Last Friday's triple-bill at Union Hall was a very hip lineup. I love the space, so I'm always happy to see them booking interesting and diverse music.
A lot of jazz musicians in their twenties and thirties, having O.D.'d on the music school-approved jazz canon, start turning to alternate sources for inspiration. You'll see players who never really took pop music seriously suddenly throwing themselves into records by Wilco, Bjork, Beck, Elliott Smith, Rufus Wainwright, Sufjan Stevens, obsessing over the textural and sonic details of this music like they once obsessed over Coltrane's harmonic substitutions. But even once their inner singer-songwriter is unleashed, few of them actually take the next step and start writing songs -- you know, the kind with actual lyrics. Even fewer go all the way by actually picking up the mic and singing.
Trumpeter Matt Shulman -- whose previous Union Hall gig was with Secret Society back in August -- is one of those brave souls trying to combine his love of Jeff Buckley with his formidable jazz chops. He's been described as a Chet Baker for the twenty-first century, but that doesn't seem quite right. Chet's trumpet playing was as introverted as his voice, but Matt's blowing is relentlessly, staggeringly virtuosic, full of roller-coaster chromatic lines and tightly controlled multiphonics. He saves any sense of vulnerability for his singing, which is hushed and wispy. The vocal melodies ran the gamut from yearning melodicism to the occasional tricky trumpet-like line.
The group sound is filled out by (Secret Society stalwart) Matt Clohesy on five-string electric bass and Jason Wildman on drums, as well as Shulman's liberal use of pedal effects to manipulate both his voice and trumpet. (He often sang into both his trumpet and vocal mics simultaneously, which saves him from having to run two separate sets of pedals, but also tended to blur the lyrics.) Lubo Borza (that spelling is my best guess) contributed very effective abstract video projections, manipulated in real time using a laptop and Oxygen 8 MIDI controller.
Shulman is attempting an incredibly ambitious blend of confessional singer-songwriter intimacy, jazz harmony, prog pyrotechnics, extended trumpet techniques, and electronic soundsculpting. But this isn't gratuitous musical channel-surfing. It's more like Iron Chef, where the fun is in seeing outrageously unlikely combinations of ingredients brought together in inventive ways.
Jie Ma plays the Pipa, a plucked, fretted string instrument, kind of like a Chinese lute. She was billed as appearing with her own trio, but she actually ended up doing a few solo pieces and some duos with Downtown percussionist Satoshi Takeishi. The moods ranged from elegiac to hypnotic to furious, full of string bending, ringing harmonics, body-thumping, and one run of blistering hammer-ons that sounded almost like AC/DC's "Thunderstruck." I'd never heard of Jie before -- to be honest, I didn't even know what her instrument was called before she told us -- but she's a magnetic performer and the stuff I heard was all instantly compelling.
Last time I saw him, cellist Erik Friedlander all but stole the show, so I was pretty psyched to hear him do his own thing in an intimate space. "His own thing" was duets with the aforementioned Takeishi, plus a handful of solo cello pieces. He dug in on hard-grooving versions of classic tunes from the golden age of jazz, including Rahsaan Roland Kirk's "Raped Voices" and Arthur Blythe's "Lower Nile." There was also a traditional Persian melody and a few Friedlander originals, including one inspired by a vintage Airstream trailer.
Friedlander's creativity, melodicism, full-bodied sound, and time feel aren't just "pretty good for a cello player" -- Erik is, by any standard, certifiably sick. If he played bass instead of cello, he'd likely be as in-demand as guys like Drew Gress and Ben Street. As it is, he's a bit of a cultish figure, probably best known for his work in Dave Douglas's late, lamented Parallel Worlds quintet. But for the past ten-odd years, Friedlander's been working with Satoshi Takeishi, his brother Stomu Takeishi, and saxophonist/clarinettist Andy Laster in a band called Topaz, the genesis of which is vividly described on Erik's website:
After a few frustrating months Stomu suggested I invite his brother Satoshi, a percussionist, to a rehearsal. The first meeting with Sato bowled me over. Where once we had labored, we now were having a freewheeling conversation. Satoshi brought the rhythmic energy we had always needed to give the music a self-sustaining rush. Stomu was now free to move from anchoring the rhythm to sometimes being a free-agent adding color and texture to the arrangements. Andy and I were able to add harmony lines, support the rhythm section, or even just lay out, which was pretty much impossible before Sato arrived.
This is a band I'm really looking forward to hearing live.
P.S. I notice that Erik is also giving cello lessons online, gratis, via YouTube. Existing instructional videos are here, dealing with practical stuff like the "hotel room warmup," getting a good jazz pizz. sound on cello, and dealing with mics and pickups. Also: he takes requests.