Controlled chaos – on the street and on the stage

Metamorphosis_JALC_(greenleafmusic.com)The musicians assemble for the first excursion, an “interstellar” excursion to be sure, but also (take a look outside the floor-to-ceiling windows serving as a stage backdrop) an excursion along the expanse of West 59th Street, a.k.a. Central Park South, in mid-Manhattan. Welcome to the Appel Room, in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex at Columbus Circle. And welcome to an early-March/late-evening performance of Metamorphosis by trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas and a handful of fellow musicians/composers/improvisers.

This is good old-fashioned (I’m told this genre was pretty popular back in the late 1970s) free-form, improvised jazz…the kind of stuff many music lovers love to hate. But…there is a vast difference between a concert of pop/rock, or even mainstream jazz, and – this stuff. First and foremost, ya can’t approach it the same way. Not at all. This music (yeah, it IS music) won’t have you tapping your foot, nodding your head, or singing along. Well, it might have you nodding your head – and your entire upper body – as the guy next to me starts literally rocking – but that’s beside the point right now. The difference is this sort of semi-improvised, semi-composed jazz is a music best listened to while taking in your entire surroundings, not just watching the performers onstage. In this instance, I’m equally enthralled by the vision of traffic streaming up and down 59th Street, plainly visible behind the musicians as a kinetic display of red and white lights moving, slowing, stopping, turning…small silhouettes of pedestrians making their way across in an attempt to get wherever they need to be in one piece. No collisions, no injuries, no close calls, though everything’s moving at once. Controlled chaos! And therein lies the beauty of something like Metamorphosis, a 12-part realization based on 12 different star constellations, being released one track per month as the “2017 Subscriber Series” on Dave Douglas’ label, Greenleaf Music.

JALC-Appel-Room-the-view-of-the-stage (tripadvisor.com)                 A sea of headlights above the waiting grand piano on the Appel Room stage
                 (image courtesy tripadvisor.com)

On the stage, Mr. Douglas himself, under his white, jazz-guy cap, and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith clutch their instruments, next to a small table littered with various mutes, water bottles, and a mysterious wad of aluminum foil (which Dave will actually use as a muting device further into the performance). Saxophonist Oliver Lake, attired in suit ‘n’ tie, alternates between a full-size sax and one that’s almost toy-sized as he screeches forth sounds that Coltrane was always reaching for back in those Coltrane days. Drummer Andrew Cyrille, bedecked in stylish, patterned sweater and porkpie hat, holds down a beat that threatens to derail this whole freight train at any second (but of course never does). Guitarist Marc Ribot, hunched over his axe so that all you can see is the top of his head, picks out barely-recognizable noises, then, on another piece, strums beautiful, Spanishy stuff. Pianist Myra Melford is a veritable thunderstorm, letting loose crazy chords and karate-chopping the keys like she’s preparing ingredients for a magnificent musical salad. Towering, white-haired bassist Mark Dresser commands his contrabass with fingers, then bow, then fingers again, to the point of – what the hell are those freaky, buzzing sounds, where is that coming from? And percussionist Susie Ibarra sits behind her drum kit grabbing everything from mallets and brushes to bells, hand-cymbals, and rattles, effortlessly juggling it all in a technique reminiscent of some old-world ceremony on some far-off, exotic island.

Metamorphosis - performance pic (youtube.com) Dave Douglas (center) and his Metamorphosis ensemble (image courtesy Youtube.com /  warnesgroup)

As all this is unfolding, cast a gaze up to the high-rise buildings outside, to the winking red lights at the tips of construction cranes, to the plume of illuminated white smoke puffing from a chimney near the iconic “Essex House” sign overlooking Central Park. And cast a gaze back downwards to the street, as cars, taxis, trucks, and buses jockey for position on their way to their inevitable destiny. Again, no collisions, no injuries, no close calls. Only the controlled chaos of New York City. And for a perfect soundtrack, the controlled chaos of Metamorphosis by Dave Douglas and his ensemble of improvising impresarios!

Check out the track “Halcyon Days” here.

Metamorphosis - cover design (davedouglas.bandcamp.com)

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