off as just a rehash. Though Sanders probably picked the tune as a send-up to his former boss, it ended up sounding more like a cheap imitation. A major reason Coltrane’s version of the song is so effective is that drummer Elvin Jones is able to create a relaxed mood with his loose, behind-the-beat feel. However, drummer Mark Johnson played on front side of the beat, giving the performance an uncomfortable edge. As such, the rhythm section never really gelled, each one with a different conception of where the tune should go. These differences of opinion were reflected in each one’s solo. Pianist Henderson tried to strike a balance between freedom and restraint, building up his solo with increasingly complex melodic lines. At the climax, Henderson played colorful, upper-register chords in his right hand and the tune’s melody in his left, a compromise between reverence and reinvention. Bassist Nat Reeves’s first solo of the night was both subdued and playful. He preferred to play long tones with strong intonation instead of muddled clutters of lines. He also quoted the melody of the tune’s bridge, playing out of time with a relaxed casualness that was lacking from so much of the set. After awkwardly transitioning back into tempo, Johnson turned the entire tune on its head when he began his solo. By playing the hi-hat on only beat three, he displaced the groove, making the tune feel as if in four, not three. His solo was remarkable in its energy and technical proficiency, but it had no relation to the rest of the song. These disparate solos made it readily apparent that Sanders’s group was not a tight, working band.

It seemed that by the fourth tune, the players were finally getting on to the same page. A swinging, medium-up, hard-boppish number, the tune showed potential to lift the set out of its monotony. There was greater interplay and a bit more fun in the mix, but the tune went the way of most of the others with marathon solos and awkward transitions, pulling the life right out of the tune. Sanders’s last tune opened in a rubato fashion, like Coltrane’s “Spiritual” and “Acknowledgement.” This setting again played into Sanders’s strengths, his big sound cutting through the dense piano and cymbal cascades around him. The band transitioned into another Latin feel and Sanders began another trademark solo. However, before he could reach a definitive climax, the group transitioned back into the rubato intro and ended the tune in a less than conclusive fashion, brought about by the fact Sanders’s performance had run over time. Sanders then spoke for the first time all set (a fact that created an air of seriousness, even a wall between performer and audience, all night), as he quickly introduced the band and scampered off stage. For those unfamiliar with Sanders’s work, the set would have been eye-opening, as Sanders’s sound is still intensely deep and powerful. But for those who have heard Sanders previously, the show was underwhelming as Sanders broke no new ground and did not shoot off any creative sparks.

With his long list of accomplishments, Pharoah Sanders certainly does not need to prove his worth as a player to jazz critics. Having already cemented his place among the pantheon of tenor saxophonists, Sanders is free to play in whatever manner he desires. However, because Sanders is blessed with the ability to play so forcefully and expressively at this point in his career, he has the potential to continually expand and reinvent his music, even if he wishes to revisit older styles. Sanders may wish to take a note from saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Unlike Sanders’s group, Shorter’s quartet is made up of younger players who are regarded as great leaders in their own rights. Shorter’s group is based on interplay, allowing his players to assert their own musical voices into the mix and challenge Shorter, not just let him float on top. The group’s repertoire is almost exclusively Shorter’s older tunes, but because of their format, all of the tunes are reinvented in each performance and infrequently stale. If Sanders assembles a group of challenging players to accompany him, his music will not be stale as it was on December 12. Sanders’s music will gain new relevance, ceasing to be a hollow echo of the past.

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