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February 09 London Vortex gigs


by Tim Owen

February 05, 2009

Tim Owen reports on two gigs at London's Vortex

Marc Ducret - 4 stars

Vortex, London; 28/01.09

Buffalo Collision - 3 stars

Vortex, London; 30/01/09

Alto player Tim Berne?s annual visits to the Vortex are, for this listener at least, one of the highlights of the Jazz calendar, and this year?s gigs ? by new outfit Buffalo Collision ? followed two other concerts at the same venue in the same week that featured some regular Berne associates: first a trio led by Julian Arg?elles featuring bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tom Rainey on the 26th, which unfortunately I couldn?t attend, and then Marc Ducret leading his own trio on the 28th.

Ducret?s trio with bassist Bruno Chevillon and drummer Eric Echampard is long-standing but little recorded, and although they play, says Ducret, every night, they don?t do so in England, which is our loss. 

Ducret has a singular style that makes much use of volume, or the lack of it: more than once he turned the pickup volume control to mute the type of solo that more extrovert plank spankers would amp to the max. When Ducret spanks the plank he sometimes does so literally. More often he coaxes notes from his instrument with mercurial deftness, switching in an instant from pick to finger style, and deploying a range of techniques; sometimes ?whammy tapping? with the side of his finger, and on one occasion seeming to lift a single soft note with the tip of his finger. 

The trio had a close rapport.  Echampard?s style sits somewhere between that of jazz-influenced rockers such as Charlie Watts and unclassifiable modernists such as Supersilent?s Jarle Vespestad. Chevillon acted as an enabler within the trio, complimenting Ducret and shaping the group sound with light, spacious playing that successfully implied his interest, in other contexts, in electronics. The trio galvanized the audience, and always kept a graceful distance from the cliches of electric jazz fusion. 

The four long tracks that comprised their set included The Lantern Bearers - a dedication to Robert Louis Stevenson, for his essay of the same name - and a medley that included two Bob Dylan compositions. Ducret?s music is full of surprise.

Buffalo Collision is a new project fronted by Tim Berne and an old colleague of his, cellist Hank Roberts, in partnership with Bad Plus members Ethan Iverson (piano) and Dave King (drums). An earlier lineup featured violist Mat Maneri in place of Roberts, which must have been an intriguing substitution. Whereas Maneri is from the highly disciplined microtonal school of his father, saxophonist and composer Joe Maneri, Roberts? style is more inclusive, and draws equally on both jazz and, by implication at least, the folk realism of B?la Bart?k. 

I caught the second of two houses on the 30th, which began just before midnight and ended - surprisingly early for a show by Berne - at about one a.m. Perhaps the earlier house enjoyed a longer set, but likely not. The group hit some very real highs, but the interaction was rather too distant at times, and lacked the gnarled intensity of Berne?s best work. 

Berne himself was uncharacteristically reticent throughout the night, perhaps overly deferential, and never really came close to his best form. Iverson also held back for the right moments, although when he did have something to contribute it was incisive and powerfully stated. In the second of the three long pieces played, for instance, he seemed content to add sporadic melodic embellishments, and took a vigorous drum-assisted solo only after the piece had plateaued. Dave King was perhaps the most consistently engaged and responsive presence, but it was Hank Roberts? night. 

The group?s first piece ? all, as far as I can tell, were improvised ? featured a couple of lovely, fluent duets by the Bad Plus two, as well as the early highlight of the evening,  a thrilling, vigorously contested duel between Roberts and King. Indeed, the most successful moments usually came when one or more musicians opted to sit out. Some really pithy ensemble work did come about, but only as the piece came apart ? in a controlled way ? at its conclusion. 

Berne?s best moment came at the start of the second number, in an aching, anguished-sounding duet with Iverson, which was eventually joined by Roberts? cello. From then on, Roberts contributions became increasingly characterful, and he emerged as the dominant voice overall; it was his playing that people were excitedly discussing at the end of the night. He has had an intriguing career, including not only previous collaborations with Berne (notably in Miniature, with drummer Joey Baron), but also as a key voice in the Bill Frisell Group in the late ?80s, and in the Arcado String Trio alongside fellow improvisers Mark Feldman and Mark Dresser. In England, however, we don?t get to see him very often. Berne instigated a pugnacious R&B-inflected passage to take the piece towards its end, and this culminated in something of a musical tug-of-war from which Roberts, bowing hard and drawing strong, abrasive melodies from the improvisation, was eventually left as the last man standing. 

The gig concluded with a coolly laid-back number; an irregular, repeating theme which was quite atypical for Berne, hinting that there is a lot more potential in this group.

The star rating here should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt, as my expectations have been set high by all those previous evenings listening to Berne?s music in the Vortex and elsewhere over the past twenty years or so. There are fewer solid guarantees of a satisfying night out in my book, and while this night may not have made my grade, Buffalo Collision might astound fresher ears; and they are a distinct improvement on the Bad Plus, who I never cared for much anyway.

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