Ravi, ECM Stars Shine at WJF

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David Virelles (left) at Ravi Coltrane perform on Jan. 7 at Tishman Auditorium in New York City.

(Photo: Jati Lindsay)

Following a successful event at Winter JazzFest 2016, select artists from Manfred Eicher’s ECM label performed in an impressive showcase on Jan. 7 during this year’s edition of the festival. The concerts were held at NYU’s Tishman Auditorium, renowned for its exceptional acoustics (and knee-punishing seats).

Once the music began to flow, the sold-out venue resonated with sounds that were free, noisy, contemplative, swinging, experimental and joyous.

The festivities began with bassist Michael Formanek leading a quartet with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver. This was followed by the little-heard (outside of his native Copenhagen) Jakob Bro Trio, including bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Joey Baron. Performing music from his two ECM ablums, Gefion and Streams, the music hinted at good things to come but only briefly connected with its desired target. Somehow the hoped for meeting of the musical minds didn’t quite jell, except when the volume and dynamics rose, drawing in both trio and listener.

The blame was certainly not on Bro’s account. The delicate-sounding guitarist has drawn comparisons to Bill Frisell, but the major domo of guitar players is simply the starting point for the plectrum plucking Dane. Playing shoeless in his stocking feet, Bro crafted jewel-like moments that capture the imagination like slowly forming frost, but only if all the parameters are dialed in.

On this particular night, drummer Joey Baron didn’t connect with the contemplative mood of the opening songs, chiming cymbal edges, rattling sticks, and stirring the soup with brushes, yet without the sense of flow that would have connected the music and moved it forward. Bro and Morgan created the web; Baron poked a hole through it. Only when the music ascended in a thunderous quake of dissonance, effects and shudder did the trio find its footing.

Conversely, the duo of Ravi Coltrane and David Virelles performed with blazing creativity. Song after song, the musicians’ mastery was stunning, from Virelles’ free attack to Coltrane’s epic handling of tenor, soprano and sopranino saxophones. (The musicians plan to go into the studio together.)

The duo performed short, beautiful, concisely framed compositions that allowed each musician to stretch. Coltrane and Virelles share a special connection, a serendipitous combination where Coltrane’s distinctive tone and approach found perfect voice on the duo’s shared, powerful compositions, with Virelles matching Coltrane phrase for phrase.

Chamber-like in its simplicity and directness, the Coltrane/Virelles material was extremely engaging and rich, each musician eliciting equally plaintive and opulent solos. And they consistently built off one another’s flame, Virelles hard charging as Coltrane dipped and bowed his frame in sympathetic vibrations. The duo closed with a sublime, perfect reading of “Lush Life.”

Something otherworldly seemed to descend with each Coltrane/Virelles composition, driving the musicians to great heights, depth-charged solos and kinetic, dually shared musical rapture. This was one of the best New York City performances this reporter has seen in recent memory, and it bodes well for the duo’s upcoming ECM release.

By comparison with the fog-quake of the Brio trio and the exceptional dynamism of Coltrane and Virelles, the Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan pairing recalled a front porch high stepper with a couple of seriously hip hillbillies.

Armed with his trademark Telecaster, Frisell played pure and clear, avoiding his foot pedals for the first few songs. He and Morgan danced and cajoled each other, at times playing totally opposing lines, then falling into a swing groove as wide as the Mississippi. Country and jazz standards were referenced; Johnny Cash classics to “What Is This Thing Called Love” implied, but never spelled out. When Frisell did tap his foot board (shoes on), the sounds became murky, spooky and scary, but framed within a feel-good world, another Frisell trademark. Hints of Jim Hall, Jimmy Giuffre, and Charlie Haden shot through the performance.

Nik Bartsch’s Mobile closed the event, performing material from its Continuum album. The band’s organic, flowing music was a fitting conclusion to a night of dazzling solos, intrepid compositions and inspired communication.

Ravi Coltrane will perform at the Jazz Standard in New York on Jan. 19–22 as part of drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts’ Birthday Celebration at the venue. To see Coltrane’s tour schedule, visit his website. DB