Binging ‘The Stone:’ Peter Evans, Nicole Mitchell, Aurán Ortiz

Early in November, for the first time in a few years, I was in New York with enough free time for some music. I didn’t intend to only see shows at The Stone, but it worked out that way.

I hadn’t been to The Stone since it moved. Originally a black-box venue on the lower east side, it’s struck up a partnership with The New School, an arts college up on West 13th Street, where The Stone now gets to occupy a comfortable streetside performance room. I got to see two shows there: Trumpeter Peter Evans with a chordless trio, and pianist Aurán Ortiz in trio demonstrating his Afro-Cubism concept.

The Stone also presents weekly or monthly shows at some ancillary venues. So on a Saturday night, I ventured deeper into Brooklyn than I’ve ever gone before, to Nostrand Avenue, for a chance to see Nicole Mitchell.

The usual Stone rules apply: No food or drink allowed inside, and no photography during the shows.

IMG_5753 peter evans stone

Peter Evans can do plenty with extended technique and sound experimentation, but he’s also adept in contexts closer to the jazz tradition, as with Mostly Other People Do the Killing. This set showed off both sides but leaned toward more traditionally “musical” sounds, using Evans’ compositions as a foundation and presenting lots of experimental twists (one piece focused heavily on air-through-the-horn sounds, for instance). Evans’ fast fast playing showed up quickly during the first piece — a flood of crystal-precision tones flowing over long unison tones from Alice Teyssier (flute) and Ryan Muncy (sax).

The three of them had performed together in a 50-person George Lewis concert where they apparently played the prankster role, moving through the mass of other musicians and generally causing trouble. Some of that attitude showed up here. One piece gave an unaccompanied solo to each player, and Muncy’s consisted of one long multi-tone wrested from the sax.

I wish I could remember more about the compositions themselves, but I remember it being a bright, easygoing set overall, with some challenging but pleasant assignments in the music. At times it felt like a casual chamber-music set, which I suppose was the theme of the concert in general.

16138-aruanortiz_1
Source: Sound It Out NYC

Aruán Ortiz performed with Darius Jones (sax) and Ches Smith (drums) as the trio Firm Roots, presenting one long-form improvisation. Afro-Cubism, featured on his solo album Cub(an)ism (Intakt, 2017), comes across to me as a patient style of free playing, where pauses and quietude darken the dense, gnarled harmonies. I don’t mean to say it’s all slow — Ortiz does get into rapid, splashy playing. But he relishes the journey in getting there.

On a macro scale, the piece followed a fast-slow-fast progression — with plenty of deviations, of course, but the opening segment featured Jones in a forceful, declarative mode, favoring long herading tones, and the end built up to a more quick-handed intensity.

The Evans and Ortiz shows bookended my trip. In between there was Nicole Mitchell, and I’ll devote the next blog entry to that.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Piano Version

Mostly Other People Do the KillingMauch Chunk (Hot Cup, 2015)

Mostly Other People Do the Killing - Mauch ChunkNow that Mostly Other People Do the Killing has a pianist, I’m glad to see that he’s not just there to play the role of the straight man. But I’m also glad he’s not there to plunge into 100% free jazz.

For 12 years, MOPDTK has mixed swing and bebop with smart-alecky, off-the-rails playing. Bassist and bandleader Moppa Elliott has found a formula that injects humor and way-outside soloing into straight-laced compositions.

For Mauch Chunk, the band’s eighth album, trumpeter Peter Evans is gone, with pianist Ron Stabinsky filling the void. The addition of a chord instrument, and one with so much potential to be cheesy and loungy, means a noticeable change of sound, so I was very curious to hear this album. We technically heard Stabinksy on the band’s previous studio album, Blue — the Kind of Blue replica — but how much of that was him, really? (That’s part of the debate.)

Left with one horn soloist, MOPDTK could settle into a formula: Jon Irabagon gets all nutty on sax while the piano maintains the swing and the chords. And that’s how the opening track, “Mauch Chunk is Jim Thorpe,” starts out, with Stabinsky laying down a straight jazz-club sound behind the theme, played in attitude-laden curls by Irabagon. And Stabinsky continues with straight comping while Irabagon’s solo increasingly warbles further and further off the rails.

