Yo La Tengo Recruits Free-Jazz Titans for NYC Jam


Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew of Yo La Tengo

(Photo: Courtesy Matador Records)

Yo La Tengo has a song called “The Story Of Jazz,” and lyric-wise, it really has nothing to do with swing or its variants. Musically, however, it does what Yo La Tengo often likes to do: expound and explode to see what kind of emotional revelations come about. And that’s central to a certain kind of jazz, right?

The celebrated trio, currently enjoying their fourth decade of creativity and using a mix of guitar, bass, drums and keyboards to sound much more substantial than a three-piece indie rock outfit might, has deep regard for improvisation, especially the kind of experiments that split the difference between rumination and raucousness.

Their softer side can be just as piercing as their wilder excursions, which develop a new level of sophistication with each passing year while preserving the band’s core strategies.

When the group connected with a gaggle of horn, string and percussion improvisers at New York’s Town Hall on March 23, there was an immediate simpatico in the air. In a concert entitled “And Then Yo La Tengo Turned Itself Inside Out,” (a play on a 2000 YLT album title), the trio of drummer Georgia Hubley, guitarist Ira Kaplan and bassist James McNew added a wealth of textures to its gnarled guitar freak-outs, but also underscored the notion that impromptu abstractions can enhance hushed reveries. 

Drones were threaded through the evening’s action. French horn player Vincent Chancey, saxophonist Daniel Carter, trombonist Roswell Rudd and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum comprised the horn section; guitarist Mary Halvorson and electric harpist Zeena Parkins united their strings, and drummers Chad Taylor and Amy Garapic bolstered Hubley’s percussion gambits.

Each made their subtle additions to the serene vibe of the opening piece, “Let’s Be Still,” a seductive start to the show, with a transcendental Charles Lloyd aura hovering above Hubley’s plaintive vocals as the ensemble seemed to banish winter and demand a spring-like atmosphere.

The trio first recorded this track back in 2003, using Carter, Roy Campbell Jr., William Parker and Sabir Mateen. Collectively, the jazz guests intensified the group’s Town Hall rendering without marring its tenderness. Like its follow-up, “Ohm,” it used long tones and simple repetition to forge a personality.

But “Ohm” was the opposite as far as sonics go; it opened the door to the articulate aggression that is YLT’s forte, giving Parkins a chance to augment the fireworks sparking from a fierce blast of raga rock that used a single chord to get the job done.

The program found the horn section eschewing solos in the traditional sense. Instead, the players made a point of having their lines bob and weave with each other, a tack that shaped a light swirl of perpetual motion that reiterated the trio’s core moves.

These additional sounds were a plus on “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House.” Rather than tightly scripted designs, there was an informality offered by Rudd, Bynum and company. They wafted their ideas into the hall, and together thickened the action. When McNew eased into the touching “Black Flowers,” the strings and brass backup that marked the original (from 2006’s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass) became vivid on stage, forwarding a sumptuousness and generating echoes of John Cale’s “Paris 1919.”

It was around this time I jotted down “Rock of Ages” in my notebook—a nod to The Band’s New Year’s Eve 1972 show that featured Allen Toussaint charts. Though nowhere near as formal, YLT used its confederates to compound its work in a wisely complimentary way.  

Those looking for clamor and catharsis got a taste or two in the first set, but it wasn’t until the show’s second half that the band chose to fully ramp up. After bittersweet interpretations of “Green Arrow” and “Saturday,” a fierceness started to seep into the music. The repeated pattern of “Blue Line Swinger” from the three drummers was rigid—until it wasn’t. Then all hell broke loose, with the full stage of musicians waxing expressionistic and feeding off each other’s ideas. Bynum and Carter cut through the roar, Halvorson provided a flurry of details. Kaplan contoured his feedback like a pro.

The guitarist has previously told journalists that YLT is interested in “long songs,” and one of his go-to albums is Live Dead and its buoyant extrapolations. The band’s strength-in-numbers approach gave way to a climactic explosion that was worth waiting for—they’d found roles for each new participant.

By the time McNew led the group through Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” during the encore, the drama had turned itself inside out, allowing room for more squall, but this time with laugh-to-keep-from-crying grin (remember who’s got his finger on the big red button right now).
Rudd brayed, threw some tailgate bone in the mix, and the band raised the roof, Arkestra-style. Turns out that the story of jazz is all about welcoming new participants. DB

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November 2021
Joey DeFrancesco
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