Kamikaze Ground Crew Revisit Their Playfully Carnivalesque, Distinctively Erudite Downtown Sound at Roulette

by delarue

Kamikaze Ground Crew played a somewhat under-the-radar but nonetheless historic reunion show at Roulette last week. Those in attendance might not have completely packed Barbes, where co-founder Gina Leishman played most recently, but they would have sold out the Stone and would have thrilled the tourists at Jazz at Lincoln Center, whether or not that crowd would have recognized them. And many of them would have. This downtown supergroup dates back to the early 80s, when they were a real circus band. There’s been some turnover in the lineup over the years: this was the 90s edition, Leishman more or less out in front and joined by Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Peter Apfelbaum on tenor sax, Doug Wieselman on multi-reeds, Marcus Rojas on tuba, Art Baron on trombone and Kenny Wollesen on drums and gongs Together they delivered a cinematic program that shifted elegantly from amusement to suspense, making tango out of Stravinsky, a wary stroll out of Stockhausen, kaleidescopically disasssembling noir cabaret and taking several detours in a sideshow direction.v

The funniest part of the evening, and the one that harked back most vividly to the band’s punk-jazz roots, was when everybody put down his or her horn and picked up a beer bottle. Bernstein had meticulously adjusted the level in each of them to deliver a specific pitch. Then the whole group blew a surprisingly tight horn chart on their bottles. All that extra beer didn’t seem to affect the trumpeter – although Leishman grinningly recounted how the whole band had to do a lot of drinking in rehearsal to get the part right.

She opened on piano, leading the band through a moody, carefully orchestrated, slowly pulsing new number, switching to alto sax and then back to piano. By the time the show finally wrapped up, almost two hours later, she’d also played baritone sax, ukulele and accordion. Apfelbaum provided judicious resonance and one of the night’s most mysterioualy captivating moments, a long, almost imperceptibly crescendoing solo while Wieselman spiraled artfully through the mix, Wollesen coloring the songs with his rims and hardware and finally the deep-space boom of the gongs. The brass alternated between looming, portentous swells and unleashed exuberance, Rojas opening one number with a solo that veered from comedic to a completely unexpected, frantic chase riff.

They made an early Ellingtonian strut out of Robert Johnson’s Rolling and Tumbling, coalescing slowly out of a flutter of individual voices. A new diptych by Wieselman began as variations on a deceptively simple circular phrase and finally rose out of its slow, whirlpooling chart to more animated terrain. The night’s most overtly noir moments came during a Piazzolla number that shifted back and forth between bustling 50s noir jazz, dixieland flair and a murky interlude midway through. A couple of slow, altered swing numbers souned like the long buildups to the circus acts they probably were written for. And Leishman entreated the audience to listen closely to the Bach-like beauty in a Brecht-Weill number that she’d sliced and diced to bring out every bit of longing its central, canon-like melody before pulling it all together and singing the wistful song pretty much straight up.

Bernstein and Baron got to cut loose the most on a trio of boisterous New Orleans shuffles in the same vein as the former’s recent work with his band the Hot 9, with pianist Henry Butler. Since each band member is involved in so many other projects, there’s no telling if and when this group will reconvene. If there was any band who were before their time, this is them.

Beyond the indie classical and the avant garde stuff that Roulette programs – Glenn Branca is bringing his guitar orchestra here on Oct 8, which should raise the roof – the venue books a lot of jazz as well, no surprise since the space’s original Tribeca incarnation was a jazz loft. On Oct 16, veteran alto saxophonist Oliver Lake begins a contrasting two-night stand. The first night, trumpeter Josh Evans’ Quintet opens for Lake’s Big Band. The second night, Oct 18 pairs two especially interesting postbop trios: trombonist/crooner Frank Lacy with a rhythm section of Kevin Ray and Andrew Drury followed by Lake with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. Showtime is 8 PM; $20 adv tix are highly rcommended.