But eventually, Stabinsky joins in, too. It’s around the time Irabagon pulls out a “happy as a kitten up a tree” quote that you notice Stabinsky has gone into a frenzied pounding. The pianist is in on the joke, too.

Something similar happens on “Obelisk.” Listen as Stabinsky and Elliott hold the center while Irabagon and drummer Kevin Shea surf the astral plane. It’s followed by a new phase where the piano goes into staccato jackhammering mode.


But often, the piano is a jazz anchor for the band’s wanderings, and that’s a good thing. MOPDTK isn’t just about free jazz and crazy solos; its foundation is a deep knowledge of the past and the application of old ideas in new settings. So when Stabinsky goes through a long stretch of straight chording, that’s all right. It fits, and the band is richer for it.

Irabagon is great, as ever, his bebop-gone-mad solos packed with hard-fought surprises. He doesn’t just play the tune; he plays the whole attitude of the band. Elliott on bass and Shea on drums stoke the fire, pushing the mostly hard tempos of Elliott’s smart, snappy compositions.

The band in a nutshell can be experienced on “Townville.” It goes zero-to-sixty right away, the band members pushing one another hard. But the bright-burning solos are followed by an avant-garde intrusion: Irabagon reduces down to whispers and subliminal moans on sax, behind some perky free playing from the rest of the band. Then they pull back into hard-swing mode. It’s a workout.

As usual, the songs are named after obscure Pennsylvania towns — with the caveat that Mauch Chunk is now named Jim Thorpe, as the song title says. There’s a poignant story behind that, which I leave you to discover in Elliott’s CD notes.

Here’s “Mauch Chunk Is Jim Thorpe.”

That Pounding in Your Head

Peter Evans/Weasel Walter Group — Oculus Ex Abyssus (ugExplode, 2008)

Weasel Walter and Mary Halvorson — Opulence (ugExplode, 2008)

source: ugExplodeWeasel Walter and Peter Evans, along with the still ascending guitar hero Mary Halvorson, recorded a live session for WFMU that will be played Wednesday, May 13, at 8:00 p.m. Pacific time. The “Love, Gloom, Cash, Love” blog mentions it here.

The past year or so has been prolific for all three musicians, and it’s been fruitful in terms of Walter’s collaboration with the other two. In other words, these folks have been already doing some darned good work together. Walter’s Web site promises a CD-R and DVD with the three of them.

The first side-long improvisation on Oculus, titled “The Eyes of Hell,” starts with a snap, diving straight into a spiky, ear-poking mood. Each player contributes dots of sound, or short lines, to create a busy canvas. Within a minute or two, they’re really going at it, a fierce tumult. Evans’ crisp, aggressive trumpet style — showcased with the band Mostly Other People Do the Killing — is a great counterpart to Walter’s punk-infused free-jazz drumming, and they provide plenty of rapid-fire clatter together.

Damon Smith can more than keep up with them on bass, and he’s strong enough in the mix to not get drowned out. Paul Hartsaw on sax rounds out the quartet, putting up fluid squiggles to add to the fray. Maybe it’s a matter of sheer volume, but I find myself keeping Evans at a mental front-and-center position.

Of course, these guys are too professional to just blow aimlessly. The fast quartet flows are fun to get swept away in, but then the group will stop for a new statement — a brightly jagged Smith/Evans duet, or the quiet closing moments with fast bass bowing by Smith and circular-breathing spirals from Hartsaw.

“Ex Malum Adveho Sonitus,” the other side-long piece, opens with the same ferocity, but its mad cacophony has a more lingering tone to it, particularly when Evans hands out long, grumbling tones on the trumpet as opposed to the slash-and-burn strategy on side A. At a couple of points he seems to carry out some circular breathing on the trumpet — or maybe it’s Hartsaw’s sax that I’m mistaking for trumpet — or maybe Evans just has incredible lung capacity.

There’s also a good quiet break that lets the swarm clear but doesn’t lose the tempo or flow. From there, the band builds back into a frenzy for a nice conclusion.

