Sunday, April 6, was Mike Rowland's 40th birthday. As one of High Mayhem's co-founders, it was only natural that his birthday party should be held at the arts nonprofit's performance space and gallery the night before. Surrounded***image1*** by friends of various ages, cupcakes with birthday-themed icing and a stellar New York jazz group, the vibe was more akin to a house party than a formal concert.
The concert itself was more like an experiment in accidents than a musical performance-judging by the first act, anyway. A Barnyard is a local quartet whose goal is presumably to provoke and amuse rather than soothe or groove. In High Mayhem's white-walled, darkly lit compound, the band shook, smacked, pounded and rattled a dozen or so toys. Some were recognizable percussion instruments (cymbals, bells), others were straight from the junkyard. Or the pawnshop.
Guitarist Yozo Suzuki picked and attacked an acoustic guitar like a narcoleptic Django Reinhardt-bits of jazzy virtuosity followed by moments of total silence-though he paused at irregular intervals to toss a cymbal across the floor. Bassist (and High Mayhem program director) Carlos Santistevan plucked away when he wasn't throwing or banging stuff, and the same can be said for drummer Milton Villarrubia III and banjoist Alex Neville. A hollow metal box sat between the four musicians. A young woman wearing a pirate hat sat on the floor smiling and giggling. Halfway through the set, A Barnhouse threw Snap-N-Pops at the walls, at the instruments, at each other; it was mischievous but wholesome. Their songs appeared to be 100 percent improvised, which left the audience feeling more like it was part of the performance, rather than simply being there to witness it.
By contrast, the Claudia Quintet left little room for chance. Or so it appeared. The band, led by Grammy-nominated percussionist John Hollenbeck (a man whose dry sense of humor is well-suited for Santa Fe's climate), hones its craft so well that any unexpected riffs played onstage fit in seamlessly with the groove-oriented atmosphere that drummer Hollenbeck created.
Percussion is at the core of both A Barnhouse and the Claudia Quintet. Yet the two could hardly be any more different in approach. Whereas A Barnhouse indulges in the accidental (in the midst of tossing bells and cymbals, a jar broke-which didn't sound out of place at all), the Claudia Quintet lays its foundation on Hollenbeck's rhythms, which are reminiscent of jazz greats but are hardly derivative. James Brown's drummer Clyde Stubblefield (the funky drummer in Brown's song "Funky Drummer, Parts 1 and 2") comes to mind. So does Mahavishnu Orchestra's Billy Cobham. Hollenbeck is the rare band leader who pushes his group to the edge of calamity while maintaining absolute control over the mayhem.
Thankfully, Hollenbeck's bandmates are up to the task. Saxophonist Chris Speed and accordionist Ted Reichman (who has previously played with Marc Ribot and Paul Simon) are the notables here. They both stray from convention, alternating between long drones and feverish solos. Watching these guys is a treat anyway, but when you consider the styles that are integrated here-there was an undeniable klezmer vibe-you have to marvel at how open-minded the quintet is. The diversity on display at this gig makes the term "experimental jazz" sound limiting, or at least incorrect. Watching these guys meld reggae with Turkish music is enough to make a music fan ashamed of his record collection.
The group debuted in New York in 1997, and has served as only one vehicle for Hollenbeck's seemingly unhindered imagination. The man is frightfully accomplished, having earned degrees in percussion and jazz composition, a Guggenheim fellowship, a "rising star" nod in Down Beat magazine and a professorship in drumset and improvisation at Jazz Institute Berlin. Oh yeah, and there was the Grammy nomination he received in '05 for his big-band album, A Blessing.
Each of the Claudia Quintet's songs contain a unifying element-building on each successive riff-and seldom comes to any resolution. It's like a film that intensifies suspense with each scene, but ultimately leaves the viewer wondering what the hell could've happened. The band appears happy with the ambiguity, though, and at this gig, the audience was totally on board.
At some point the cops showed up. They said the neighbors had complained about the noise. It was unclear whether that was due to A Barnhouse's cymbal-tossing, junkyard-constructed performance-art piece or the Claudia Quintet's masterful weird jazz-rock set but, in any case, the complaints seemed unjustified. Cops show up when there are loud parties with obnoxious kids, right? At this show, there was more grey hair in the crowd than pink, and the band (if not the audience) resembled well-trained academic types with a flair for the unconventional.
At least they let the show go on to its conclusion. Claudia Quintet was happy; it came back for a blistering encore that set a few asses in motion. Rowland was having a happy birthday. By the time the show was over, there were only a few cupcakes left.