Downtown Music Gallery All Star Benefit
Gary Lucas, Mephista, John Zorn and Dave Douglas
January 10, 2003
When the bastion and maven store of avant-garde music, Downtown Music Gallery, sought to hold a benefit in honor of its upcoming relocation, all it had to do was call up a couple of its friends and secure an evening at the other bastion of avant-garde music, Tonic, and that was that. Maybe it was not that easy, but the inspiring result of those two musical epicenters coordinating an event was an awesome lineup of jazz and progressive music's most interesting and talented performers.
The evening had begun with big names such as Mathew Shipp, John Zorn and Matt Maneri. I was there for the second set, which featured guitarist Gary Lucas, Susie Ibarra's Mephista, and John Zorn and Dave Douglas. Each of the musicians and composers who had or were to play that evening, in one way or another had established themselves as creating not just quality music, but music that reaches beyond the expected. Everyone there that night was handpicked for a reason.
The second set began with Gary Lucas, a downtown veteran whose music was most popularized with rock star singer Jeff Buckley. Mr. Lucas exuded the blues. Armed with a black leather hat, steel top guitar and weathered voice, Lucas sat alone on stage conversing with us through musical narrative and a raspy guitar tone and layered rhythm. His music ranged from instrumental pieces from his first album in 1988 at The Knitting Factory called 'Sounds from China' to singing narratives such as 'The Streets of Yevgenia', the harrowing tale of his ancestor's village in Poland where all the Jews were burned alive in a barn. Lucas spared no detail nor felt the need for metaphor in his description of the events that took place in his family's village. Lucas' strumming overcame his lyricism, by way of strong ascending chords that were reminiscent of his emotion felt playing with Jeff Buckley. Lucas's use of flamenco sounding modalities gave another exotic texture to his tone. Overall Gary Lucas's playing was impressive and he seemed to succeed in capturing the audience without any backup players, a challenging task for most musicians.
In line with the eclectic character of the evening, free jazz trio Mephista, took the stage and departed from Mr. Lucas set entirely. Mephista is comprised of renown composer and drummer Susie Ibarra, Sylvie Courvosier on piano and Ikue Mori on the Powerbook. The trio embarked on their first piece, a seemingly woodland theme of cricket sounds, dark piano chords and austere percussion. Ibarra connected with Courvosier accenting in staccato the shadowy mood developed by the pianist. I appreciated the effort the trio made to create such blankets of sounds, but I felt I needed to energetically listen to catch the movement of the piece and the subtle layering that was being done with the computer. Perhaps that was the intention.
The second composition continued with more of the animalistic ambient sound. There seemed to be a series of chirping that was looping and communicating with itself as well as the piano and the drums. Courvosier played a repeated chord phrasing over and over, intermittingly affecting the piano strings to create a courser sound from the instrument. I could not help from wandering into art film imagery as I closed my eyes and strained my ears. I imagined watching a grainy aged film sequence of a women walking forward, halting abruptly as the film cuts, and repeating herself again and again. Ibarra's calculated staggered drum pattern maintained my offbeat concept of the music. The composition developed as the electronic sounds of Ikue Mori changed to more acute piercing jabs of sounds, again a texture added to the deep resonant piano and now up-tempo drumming. The trio led us through this very out section, but collected the pieces to close their set.
I was left at the end of the set curious and effected by some of the unique moments, but not sure of what to think of the set as a whole. Mephista's compositions and musicianship are obviously thoughtful and skilled, but I wasn't sold on these pieces as live works. Not one to duck away from less conventional compositions and concept oriented music, but outside of my own interpretation, I did not think their musical concepts took a strong enough path. Perhaps I was looking for either more identifiable melodies or truly out there waves of sounds. Mephista's works were more in the middle.
John Zorn and Dave Douglas