Nels Cline, Marc Ribot Join Town Hall Improvisors

Wadada Leo Smith, Wilco's Nels Cline and Shigeto played Red Bull Music Academy's Round Robin Duets.
RBMA Fest NY 2014 - Round Robin © Lauren Gesswein / Red Bull Content Pool
By Brad Cohan

New York City has long been a bursting well of mind-blowing creativity when it comes to improvised music. From the Soho free jazz loft scene, to the experimental and jazz revolution at The Knitting Factory and Tonic, and the action currently going on at John Zorn’s avant-garde destination, The Stone, there's a lot of history here.

Those dots were connected last night when, as part of the month-long Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York, people crowded into Town Hall for “A Night of Improvised Round Robin Duets.” Many of the most adventurous of those improvisers, noisemakers, experimenters, and electronics mavens who have helped shaped this city, and the international improvised music scene, were there to represent.

First, the “Round Robin” guidelines. One musician starts a solo improvisation, another musician then joins for a duo improvisation. After that, musician #1 leaves the stage and musician #3 joins musician #2 for another round. This continues until everyone has performed.

This same format was aced last year during RBMA by a prodigious selection of musicians, including Questlove, Andrew WK, Vijay Iyer, James Chance, Julia Holter, Kim Gordon and Matana Roberts. Naturally, boundaries of sound were inevitably conquered and broken. The same happened last night.

It began with Nels Cline, a California-born, New York City-residing string-slayer of the highest order. Sure, he’s known in most circles as the guitarist for rock band Wilco. But here, on this stage, he’s a John Coltrane-meets-Sonic Youth jazz-punk slinging a guitar. Looking sharp in vest and tie, and strapping on his Fender Jazzmaster, it was Cline's job to kick this thing off. He did it with head-spinning, finger-hopping fret-work that ran the gamut from clusters of jazzy notes, to liquid-y skronk, and string-scraping noise. He even made crying-baby sounds, eliciting laughs from the crowd.

It was soon time for a partner to join Cline. Enter: west coast electronics specialist Daedelus. Perched in front of his laptop, it didn’t take long before he was transmitting massive sound waves that resembled a metal trashcan banging, and engaging in a thunderous drone along with Cline’s noisy guitar stabs.

Cline left to quite an ovation while downtown trumpeter Dave Douglass entered into Daedelus’s den of noise. A frequent collaborator of John Zorn’s, the composer was up to the task, forming a tandem on a doom and gloom march, then overpowering Daedelus on a Miles Davis-like funky jazz-fusion.

And so this relay race went. More groovy funk was laid down by Douglass and Herbie Hancock drummer Terri Lynne Carrington before keyboard-master and the super-colorful Amp Fiddler -- channeling George Clinton’s Parliament and Funkadelic, two groups in which he’s laid it down for -- maintained that vibe, first with Carrington, and then with Brit pianist Jamie Lidell.

Amp Fiddler and Shigeto © Lauren Gesswein / Red Bull Content Pool

Things got heavenly when singer Petra Haden connected with powerhouse sax giant James Carter. The daughter of jazz legend Charlie Haden, she ascended with angelic vocal improvisations, matching Carter’s spirited and relentless attack with soaring bop-bops, mmmm-mmmm’s and whoa-whoa’s.

Other highlights included a rousing turn from jazz vet David Murray and Jherek Bischoff, and a world music-flavored set between percussive machine Karsh Kale and Dave Grohl-approved Brooklyn guitarist Kaki King.

Kaki King and Karsh Kale © Lauren Gesswein / Red Bull Content Pool

But of the night's eclectic lineup, there were three improvisors the crowd were most stoked to see: trumpeter Wadado Leo Smith, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2012 record 'Ten Freedom Summers'; legendary New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint, who’s worked with Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney; and Tom Waits cohort and avant-jazz guitarist Marc Ribot.

Ribot arguably received the biggest hand of the night. In his usual seated position, he first had some loud and abrasive business to take care of. A disciple of free jazz radical Albert Ayler, Ribot soloed his head off, letting go of towering, noise-drenched riffage that filled the cavernous space. He left everyone in awe.

Wadada Leo Smith © Lauren Gesswein / Red Bull Content Pool

Next, a meeting of deep minds took place as Toussaint joined Ribot. With the Louisianan legend perched at his piano, the two delved into R&B-heavy, bluesy jams. Ribot gave the spotlight to Toussaint, who wowed the crowd with a medley of standards and tunes, jumping in with variations on the Jeopardy theme, 'Pop Goes The Weasel' and 'Chopsticks.'

Then it was Smith’s turn to go deep. Sporting his trademark dreads, white blazer and gripping his luminous trumpet, the experimental jazz icon mesmerized the crowd. His majestic, gale-force blows, subtle nuances and deep lyricism swallowed Town Hall. Suddenly, it was all over.

Or was it?

RBMA Fest NYC 2014 - Round Robin © Lauren Gesswein / Red Bull Content Pool

Not quite.

For the finale, the 15 or so musicians filed onstage for one last free-for-all. Cline and Ribot stood side-by-side trading dissonant barbs. Douglass and Smith formed a dueling trumpet attack. Carter and Murray were skronking joyously. Haden sent her soaring voice over the din. Shigeto bashed his drums.

As the noise-fest morphed into a gyrating, funky beast, it got so deafening the man sitting next to me covered his ears. Good times! The night appropriately ended with feedback ringing throughout Town Hall.

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