An UNDEAD Improvised Music Review by Monique Avakian
Though I brought homemade chocolate-chip cookies for bait, sadly, I encountered no Zombies. However, there were several Other-Worldly moments that occurred at Brooklyn’s I-Beam on May 5, 2013, including a sighting of Elizabeth Reed making her way around the indeterminate and evolving wreckage near the 7th Street and 4th Avenue crossroads.
During the I-Beam portion of Search & Restore’s annual UNDEAD Festival, audience members were treated to a drum duo on two kits (Vinnie Sperrazza/Jeff Davis Duo); a trio of free-improv (Jesse Stacken Group with Mat Maneri and Devin Gray) and an electronica~trombone improv set with Brian Drye and Jacob Garchik. Big Eyed Rabbit (Max Johnson, bass; Jeff Davis, drums; Ross Martin, guitar) rounded out the evening, but, unfortunately, I had to leave before I got to hear them.
Vinnie Sperrazza and Jeff Davis
These compositions and improvisations were based on the rudiments, and I felt happy when I heard a flam and got that. Not being solid myself with all the rudiments, though, I know missed a lot of conceptual drum~puns; BUT, I had a good time anyway, enjoying two jazz drummers’ takes on the essentials of the extras based on the essentials.
The first tune, “Imaginary Friend,” went by really fast. Strangely, I don’t have any notes on this. Probably because I was too distracted obsessing about Sperrazza’s suped-up, vintage kit — a 1948 black Ludwig (!).
Second up, we had an exploration of Ted Reed’s Syncopation, which was really enjoyable. All drummers know that book because of the dorky cover, which has become a doppelganger for all the cool stuff inside. Sperrazza and Davis made it all the more cool and super intricate, especially at the beginning when the pair started off and maintained a soft volume for a very long time. Later, there was a lot of low-down on the toms spiced with rim clicks and some spontaneous conducting and exclaiming on the part of Sperrazza that led to more joyful joint improv. The whole thing ended with a loud crescendo into a double forte. Ted, I’m sure, would have approved.
Tune #3 began with a lot of cymbal wash and soft toms and fingers brushing against skins. Here, the duo created a very jungle-like, adventurous landscape, conjuring up all sorts of benevolent pacing power animals that lent some heft to the evening. The tune continued to evolve and at one point Davis pushed the butt end of a wooden vibes mallet across his Ride to get a singular soft searing sound; an industrial sound, but mysteriously non-abrasive. This was quite beautiful and enticing—to all spirits, earth-bound as well as transdimensional.
Near the end, this tune took a further ethereal turn when someone’s phone softly made that melodic five figure corporate pattern we all now have annoyingly ingrained in our consciousness. Interestingly, this did not repeat, leading me to think that this must have been a riff offered by the Imaginary Friend Sperrazza encouraged us to wonder about earlier. Then, again, maybe it was Elizabeth Reed calling for Ted. Or, perhaps, it could have been YOU!
In any case, the musicians deftly incorporated this tiny communiqué, ending the piece with a Sperrazza witticism about the day being a DIY Have Your Own Fun kind of thing.
#4 “The Hard One”: This felt like opening a treasure chest of nesting boxes filled with 5s and 10s. Charming and spritely, this exploration expanded my understanding of what might be possible if you trade in unison, if you know what I mean. This piece scaffolded around a structure that felt simultaneously collapsible and expandable with a quick ending. Maybe too quick! Hey, we were enjoying that!
By the time we got to #5, “Heretics on the Theme of Heresy,” we had already learned that we could explore “militarism without the militarism,” so we were ready for this intriguing change-up into a time-based rock feel where the two took turns: one improvising, the other keeping time.
Davis, I noticed, has this sly way of sliding into a ripping fast run, and, in this tune, this really solidified the groove throughout in a very subliminal and pleasing way. You could learn a lot about how to get around the kit from watching this guy, especially when he’s playing soft and fast.
Something really cool happened in the middle of Heretics: somehow, these two managed a complete surfer feel for a minute even though both were playing only snare. Weight, depth, punch, harmony and melody were all evoked clearly, yet, the only sound was snare. Wow! How did they do that!?!
Sperrazza explored a lot of tom work inside of Heretics, moving around the kit deconstructing a bunch of ideas and at moments looking vertically somewhat like Keith Moon without sounding like him at all. And wasn’t Keith Moon into surfer music? Hmmmm…..more DIY magic to ponder, along with Sperrazza inserting a single measure of a swing beat near the end: charming!
TRIO OF FREE IMPROV – Jesse Stacken, Mat Maneri, Devin Gray
This group was the most abstract musically, but conceptually, and with great irony, they began with the most mundane kind of conjure: horns blaring, cars rudely zipping by dangerously close…. It’s the dead of night, and it feels like the end of the world. You realize you’ve been pinned against the cold white tile of the carbon-monoxide filled tunnel buried under the sad and lonely city. And serious choices have got to be made.
Eventually, we crossed over into a more pastoral place, with rumbly drums and long bowed single notes from viola. Here, Stacken decided to make full use of the entire piano, moving up and down with really long, loud arpeggiated figures. Then he started pulling these sweet high pings out of the piano strings (literally), choosing next to alternate those with a classical sounding motif played straight up on the keys. At this point, Maneri started tapping the floor and instrument case with his bow while drummer Devin Gray scraped along on something….I think it was metal cookie cooling rack ?!?!?! (He also had a Ride made out of a piece of sheet metal and a hit hat with two mis-matched plates).
Anyway, before long, Maneri’s viola started to bend and Stacken started to pound into repetitive chords forged in sets of four tossed with sporadic rapid runs up and down. Furniture drawers in several adjacent buildings began to open and close in time to all of the sudden slamming sounds. Rugs turned into tigers and lamps flew around the room as various spirits passed through. I felt as if I might dematerialize at any moment!
I didn’t though, just became aware that Maneri was playing duple figures in what seemed like a familiar song turned upside down. Then he and the drummer galloped away, just briefly, before Maneri came back to move into a long drawn out series of single notes, bringing all of that intensity to distill into gentle piano into silence. We all hung there, suspended, for a
What a fierce experience!
DUET~QUARTET ELECTRONICA TROMBONE
Brian Drye and Jacob Garchik
Here you had two who became four, with a lot of wires and gizmos and what the heck is going on, I wondered, as it dawned on me that Garchik’s trombone mute was electrified (!) and hooked up to a pedal.
Both trombonists had electric keyboards as well as the acoustic piano to play. Drye had a very simple yet powerful-looking turquoise box, which he arranged carefully on the floor. It soon became clear that this was for looping. Everything was wired into a big black box which at first they couldn’t get working; eventually it was determined that one switch had to be pulled, and we were off like Frankenstein:
Somehow, the duo created unusual loops live in the moment to improvise with. How they managed to make these live transitions so smoothly is unclear and amazing. The ostinatos became very trippy and playful, eventually pulling us into a room full of purring cats on acid, suspended in time like that famous photo of Dali jumping with cats and water. The sound of trombones against all the electronica was warmly intriguing.
At one point, Garchik used the volume switch like a scratch DJ and Drye rigged it so there were several layers of scratching syncopation with the sounds morphing from a tuba timbre to industrial clapslaps to straight up piano.
Then Garchik quoted himself from his new album, The Heavens (!) and Yeats’ little silver fish spoke to me directly, vowing an open musical secret. (*)
The UNDEAD music festival – essential and invigorating.
Catch it next year. I DIY~dare you!
(*) Yeats’ poem, The Song of the Wandering Aengus, I just found out, was originally published in a book entitled: The Wind Among the Reeds. HA!
For further exploration: