Ashley Paul, Once His Student, Performs with Anthony Coleman


For about 40 years, pianist Anthony Coleman has been proving himself as a composer, interpreter and improvisor who’s more than comfortable with both the ridiculous and the sublime. But the Oct. 6 collaboration at Brooklyn’s ISSUE Project Room with singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Ashley Paul hardly was cabaret torch songs.

Paul’s approach to songwriting and improvising paired with Coleman’s deep well of experience made it seem as if the left and right sides of one big, concertizing brain merged.

Beginning the set—which followed the presentation of M Lamar’s American Cuck, a multimedia investigation of white supremacy—Paul played isolated notes on alto saxophone before Coleman had even hit the bench, but he quickly caught up. After a few strikes at the keyboard, he was standing again, rattling the inside of the instrument with his fingers and a soft mallet. Paul’s notes grew prolonged and then blurry, as she sang through the reed pinched by her lips.

Paul is an enigmatic composer and performer in her own right whose solo albums hover between experimental pop and contemporary composition and feature her on a variety of reeds, strings and percussion. She studied with Coleman at the New England Conservatory of Music, where the pianist has been on faculty since 2006 and where he’d studied under George Russell during the 1970s. In conversation and at the keyboard, Coleman displays an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz—his Jelly Roll Morton renditions are exquisite—and he was a mainstay of the wild and wooly days of the Knitting Factory, as well as the emergent 1980s downtown scene. Having finished her studies and moved to London, Paul seemed also to have graduated from student to duet partner.

They volleyed for several minutes before Coleman found his way to a melodic progression, interrupted occasionally by the plonks of his preparations. Paul quickly matched the melody, and what seemed like happenstance proved to be the first song of the evening, a short verse sung in a piercing soprano. The song soon dissolved into a rumbling drone, and Paul seemed unafraid of stomping on her songs with guttural blasts from her horn. Coleman was a knowing accompanist, both holding the music together and matching her moods, playing Oscar to her Ella, no matter how abstract.

Unfortunately, lyrics often were lost in ISSUE’s reverberating marble interior, but what came through often felt like lullabies and rainy-day pastimes. There’s been an air of innocence and wonder to Paul’s folkish musings, but perhaps moreso in the past couple of years. Her most recent record—Lost In Shadows (Slip)—was recorded in 2017 and marked the first songs she’d written since the birth of her daughter 11 months earlier. Paul has said that the songs were written under the spell of newfound, maternal love, along with the effect of sleeping and waking to a newborn’s schedule.

On the album, Paul plays saxophones, guitar, tuba, cello and percussion, but at ISSUE, her rig was stripped down to alto, electric guitar and a snare drum, muted by the barstool it sat atop. Her instrument shuffling, though, isn’t intended for any showy display but simply in service of the songs and to the unrestrained—but understated—moments she creates.

For the second piece of the evening, Paul switched to guitar, again defining the space in isolated notes before beginning to blur the borders. She stabbed a metal rod through the strings and then laid the guitar down again to pluck at it koto-like while playing left-handed saxophone; Coleman added his suit jacket to the piano preparations.

The set progressed as such, songs that felt like fragments separated by impromptu passages that were discordant but rarely abrasive. At one point, a repeated note by Paul was matched by Coleman with an echo and a half-step, making a dissonant theme that they held onto just long enough to ensure a comfort level without wearing it out. But even the songs didn’t have the feeling of going by formula. Instead, they progressed with simpatico and intuition, like teacher and student, like parent and child, like two halves of an ever-changing whole. DB

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