An Impromptu String Jazz Summit at Shapeshifter Lab
Last night at Shapeshifter Lab was a transcontinental string jazz summit. Ironically, that wasn’t the plan. But immigration trumped violinist Hakon Aase’s chance to get into the country, so bassist Sigurd Hole enlisted a great counterpart, Mark Feldman, to step in with barely two weeks notice. The result was a clinic in just about all the tuneful possibilities a violin, bass and most of a drumkit can create when manned by three of the world’s great minds in creative music.
Hole began with a solo set, which quickly established two of the night’s sustaining tropes: catchy minimalism and vast, brooding soundscapes. Often, he’d use his pedal to loop a low drone and then play tense close harmonies against it, often rising to keening, high-sky ambience for stark contrast. Most of the time he played with a bow, although he fingerpicked his most minimalist, catchiest grooves. The most entertaining moment was when he tuned his E string down a full octave for maximum ominous resonance. Hole’s long, sustained raga-like phrasing quickly established an Indian influence; at other times, grey-sky Norwegian folk tunes and more than distant echoes of the Balkans filtered through his somber washes.
Feldman and drummer Jarle Vespestad then joined him for the second set, which was catchier yet no less dark and intense. Playing a kit with no cymbals other than a hi-hat, often building a resonant, boomy sway on a dumbek goblet drum, Vespestad alternated between steady, syncopated quasi-trip-hop and slowly undulating Middle Eastern-flavored dirges.
Considering that it would be a stretch to call any of this music midtempo, Feldman saved his most exhilarating cadenzas to cap off the end of a few long upward spirals. Otherwise, he stuck close to Hole’s moody, plaintive themes, often in tandem with the bass. Hole dug into the pocket and stayed there for the majority of the set, although the more nocturnal numbers – especially an allusively Arabic-tinged mini-epic named for a street in Jerusalem – featured the same shadowy orchestral sweep as the material in his first set. Everything was filtered through a glass, darkly: Hole’s compositions peered around corners toward Egypt, and Mumbai, and fullscale angst, which made the few moments when the band let the menace off its leash all the more chilling.