A Forest of Sounds at ShapeShifter Lab’s RareNoise Night
Posted 1/2/2014

It was a night of rare, wonderful music, with a gathering force that found people rocking in their chairs. On Dec. 13, the London-based record label RareNoise presented three acts at the increasingly hip, noteworthy ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn. The showcase included sets by tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman’s trio One; the quintet Plymouth featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson; and the improvising quartet Slobber Pup. But the evening’s fulcrum, its putative star, was Joe Morris—guitarist and bassist for all three sets.

Morris’ nimble bass playing helped kick off the driving force of One’s set, featuring the raving renegade Perelman and quixotic drummer Balázs Pándi, in an aggressive, sometimes venturing program of two improvised pieces.

Morris and Pándi returned for Slobber Pup’s closing set, which had more of a rock sensibility with the recurring pulse of the drums, acid-tinged guitar work, organist-keyboardist Jamie Saft’s deep grooves and soaring lines and Trevor Dunn’s foundational, funky and usually spare bass lines. Slobber Pup’s hefty sound was vital but more of an echo of the Plymouth set that preceded it.

During Plymouth’s performance, listeners got their first dose of the bearded, grey-headed Morris’ elastic picking and occasional strumming on guitar. Here, the quintet took the electricity of One’s opening set of free-ranging jazz to a new level with Saft’s multiple keyboards, the hollowbodied guitars of Halvorson and Morris, the fiery yet subtle drumming of Gerald Cleaver and rock-solid, spare musings of electric bassist Chris Lightcap.

Beginning with a dose of dreamy electric piano, Plymouth brought on a storm of floating, shimmering rubato. The playing centered around a gently implied beat. Halvorson’s guitar work started with deft, unobtrusive slide playing, which provided a contrast to Morris’ more dedicated single-note lines. Saft’s chimey chords directed the music into a loose-limbed rock cadence, while Morris’ hard-edged picking served as a drone. Halvorson replied with lush chordal phrases, while Saft’s scary-movie organ lines were a lattice for what became a two-note jam of squirrelly lines, repeated over and over.

Saft continued with dense thickets of sound combined with repeated loops and pedal effects from both guitarists. By this point, there was an audible heaving and sighing over a definite groove, menacing but also somehow innocent. The group improvisation could be heard as a collection of voices—five individuals foraging through a forest of sounds. ShapeShifter’s acoustics provided an optimum platform for an enhanced, sustained listening experience. The satisfied crowd luxuriated in the sounds created by these eloquent improvisers, Joe Morris chief among them.

John Ephland


Mary Halvorson onstage at ShapeShifter Lab in New York on Dec. 13 (Photo: Courtesy of RareNoise)

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