Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

* * * somewhere there * * *

Tonight, Moon left his computer and his apartment and his worries behind and joined friends for a performance in a Southside gallery / performance space by Sun Ra Arkestra maestro, Marshall Allen, and rediscovered bass prodigy, Henry Grimes.

Opening for these titans was the Thoth Trio, a tremendously talented local group. Thoth Trio, I take it, is led by Ben Opie, a skillful saxophonist and clarinetist. He evidently has achieved renown for his other projects, including OPEK, but until tonight I was unaware of his work. The Thoth drummer, David Throckmorton, is, I'm pretty sure, a genius. I first saw him perform a year or two back with another of his projects, Beam, a hip-hop fusion ensemble that he backs with live percussion. That night, I watched this great new hip-hop thing happen while he sat at his drumset stage left facing the other performers and quietly held everything together. The portly white man with very little hair in the untrendy jeans and light shapeless sweater doesn't look like a drummer, let alone an amazing one, but that's what he is.

Tonight provided even stronger evidence of his superiority -- the sheer complexity of his every move, the effortless improvisations and segues, the ongoing banter he enjoyed with bassist Paul Thompson throughout the set, lining up improbable syncopations that always seemed to anticipate Thompson's delays and triplets perfectly, each time Throckmorton caught Thompson eliciting a smile and a shake of the head. During his solos, which were breathtaking in their combination of virtuosic complexity, rhythmic continuity, and sheer playfullness, Opie repeatedly turned to look over his shoulder in obvious surprise; evidently, even his collaborators continue to be surprised.

Their selections, including the Sun Ra tune they opened with, recalled the heyday of the sort of free jazz I like most: the late Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman. Not entirely abstracted, their songs enjoy plenty of harmonious passages, but they don't shy away, Opie in particular, from pushing the music into more dissonant realms for long stays. The result is fabulous. Having known of Throckmorton and his talent over a year ago, I'm annoyed I didn't learn of Thoth sooner. I won't overlook them again.

The main event, Marshall and Grimes, paired the current maestro of the Sun Ra Arkestra with a formerly renowned bassist, Juilliard trained, who fell on hard times after a decade of highly visible collaborations with some of the eminences of the fifties and sixties (off the top of my head, these include Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Benny Goodman, and a dozen others you know) and literally disappeared for 30 years. Some curious fan found Grimes in 2002 through social security records, and started shining a light his situation; he was living a monastic existence, sans even a bass to play with, in Los Angeles. One thing led to another, and before long a New York jazz musician had sent Grimes "Olive Oil," a battered green bass that he used tonight. After three weeks of intensive practice, Grimes was performing in public again. Or so the mythology goes. To watch him tonight, you'd think he was straight out of a Juilliard practice room (by way of a smoky underground jazz club, perhaps) rather than only a year removed from his 30-year sabbatical.

These two command a room just by being in it, and Marshall is larger than life, messing around on flute, clarinet, alto sax, and some weird electronic wind instrument that sounds like a theramin run through a vo-coder. As my simile might suggest, I wasn't a big fan of this instrument; I found it shrill and screechy, and though I appreciated its selection for a show entitled Spaceship On the Highway, I was always sort of disappointed when I saw him reach for it. The duo played five songs, two very long jams to open, another slightly shorter jam, and then two short pieces that were more like exercises, or up-tempo improvisational in-jokes.

Marshall was dressed in black, with a shiny gold hat of a style and garishness that suggested those favored by retired women on Florida's east coast and a matching vest of sorts that kept falling down around his shoulders and pinioning his arms to his sides. Grimes wore a classy suit and tie combo with a loud hat in African colors. Where Marshall was flamboyant, Grimes was self-contained. He didn't appear once to consult any of the papers on the music stand before him.

In the first piece, Marshall dominated, mostly with the theramin thing, which wore on me. Both musicians wandered far and wide, with Grimes for the first ten minutes creating a haunting cascade of shrieks by bowing the higher notes on Olive Oil in a relentless dissonant arpeggio. Occasionally dumping the bow into the quiver hanging from the bass, he'd seamlessly transition to fingering the bass, usually with more melodic results. Whenever he threatened to find and hold a key, however, Marshall would run over him and force him back into a more fractured framework. Later in the piece, Marshall set down the theraminy thing for his alto sax, which he proceeded to squall mournfully through for quite a while, running his right hand up and down the keys like Jerry Lee Lewis on a flaming piano, until finally one of the keys snapped off the sax mid-way through a solo. Marshall eventually picked it up, quickly ascertained that he wouldn't be repairing it on the fly, shrugged it off with a winning smile and played the sax for the balance of the evening without any noticeable impediment.

The second song, "Space Lullaby," found Marshall doing a little spoken word / semi-singing of a simple verse he read from a sheet of paper twice, playing games with inflection the second time around. I don't remember the details of the lyrics, but there was much laughing, sometimes through tears (this is in the words; on stage he'd punctuate certain lines with laughter, but there were no tears that I noticed), and it was very reminiscent of Sun Ra's own tendency to pontificate over his ensembles and engage them in simple chants, often involving this or that reference to space.

In the third piece, Grimes was allowed to do more conventional work, and his skill really shined through (I suspect it was evident to an expert in his more abstract passages, but I have an untrained ear for this sort of thing).

All in all, the show was pretty spectacular, yet another find in the back streets and innumerable small venues that keep sprouting up around the city. A very nice night, and I'll be looking out for Beam and Thoth in the future, and enthusiastically recommend both of them to anyone who is listening. Thoth is about as accessible and eloquent as modern jazz gets, in my experience. Beam does great things with hip-hop, and their M.C., Akil, and D.J. Supa C, are both worth the price of admission, as is Throckmorton.

As for Grimes and Marshall, they are on tour and might be headed your way: they're playing Detroit on 3/9, Chicago on the 11th and 12th, Cleveland on the 15th, Morgantown on the 17th, Philadelohia on the 18th, and New York on the 19th. For details, check out this site.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your kind comments. Yes Dave does continue to surprise me. I am grateful he has decided to live in PIttsburgh, and work with me. He's almost always the drummer with OPEK as well, but Thoth Trio gives him more of an opportunity to show his stuff. (All three of us for that matter.) Paul deserves equal praise, they're both simply two of the best musicians I know.

-Ben Opie

6:17 PM  

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