Did I mention that Oculus is on vinyl? It’s on vinyl, shiny green vinyl with an orange center label. Oooh, shiny. And it was recorded at the very cool New, Improved Recording in Oakland.

Havlorson/Walter: Opulence
Havlorson/Walter: Opulence

Opulence (on CD) was recorded in 2007, presaging Halvorson’s arrival as someone the New York Times would write up. (She and Jessica Pavone are also on the cover of the current Signal to Noise magazine.)

Halvorson’s edgier guitar playing, with distortion cranked up on her jazz guitar, is no surprise, given some of the indie-rock leanings on her Dragon’s Head CD. It’s a good match for Walter. “A Diamond Encrusted Frisbee” and “Rare Vodka from the Fourteenth Century” also get appropriately ragged, and Halvorson goes for the all-out rock sound on “Lapis Lazuli Nights,” a blazing rock instrumental with Walter adding appropriate drama on cymbals and bass drum.

But she and Walter try the opposite trick, too, showing that Walter’s hyperkinetic noisemaking can work in a free-jazz setting. “(Rich)” Corinthian Leather starts with Walter playing in rapid-fire mode, but softly. Halvorson joins in with her more standard jazz guitar sound, with fast, deft sketches and, later, sparkly high twangs like sideways falling stars.

Yes, I mentioned Opulence before — here.

Mostly Other People Do the Killing

Mostly Other People Do the Killing — This Is Our Moosic (Hot Cup, 2008 )

The band's called Mostly Other People Do the Killing
Source: CDbaby

It’s too easy to slap a “free jazz” label onto Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Granted, up front you notice Peter Evans‘ post-apocalyptic hyperbuzz trumpeting, expertly skimming the changes like a hummingbird dodging freeway traffic. And then there are the moments when the quartet goes into group improv, teaming up viciously like cavemen taking down a mastodon.

But the slogan on the Myspace page is “100 years of jazz in every byte,” and that gives you more insight into what they’re doing. That, and the cover of their latest album, This Is Our Moosic, which carbon-copies the pose on Ornette Coleman’s This Is Our Music, complete with the bassist glaring at the camera sardonically like he’s about to kick somebody’s ass, either the cameraman’s or yours, ya punk.

MOPDTK is appropriately fierce, and it’s not just Evans. Kevin Shea‘s drumming is intense without being heavy — a smiley-faced shredding. Moppa Elliott on bass lets fingers fly with pulses like deadly concussions, and John Irabagon on sax delivers a good free-jazz tumult on cue.

There’s a reverance for jazz history, though, that’s easy to spot. “Drainlick,” “Fagundus,” and “East Orwell” all start from a kind of Sinatra cool. They’ve been informed by ’60s radicalism, European free improv, and noise rock, but it’s still a swingin’ time for the first 30 to 120 seconds, before things start to fall apart. And the songs do coalesce back to composed heads — this stuff is done with charts, and with a sense of history. There’s even an academic tinge to the way Elliott’s composing draws from Coltrane, Danny Elfman, and Debussy, as noted in this All About Jazz review.

The influences do span 100 years of jazz. “Two Boot Jacks” opens with an old-timey swing that Jelly Roll Morton could have done. “The Bats in Belfry” exudes Spanish flair; it’s a rare slow track (well relatively, and only until the 100-mph solos kick in). “Biggertown” is a perky 1950s picket-fence scotch-and-soda tune (and then the parents leave, and a high-school party tears up the house). “My Delightful Muse” makes me think of Spike Jones, which could mean any number of things.

And then, the album closes with a suspiciously straight reading of Billy Joel’s “Allentown” — yes, the mildly schlocky 1982 radio hit, complete with vocal “effects” to represent dying coal mills: “shh! oom! aah!” It’s a Pennsylvania thing; Elliott (born Matthew Thomas Elliott) appears to be the hails from there. Every track on MOPDTK’s first album, Shamokin’!, was titled from a town in western Pennsylvania. The title of this newer album comes from Moosic, which is apparently another town in Pennsylvania. It all makes sense.