LIVE: Line of Swords @ Proctors’ GE Theatre, 2/21/14
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
One look at Line of Swords’ personnel and you knew the first night of Proctors’ “Party Horns NYC” series was going to be next-level. What nobody could have expected was the near-relentless, utterly mind-blowing assault on both the ears and the senses of the audience. If these horns were playing a “party,” then somebody spiked the punch with a few tabs of Owsley’s finest.
It all started innocently (and curiously) enough when trombonist/leader Josh Roseman put his ‘bone to his mouth, obviously preparing to blow us away. Instead, we got lots of hiss, lots of air, and a faraway sound that might have been a horn. Roseman continued playing in the clear, bopping to the beat in his head, offering a meditation in breath as he filled the space with organic “static” that could have easily fit into a Radiohead tune. What wouldn’t have fit was the explosion of sound that finally came from guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Rudy Royston, with Monder ripping up his instrument’s bottom end, while Royston just ripped it up.
All the while, Roseman maintained his hushed “attack,” playing long, soft, soulful notes – sometimes through a mute – under the rising storm his partners were conjuring. When Monder & Royston left Roseman in the clear again, he did pump up his volume… while playing away from the microphone, so we only got pieces of what he was playing. The more suspicious listener might have thought Roseman was simply fucking with us, an impression slightly reinforced by his rambling post-opening-tune rap where he introduced the group’s 45-minute “number” as “Blues for Austria” (“Dedicated to the long-suffering people of Switzerland…”), and by Roseman’s second-set rap where he asked for questions from the audience and but only acknowledged an imaginary man at the top of the GE Theater’s bleachers.
But the key to the music – indeed, to the whole evening, up to and including Roseman’s slightly surrealistic stage patter – was when Roseman name-checked Art Ensemble of Chicago saxman Joseph Jarman as he introduced “Wallash Splurgeon,” the second (and last) number of the opening set. Here’s the deal: Although jazz traditionalists see Miles Davis’ prototypical fusion album Bitches Brew as the fifth sign of the Apocalypse, Art Ensemble in its prime made Bitches Brew seem like Meet the Beatles. We’re talking down-and-dirty avant-garde structures that the Bad Plus can only dream about, where the pictures that your mind paints are far more important than fitting into any preconceived notions of what jazz “is” or “should be.” You need mad improvisational skills and an adamantine trust in your partners to make the concept work; in Line Of Swords, both elements were displayed in strong amounts as they dragged us down Alice’s rabbit hole for two sets that left us slack-jawed yet smiling.
At first, I’d mixed Monder up with Ben Street, the pulsing bassist who played with Aaron Parks at Skidmore late last year (and who’s been Monder’s running partner on a number of outstanding jazz releases). Substituting a bass with a guitar could have gone either way, but Monder more than made the risk pay off, playing a dancing sound reminiscent of Lionel Loueke one moment and then laying down a feedback-rich roar that would have made Dave Mustaine run and hide. The times Monder did solo, showcasing a versatile style that mixed elements of jazz, rock and flamenco, but it was the stunning support he gave the group’s sound that left the biggest mark. At one point during the byzantine opener, Monder suddenly cut his volume and attack in half while Royston still kept going and going and going. Changing that one variable sent the piece in a completely new direction, and Monder was flipping variables like burgers all night long.
As for Royston, he just gets more awesome with each viewing. “There are drummers, and there are percussionists,” Roseman said in his introduction of Royston, and Royston clearly belongs in the latter category. I’d seen him play scintillating hard bop during altoist Mike DiRubbo’s drop party at Kitano in NYC the month before, but that performance simply paled next to the nuclear power Royston brought to Proctors. Mind you, it wasn’t all thunder drums: During a second-set piece that sub-referenced Bob Marley, Royston cranked the echoplex and gave the piece a dub vibe right out of Roseman’s trippy 2007 dub/jazz mash-up New Constellations. At the end of the night, though, it was muscle over mind for Royston, and that was just fine.
We did get to see Roseman blow it out (a little) in the second set, but spotlight moments – in the traditional sense, anyway – aren’t really Roseman’s thing. As with Art Ensemble, the former SFJAZZ Collective member is all about putting you in the center of the piece and letting it unfold before your ears. He also assumes his listeners have above-average intelligence, and puts challenging musical concepts out into the world without fear of censure or confusion. Roseman described Line of Swords as “a centering, grounding experience.” In the Line of Swords universe, the best way to get centered is to shake off boundaries and stereotypes, hit your mental “re-set” button, and think outside the box that “the box” came in. Some of the crowd may have looked like stunned carp as they left the GE Theatre, but that’s what happens when someone shifts the paradigm without using the clutch.