Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Williamsburg Jazz Fest Blooms at Rose's-September 28, 2007 (Greenpoint-Williamsburg Gazette)

The Williamsburg Jazz Festival kicked out the jams for another night last Friday with three great bands--Mark Guilana's "Thing," the Pheeroan Aklaff Duo, and Greg Heffernan's Sauce. Admission was ten dollars at Rose's on Grand St., right in the heart of Williamsburg. While it was the first night of the festival to charge more than a one drink minimum, concert-goers got their money's worth and then some.
While some of the acts from previous nights such as Aviv Cohen's Pocket pushed the envelope by using non-traditional instruments or played what some might call "free jazz," Friday night's festivities took things up a notch. Each band played progressively more aggressive or experimented more. Each band outdid its predecessor providing an increasingly aggressive, experimental sound.
Rose's provided an intimate atmosphere. It was crowded but not packed, allowing for a nice crowd while still allowing for adequate breathing room. The bar had some great beers on tap for five dollars--Hoegarten, Brooklyn Lager, Sierra Nevada. The kitchen was in full service for the evening as well, so concert-goers could enjoy a nice meal with their jazz.
The first band of the evening, Mark Guilana's "Thing," had an aggressive sound. Mark Guilana, the drummer and band-leader, kept a solid groove and seemed to know how to get just the right sound out of every inch of his set. Playing in a trio, he often dominated the stage, stealing the attention away from his bandmates. They rarely kept a consistent melody, so everyone had a ton of room to let their voices be heard.
The trio was rounded out by Nir Felder on guitar and Panagiotis Andreou on electric bass. The group seemed to lack cohesiveness. They seldom played with any melodic continuity. They all seemed to solo at once which provided an interesting sound but lacked a consistent thematic drive. The guitarist Nir Felder wasn't on the same level as his bandmates musically, but everyone was outshined by Mark Guilana whose aggressive style dominated the performance (I was almost hit by a flying drum stick during one of his solos).
As aggressive as Mark Guilana's style was, he was weak when compared to the night's second performers--Pheeroan Aklaff and Mixashawn. They performed as a duo with Pheeroan on drums and Mixashawn switching between tenor sax and mandolin. The duet grew to a trio for two songs when a friend of Pheeroan's sitting in the crowd equipped with his trumpet, Rasul Siddik, jumped on stage and started blowing away.
Pheeroan Aklaff is an avant-garde free jazz musician who originally hails from Detroit, Michigan. According to his website, "His desire to perform music professionally was driven by sensing the power of music as a catalyst for collective transformation. His concern with national decline grew with the Detroit 1967 riots, the King and Kennedy assassinations and losing his cousin to the Vietnam War. These impressions led him towards activism, and the musicians who articulated responses to such in their work. His High School days as an influential student organizer of the Free Angela Davis committee, a member of the Pan-African Congress, and listener of John and Alice Coltrane was encouraged by his famed Detroit teacher Chester Littlejohn."
He attended Eastern Michigan University and began to study the drums. He then relocated to New Haven, Connecticut where he started to collaborate with other avant garde jazz performers such as Wadada Leo Smith, Oliver Lake, Anthony Davis, Michael Gregory, and Henry Threadgill. In the early eighties he relocated again to Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire where he explored urban popular music with Frank T. Fairdax and Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Since then he has travelled all over the world performing and recording. He currently holds teaching positions at Wesleyan University, Elisabeth Irwin High School, and New School University, is a founder of Seed Arts Inc. a non-profit organization for the promotion of healing arts and international awareness, and an Advisory Board member of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.
Pheeroan's performance Friday night lived up to his billing as a free jazz pioneer. He combined vocal outbursts with aggressive dueling solos between him and Mixashawn on sax or mandolin. While the night's first act had no cohesion, Pheeroan and Mixashawn were bound together by their unending aggression channeled through their respective instruments. Long hard-driving solos poured out of each of them, neither of them stopping for a second. Pheeroan had an endless bag of sticks and mallets from which he kept drawing as he was constantly breaking them (he broke three sticks and a mallet in thirty seconds during one roaring solo). Mixashawn employed circular breathing to uphold his unending stream of musical aggression and hysteria.
Pheeroan described his approach as such, "There's a wall between you and your expression that could be seen as many things. If you are interested in designing yourself to be presented a certain way and get a certain response, you might be there for a while or you might have a wonderful spurt. The everyday experience of pushing your personal envelope of getting past your own experience is what I live for."
The third and final act of the night. Greg Heffernan's Sauce, made its own distinctive mark on the night. The Sauce performed as a six-piece ensemble with Heffernan the band leader playing cello and controlling the laptop computer that was playing an electronic sampling track, Myk Freedman on lap steel guitar, Todd Neufeld on rhythm guitar, Ohad Talmor on tenor saxophone, Rich Stein on percussions and Josh Myers on upright, and electric bass.
The Sauce had a very unique sound in a night full of characters. They knew how to blend electronic sound perfectly with acoustic. Lots of different colors and sounds were present in the wide array of instruments and effects. They established a deep groove without employing a drum set. For a group so big and diverse, they knew how to seam together very well. Their solos were well defined in an extremely crowded ensemble. They focused less on individuality and more on unity. The upright bass played a big part in keeping everything locked together nicely. Rich Stein added the perfect amount of character as well.
They had a sound that made you not quite know where you were. Their instrumentation provided elements of quite a few styles and characteristics. Every time I looked the drummer was employing some different kind of instrument (brushes, sticks, djembe, floor tom, shakers, strange percussion instruments I didn't recognize). An electric drum track provided an elevator jazz element combined with live percussion that brought the audience into the performance. The guitarist and sax player navigated the intricate rhythm section and glided over it. The guitar treaded more lightly than sax. Their sound reminded my friend Molly of belly-dancing music with a Cajun twist supplied by the cello and slide guitar.
The 5th Annual Williamsburg Jazz Festival concluded Saturday night at Laila Lounge on North 7th with festival-organizer Rick Parker's band the Rick Parker Collective, the Yosvany Terry Quartet, and For Living Lovers. As I've written before, the Williamsburg Jazz Festival is the best deal for quality live jazz you will ever find in New York City. This year, the jazz was great, the venues were nice, and the crowds were lively. Next year's festival will come sooner than you think, so start getting ready now.

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