The Side/ways of François Moutin: Around JazzConnect and WJF2013

At the JazzConnect conference and Winter Jazz Fest in Manhattan, of all the well-covered, publicized performances and impromptu sit-ins outed at the last minute through hashtags and re-tweets, one of the most captivating performances flourished in spite of its relative obscurity, bathed in the antiseptic, fluorescent lighting of a non-descript, cookie-cutter, hotel conference room. Amid the blandest setting emerged a dynamic performance, the sonic waves of which broke up currents of the temperature-regulated air-control system, ripped up the carpets, and re-built the room’s tepid, mass-produced architecture as we listeners answered the musicians with our own improvised shouts, shifting and dancing in our neatly arranged banquet chairs. Belying the conditions of the lackluster venue and lack of publicity, the Moutin Reunion Quartet—Louis Moutin (drums), François Moutin (bass), Jean-Michel Pilc (piano), and Joel Frahm (tenor saxophone)—engaged the audience with a compelling, 75-minute performance as part of Blujazz Productions’s showcase at the APAP conference and presented themselves as one of today’s foremost jazz quartets.

moutin reunion 4tetThis show was not a part of the Winter Jazz Fest calendar. It wasn’t even listed on the APAP schedule. I only knew of the performance because of this blog’s forthcoming, inaugural feature on the group’s pianist Jean-Michel Pilc. And perhaps because of the show’s lack of publicity, there was no queue of listeners waiting to get in, no obscured sightlines, and no minimum. The show was free and open. Although the set began with the room’s doors closed, those outside who heard the music reverberating from within eventually opened the doors, sending the group’s music pouring out into the hallway where a second audience lingered on the edge, gravitating toward the energetic interplay of the band. Others strode in boldly, drawn to be closer—to get inside the room, inside the group, and inside the music.

The performance was dynamic not just in the general sense of excitement, outward displays of energy, and trite writerly tropes, but in the truest sense of emergent creation where a single, improvised motive became a repeated sequence that, as it cycled through several iterations, necessitated an immediate re-composition of harmony and form, sympathetically anticipated and executed by the quartet. This dynamism was kinetic: as the music shifted and winded through these re-harmonizing sequences, interlocking polyrhythms, and beat-obscuring metric modulations, so too did the performers, particularly the Moutin Brothers, whose ebullience and delight inspired both themselves and the audience to progressively higher states. Whereas Louis expressed these states vocally—calling out over the orchestrated combustion of his drumset—François danced, carried away and executing a joyously improvised choreography, moving laterally, alternately gravitating toward and away from his instrument and his fellow performers in a similar fashion to the flow of the audience from around the room, out in the hallway, and launching from those banquet chairs as the performance unfolded.

In one of his brief addresses to the audience, François named Pilc and Frahm as two of the finest performers on their respective instruments from among all their contemporaries, an accolade to which both men measured up very successfully. Pilc and Frahm were in fine form, definitively asserting their own artistic voices within the Moutins’ demanding compositions and demonstrating deft fluency of the repertoire and total command of their instruments. Immediately following this address, François invited these two musicians to step aside and delivered one of the set’s stand-out performances with his brother—”Monk’s Medley”—an improvised duet ranging over a series of Thelonious Monk compositions.

A performance of “Monk’s Medley” at the Baie du Mont-Saint-Michel jazz festival in August 2012 can be seen here:

Whereas charged empathy characterized the communication among audience and the quartet, and dynamic sympathy that of the members of the quartet, during this one improvisation the Moutin Brothers demonstrated near-telepathy in this performance. moutin brothersThe oscillations and undulations of the music—and again its shared choreography—suggested the rehearsed intention of a previously composed piece, wherein actually there was only astonishing facility and a highly astute awareness to the inspired development of a few motives. As before, the musicians’ re-composing, re-arranging movements through Monk’s musical elements—and around the instruments themselves—were lateral, shifting away from and back toward, in a gravitational tug between recognized melodies and rhythms and the Brothers’ individual and collective improvisations…performing sideways…and improvising the side ways…

