Sunday night Peter Apfelbaum wrapped up a weeklong stand at the Stone with a sprawling, serpentine, unselfconsciously joyous (and surprisingly tight) performance by his long-running large ensemble the New York Hieroglyphics. It’s a fair guess that crowds outside of New York would pay obscenely to see such a pantheonic lineup, which also comprised trumpeter Steven Bernstein, trombonists Josh Roseman and Natalie Cressman, violinist Charlie Burnham. guitarist Will Bernard, tenor saxophonist Tony Jones, multi-reedman Norbert Stachel, bassist Brad Jones, drummer JT Lewis and singer Abdoulaye Diabate.
They played with the cameraderie of a group that’s existed, if on and off and bicoastally, for forty years, dating from Apfelbaum’s teenage years at UC/Berkeley. They’ve come a long way since the days when they had to rehearse in a local park since they “Couldn’t play if there were adults around,” as Apfelbaum wryly recounted: they were a lot further out back then.
Here the improvisation was more focused on solos and pairs than mass squall. In that context, Bernstein and Roseman played with a resonant restraint, eschewing the ripsnorting attack they could have pursued with this group in past decades. Violinist Charlie Burnham took a long, starkly emphatic wah-wah solo; bass and drums shifted the night’s final number further and further from Malian duskcore slink toward reggae but never actually landed in Kingston as they’d been hinting. Cressman – daughter of the group’s original trombonist, Jeff Cressman – played a clinic in slicing and dicing judicious blues phrases from the top to the bottom of the scale, and later sang a pretty straight-up oldschool 60s-style version of the Prince ballad Sometimes It Snows in April.
Apfelbaum began the set with one of his signature uneasy, acerbic piano figures, later switching to tenor sax as the composition shifted from an emphatically moody, Darcy James Argue-esque theme to something akin to Argue’s big band tackling the kind of Indian tunes that the Grateful Dead were pilfering in the 1960s. A big, bright, brassy false ending was the high point, echoed at the end of the show with a cantabile lustre that left the crowd wondering where the choir was hidden.
Apfelbaum opened that one solo on melodica before handing off its jauntily circling Tuareg rock riffage to Bernard, who turned in a performance worthy of Tinariwen: he really ha a feel for that stuff. In his impassioned tenor Diabate sang the lyric about a genie who hasn’t arrived yet, joined in a celebratory, seemingly impromptu singalong by the rest of the band.
In between, Apfelbaum led the group from tensely syncopated Afro-Cuban piano verses to expansive vistas that finally straightened out closer to Havana than Senegal. Much of this material, he said, is scheduled to be recorded soon: from this performance, it’s definitely ready.