LIVE: Sten Isachsen, Mat Kane & Michael Bisio @ Valentine’s, 4/26/11

When is a fiddle tune not a fiddle tune? When it’s free jazz.

A new, as-yet-unnamed trio featuring Sten Isachsen (mandolin), Mat Kane (fiddle) and Michael Bisio (bass) made its debut at Valentine’s Music Hall on Tuesday night as part of Dan Johnson’s remarkable Americana Tuesdays series. Usually the program leans towards songwriters and rocking roots bands, but Isachsen’s combo went way outside, warping chestnuts like “June Apple” and “Kitchen Girl” into something more akin to Ornette Coleman than Eck Robertson.

Essentially the performance was a seamless half hour of music, with a snatch of melody (“a piece of candy,” as Isachsen later said) being thrown out between great wedges of improvised sound. Occasionally, as will happen with improv, the trio went down a blind alley – watching them find their way out was as much fun as any other part of the brief show.

The sound at Valentine’s did leave something to be desired and occasionally loud squawks interrupted the groove, but not the intent.

Bisio anchored the trio as a literal god of thunder. He slapped, punched and hammered his bass, often pulling deep low notes of out of open strings with the spare fingers of either hand, while the rest of the digits were busy in the upper register.

Kane, tentative at first, seemed to get lost in the music in the best way, balancing long lower notes with clutches of skittering melodic fragments. He’s had plenty of experience going out with his own Disposable Rocket Band, but this music worked at once on a more visceral and cerebral level.

Isachsen’s mandolin might have been louder in the mix, but his eyes lit up as he navigated “Liberty” and “Big Mon” in passing statements that served the broader whole. Despite his high skill level, he continues to grow in leaps and bounds – and it’s thrilling to witness that process. Also, making use of the instrument’s bluegrass function as a snare drum, Isachsen (frequently seen with Jim Gaudet & the Railroad Boys) brought the groove back to bear when it threatened to fall away.

This was a truly unique fusion of roots and jazz. Let’s hope the trio finds a name and enough gigs (Justin’s? Caffe Lena? 9 Maple?) to sustain itself.

Review by Bokonon

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