Hersch, Zorn, Neselovskyi Embrace Message of Hope at Roulette Ukraine Benefit


John Zorn leads a game of COBRA at a benefit for Ukraine held April 1 at Roulette in New York.

(Photo: Wolf Daniel/Roulette Intermedium)

When Fred Hersch introduces a “pop tune” or “show tune” during his set, the pianist often makes clear that it is a vehicle with lyrics and extramusical associations that inform and inspire his improvisations. So it was no surprise that, in opening the live portion of a benefit for Ukraine at Roulette in Brooklyn, Hersch, working solo, conjured a bit of inspired interpretation — forgoing a bubbly take on “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” for a delicate, almost prayerful reading that, in his words, reflected a measure of “hope.”

Hope, in fact, provided subtext throughout Hersch’s portion of the April Fool’s night program, even as he veered into darker territory. In presenting the 1918 torch song “After You’ve Gone,” he proffered a stride-based strategy of increasing abstraction that subverted the premise of the song from one that begs a lover to stay to one that implores a hater to go. In Hersch’s telling, his message was aimed at the instigator of the unfolding Ukrainian horror — “one who should not be named, with the initials V.P. This goes out to him.”

By the time Hersch arrived at “Round Midnight” — a war horse with which he often signals that he is nearing the end of a set — his abstraction had yielded to full-blown stream-of-consciousness. Winding his way up, over and through the endlessly exploitable spaces in Thelonious Monk’s superstructure, Hersch let his lines flow unimpeded, momentarily seeming to subordinate the highly developed sense of order that normally holds sway in his sonic world.

Enter John Zorn. Master of chaos theory and icon of New York’s downtown scene, Zorn, like Hersch, is well into his 60s. And, like Hersch, he has lost none of his vigor — or rigor. In choosing to present COBRA, his intricate “game” piece that had its premiere in 1984 at the original Roulette loft in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, he picked a work that might, for all its rules-based complexity, have been an easy ride. Not for Zorn; assuming the role of “prompter” with 12 of New York’s top improvisers arrayed in front of him, he was operating at full throttle.

Armed with his usual arsenal of signaling devices — cards, gestures, props like a baseball cap — Zorn, appearing to the uninitiated like a hyper-animated third-base coach, guided the musicians through a particularly explosive version of the piece that, given the origins of its title in a war-simulation game, suggested a commentary on the Ukraine conflict. At minimum, the constantly shifting improvising units, functioning with the adaptability of a finely tuned fighting force — and doing so within Zorn’s strictures — challenged assumptions about free-jazz.

At the same time, the heterogeneity of the musical group upended notions of style. A multigenerational lot drawing on many traditions and equipped with a varied mix of instruments — reeds, which Zorn sometimes brings to the piece, being a notable exception — the musicians included veterans of the COBRA process, like organist Anthony Coleman and trombonist Jim Staley (both of whom had been recruited for the premiere) as well as newcomers to it, like pianist Vadim Neselovskyi (who, in his first shot at the piece, served up some of its most spectacular flights of improvisatory fantasy).

Neselovskyi was clearly still flying as he took his spot at the piano for a solo set, the final part of the program. A native of the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa, he conveyed the full sweep of the Ukrainian conflict by opening with “Krai.” The title, he explained, was pronounced like “cry” but defined as a geographical unit in both Russian and Ukrainian. The piece played on the pun: Written in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, it constituted a commentary on the action, with harsh attacks at the bottom of the keyboard, dance-like musings at its top, and, in the middle, meditative mantras built around relentlessly repeated notes. Weeping tremolos provided punctuation, evoking echoes of a plaintive balalaika.

The cri de coeur then gave way to madness as “Potemkin Stairs,” the centerpiece of Neselovskyi’s sprawling new suite Odesa, closed the night. Hunched over the keyboard, he let loose frenzied outpourings of notes atop rumbling drumbeats of ostinati, mirroring the chaotic scene of tsarist forces chasing ordinary Russians down the massive Odessan stairway depicted in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1915 film Battleship Potemkin. More than a century later, the parallels with Russian forces chasing Ukrainians into bomb shelters were hard to ignore — and Neselovskyi didn’t try, offering a coda that barely feinted toward the hopeful before finishing with a fierce tear across the keyboard that matched the cataclysm at hand.

Roulette is planning to hold another benefit concert for Ukraine on May 29, with Zorn, Laurie Anderson, Bill Frisell, Hilary Hahn and others scheduled to appear. DB

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