A Sizzling, Cutting-Edge, Wildly Funky String Jazz Collaboration in Long Island City
It’s impossible to think of a more capsulizing moment for music in New York in 2021 than the concert in a Long Island City parking lot last Sunday. Overhead, the skies blackened, but on the ground, string quartet the Lotus Chamber Music Collective and jazz quartet Momentum joined in a wild, ecstatic collaboration that spoke to the indomitability of New York musicians creating the newest sounds around.
Lotus’ charismatic cellist, Sasha Ono, didn’t bother trying to hide how amped she was to finally be able to play her first concert since last year’s lockdown. The electricity shared by all eight players – perched on the back of a trailer and the bed of a battered 1963 Ford pickup – was pure unleashed cabin fever. This crew had obviously been playing and refining their chops during the time live music was criminalized here. And a big crowd had come out for the fireworks, defying the thunderclouds overhead.
The quartet – which also included violinists Tiffany Weiss and Emily Frederick alongside violist Gizem Yucel – opened with a mixture of lushness and groove, Ono and Momentum bassist Isaac Levien doubling up on the fat low end riffage throughout most of JJ’s Dance, by drummer Elé Howell. It was a slinky, shapeshifting number that gave the band a long launching pad to rise through a blend of Afrobeat, trip-hop and psychedelic funk that drew a straight line back to Roy Ayers. From the back of the truck bed, guitarist Quintin Zoto drove it to a searing peak with a long, feral but erudite solo, capped off with some savage tremolo-picking.
Cultural Appropriation, by Julia Chen had a coy calypso bounce fueled by Howell’s loose-limbed clave, with a similarly slinky Levien bass solo, vibraphonist Grady Tesch rippling through what the clouds overhead were foreshadowing.
Ono told the crowd that she’d been inspired to come up with her arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s La Paloma Azul as a reflection on the South American refugee crisis, the strings introducing its lustrous initial theme followed by the rest of the ensemble’s lilting, bittersweet, Mexican folk-tinged rhythms.
The most ambitiously symphonic interlude of the afternoon was when the two groups mashed up Swing, Low Sweet Chariot with themes from Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint for String Quartet (her Symphony No. 1 was the most-played orchestral work by any American composer in the 1930s). Ono and Tesch had come up with that idea after doing a webcast focusing on Price, whose gospel and jazz-influenced music is getting a long-overdue revival. The highlight was Yucel’s stark viola solo amid the polyrhythms and the constant dynamic shifts.
The eight musicians closed the first set with a determined, lavishly funky take of Shunzo Ohno‘s Musashi, debuting string parts which the jazz legend had written for this performance. It was akin to a particularly energetic segment on the Crusaders’ live album with B.B. King, switching out King’s string-busting bent notes for a torrentially icy guitar attack channeled through Zoto’s chorus pedal. Welcome to the future of serious concert music in New York, 2021: if this is any indication, it’s going to be a hot summer.
The more-or-less weekly outdoor series in the parking lot out behind Culture Lab, 5-25 46th Ave in Long Island City continues at 5 PM tonight, July 24 with careening, microtonally-tinged electric blues band Jane Lee Hooker. The space is just down the block from LIC Bar, further toward the water; take the 7 to Vernon Blvd.