For me, the Moutin Brothers performance was the musical coda to the two-day JazzConnect conference, organized by the Jazz Forward Coalition and JazzTimes Magazine, and sponsored in part by APAP (the Association of Performing Arts Presenters). Last year, I stumbled on the final panel discussion of the inaugural JazzConnect conference and returned this year for the entire event in the hopes of promoting this blog (which I brought online early specifically for the conference) and of garnering some support and advice for this new venture. Discussions of do-it-yourself dominated the conference, in which presenters, promoters, artists, and journalists alternated between concurrent panel presentations and networking in the hallways and open areas of the Hilton at 53rd and 7th. I did much of the same—but to far less effect than the more well-ensconced members of “the jazz ecosystem,” who reconnected with old friends and colleagues, continuing conversations and collaborations long since initiated—but opted for forging ahead nonetheless, hoping that improvising my own paths would (and will) eventually produce similarly well-traveled relations.

jazzconnect closingOne of the most memorable and dynamic moments came from Arturo O’Farrill, pianist and bandleader of the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, whose speech celebrated his own side ways—the potential inherent in not fitting into cultural, social, or musical boxes. O’Farrill’s performance was riveting: he appreciated and availed himself of the moment’s artistic possibilities, exhibiting the same mastery of rhythmic punctuation and motivic development in his rhetoric as in his pianism and composition. (The complete speech can—and should—be read here.) Later in the conference, its organizers celebrated their exponential growth from the past year, facilitated by their inclusive and comprehensive approach to jazz music and promotion and the open-access, free-for-all-registrants welcoming mat they laid out for all of us. I’ll be back next year, hopefully with a few more hands to shake and a bit more work to do—to share and explore the potential of this new project, The Rhythm of Study. As O’Farrill said in his address, “It is precisely this affinity for the indefinable that forced me to create my own route.”

While encouraging all the conference participants to explore the Winter Jazz Fest, my concert-going took a detour…to Dizzy’s Club…where I visited my friend, pianist Chano Dominguez, who was in residence for the week with his Flamenco Jazz Project. (Chano and I first met in the Canary Islands, where he has several long-time collaborators including the saxophonist Kike Perdomo with whom I recorded this past May.) Although I’d seen this band several times, I visit with Chano every time he comes to New York—the last time was this past Spring at the Jazz Standard with bassist Omer Avital and drummer Dafnis Prieto. Joined by frequent collaborator, vocalist Blas Córdoba, Prieto, and bassist Ben Street, Dominguez’s show was appropriately catered to the venue—a choreographed mix of standards re-worked via Dominguez’s uniquely adept fusion of jazz and Andalusian music and selections from the canons of Latin American and Spanish music.

chano at dizzys

The following night, I spent the evening at the Zinc Bar. After Chano’s show at the Standard last Spring, I had the opportunity to talk with Omer Avital, whose career I’ve followed and whose music I’ve taught in my courses and written about in the textbook Discover Jazz. We discussed his studies in North Africa and the unique side ways he has forged in ethnomusicology, the field in which I completed my Ph.D. Because of a hefty touring schedule, Avital has spent little time in New York City lately, so that conversation has been on hold. Fresh off this international travel and a highly publicized tour on the “Best Jazz Albums of 2012” blogosphere for Suite of the East, Avital’s performance at the Zinc Bar was an eagerly anticipated show at the Winter Jazz Fest. And, appropriately, whereas the Moutin Brothers’ performance suffered from lack of publicity but ample seating, the experience of Avital’s was the exact opposite.

And so, along with many other would-be audience members, I began Avital’s set listening from outside in a long queue, grasping for any frequencies that might reverberate from behind the closed doors and over the waves of crowd noise blocking us from Avital’s Band of the East. Even though we had to watch in vain as throngs of “old friends and colleagues of the jazz ecosystem”—armed with VIP wrist-bands—were ushered in ahead of us, most of us who arrived at least thirty minutes before the start of Avital’s 45-minute set were able to get inside before the final cadences of the show. Once inside, even from across the two rooms packed with attendants, I could see Avital at center stage, conducting the band and choreographing the performance from aside his upright bass. Joining him on-stage were Greg Tardy (tenor saxophone), Jason Lindner (piano), Nadav Remez (guitar), and Daniel Freedman (drums). The ensemble’s energy was frenetic and explosive, and it was evident that those closer to the action were enthralled in the live realization of Avital’s highly celebrated recording. Avital’s music is the rare combination of nuance and drive—masterful affect and elaborate substance—that delights and rewards rapt listeners for venturing inside the music. But this particular night was not mine for getting inside. Stay tuned for the TRoS review of Suite of the East and what I hope will be a soon-to-be-continued conversation with Omer Avital. Until then, here’s a video excerpt of the band featured on Avital’s website:

