Jazz Improvisation at Its Most Adrenalizing and Interesting at Barbes
That two of New York’s best bass players made the trip to Park Slope to watch their four-string colleague Max Johnson improvise with saxophonist Matt Nelson and drummer Brian Chase last month speaks for itself. Opening for Balkan brass legends Slavic Soul Party, the trio delivered everything that makes improvisation the highest musical art form, at least when everybody’s on their game. Suspenseful slow builds, boisterous conversations, viscerally breathtaking displays of extended technique, stories, ideas, good jokes: this set had it all. Johnson is bringing the potential for all that back to Barbes on Dec 12 at 8 PM with a new trio including Anna Webber on tenor sax and flute plus veteran Michael Sarin on drums.
The first guy to pull out all the stops at the November 6 gig was Nelson. Playing soprano sax, he fired off what seemed to be twenty nonstop minutes of circular breathing. Part of what required that was endlessly circling variations on the kind of tightly clustering, cellular phrases he plays in Battle Trance. That was spectacular enough, but he raised the bar several notches, punctuating the river of sound with wildfire, Coltrane-like glissandos, paint-peeling duotone harmonics, shrieks and wails. At the end, he was about as winded as any horn player can be: to say that this was epic to witness is an understatement. Switching to tenor, he gave himself some opportunities to breathe for the rest of the set, but the intensity was pretty much unrelenting.
Johnson was also on a mission to air out his chops, whether bowing whispery, ghostly harmonics, churning out mesmeric, pitchblende rivers of chords on the two lowest strings, racewalking through swing and taking a couple of bouncy, funky detours for the closest thing to comic relief here. Meanwhile, Chase took charge of the dynamics: he was on sentry duty. Whenever it seemed that a lull might be imminent, he’d smack something and the rest of the trio would pick up on the signal. At one point, he pulled the bell of the hi-hat off the stand and gave it a solid whack: it turned out to be the cork on this champagne bottle. Flickering through his hardware and along the rims, wirewalking on the bell of his crash cymbal and driving the final nail through whatever peak presented itself, he engaged the audience as tersely and emphatically as he did his bandmates.
This month’s show has similar potential if completely different personalities. As an improviser, Webber is more of a tunesmith but isn’t afraid of noise. Sarin comes from a completely different era and idiom, but so does Chase, who’s had a money gig with an indie band for years. You can see for yourself what kind of quirk and charm and maybe new elements get invented on the 12th of the month at Barbes.