Even though I came especially for Avital’s set, I stayed for the next two shows. Like Avital, I have been listening and teaching the music of Rez Abbasi and Amir ElSaffar for years. The opportunity to hear all three in one night at the same venue was both a minor personal miracle and a genius-stroke of festival planning. Abbasi’s set featured music from his equally celebrated 2012 release, Continuous Beat, and featured bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Satoshi Takeishi. Compared to Avital’s set, Abbasi brought about a significant change toward the introspective, delivering a masterful set of originals, highlighted by the performance of “Divided Attention” and the constructive and highly complementary playing of Takeishi throughout. The trio played its sideways cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Off Minor”—also from Continuous Beat—by obliquely gesturing around the composition, adding the recognizable melody into the mix only as a coda, providing some long sought after resolution for the audience that had listened expectantly as the trio performed around the tune’s edges. We waited for moments of confluence when the tangential, interlaced improvisations intersected more squarely with Monk’s composition. And yet, it was only at the end when we clearly heard the tune Abbasi had announced, treated instead to a creative re-construction of the composition that re-wrote and inverted the architecture of the standard “standard” arrangement.

My last set of the evening was Amir ElSaffar’s, which was 45 minutes long like all the sets at Zinc that night. It featured music from a newly recorded but much less publicized album than all the others mentioned and featured in this post. It was no less worthy of the larger crowds and long lines of the early shows, although both had unfortunately dissolved by the time ElSaffar took the stage. The new project—Inana, a fusion of Sumerian music and jazz—continues ElSaffar’s ambitious and fruitful project of working out the productive and creative differences between Middle Eastern musical cultures and systems, such as Iraqi maqam, with the those of U.S. jazz and improvised music. On this night, ElSaffar’s quintet included Ole Mathisen (tenor saxophone), John Escreet (piano), Dan Weiss (drums), and François Moutin (bass). I was not expecting to see Moutin again: Carlo DeRosa fills the bassist’s chair on Inana and ElSaffar’s listing for the WJF show on his website didn’t include personnel. In fact, besides ElSaffar, Mathisen was the only member of the quintet that night who appears on the album. Nonetheless the ensemble successfully worked their way through ElSaffar’s challenging compositions that seem to search for resolutions that may never come and suggest possibilities and questions that may be unanswerable. For me (to borrow O’Farrill’s words from his JazzConnect speech), these questions are precisely “the entry point into this infinity” that is ElSaffar’s project. Every time I listen to an iteration of this project, I hear something different. The listening experience is as improvisatory as the music-making, where individual notes, motives, and rhythms emerge from amid this constant searching.  This was not so unlike Escreet’s first piano solo of the set in which among the (a)tonal clusters and middle-of-the-keyboard cacophonies, his hands leapt great lengths—again, sideways—creating entirely new melodic lines separated by lateral, timbral, and registral distances that hovered tangentially, tethered to the solo only by the physical movements he improvisationally choreographed from the piano bench.

This essay is not how I planned—a reflection of the disparity between my hopeful and ambitious plan for JazzConnect and Winter Jazz Fest and the actual experiences in the moment. But this is what happens when jazz journalism or concert-going waits in line. When you don’t fit into the right box or have a host of old friends to start working with again or move you ahead as quickly as you might like to go. You move laterally. Find the side ways. Recognize the possibility and be aware of a moment’s potential to carry a sequence through the changes—maybe over or beside them—for musical (and writerly) performances that stretch beyond established forms and conventions, perhaps ripping up some stale carpet or re-working some wearied architectures along the way. Did I hear all the music, shake all the hands, and visit all the venues I planned? No. Do I regret that I didn’t have a certain level of access or some more well-known connections of which to avail myself? Absolutely not. Because I still improvised a way through the conference, festival, weekend, and this essay. “The Rhythm of Study” isn’t about re-treading the path of others, or even following one’s intended path, it’s about “this affinity for the indefinable that forced me to create my own route.” Even though I was planning to write a piece on JazzConnect and WJF2013, I thought it would probably revolve around the Band of the East’s entire set and the hopeful early successes of the TRoS soft launch at the conference. But, when neither worked out, I was at a loss about what to write until I saw François walk up on stage with ElSaffar’s group. In the circuitous paths that Moutin carved from Monk to Ancient Sumeria—and the serendipitous crossing of our individual improvised paths over the weekend—we both found a way to work it out. So, here’s to the unexpected, indefinable shifts…and to improvising the side/ways.

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