LIVE: Nelson Esposito Quintana @ Madison Theater, 5/08/15
Review and photographs by J Hunter
Before playing “Household Words,” the wistful closing track on Nelson Esposito Quintana’s new disc None of the Above, guitarist Todd Nelson told the audience that bassist Kyle Esposito engineered the recording and drummer Manuel Quintana created the cover design. “I just play guitar,” Nelson added, trying to sound sheepish. If only it were that simple…
The musical creature that Nelson and his cohorts have created has Nelson’s no-nonsense, glass-eating guitar sound right at its base. It was that lack of frills that caught my ear in 2010 when Nelson released Here, a re-invention that would make Spinal Tap jealous: The jazz-meets-rock-and-elopes attack Nelson served up was as far from the Units and Fear Of Strangers as you could get without a working warp drive, despite the reboots of FOS material that sat amongst Nelson’s new compositions. The trio (gigging as TN3) shaped this literally vibrant sound over the last few years until it became a true collaboration, and this necessitated that None bear the name of all participants in the hive mind. Both the disc and the mind – henceforth referred to as NEQ – got a rollout at Albany’s Madison Theater, and the results were most scintillating.
“Stingy Brim” is the kind of collar-grabbing attention-getter any band would love to have at the front of their recording, and that’s what NEQ opened their set with: Nelson and Esposito hooked up on the wicked, grinning opening figure while Quintana started building a foundation that would let his partners fire at will. Esposito’s electric bass was sweet and fat as he supported Nelson ‘s grindhouse solo, which combined a ringing bell-like quality with a lyrical attack that never loses complexity but doesn’t lose the listener in the process. Having successfully captured our attention, NEQ jumped right into the new disc’s title track, a funky little ditty that swirls, dances, and just has more fun than humans ought to have.
“None of the Above” is one of the first places where Esposito lets his own freak flag fly, and you can tell he was weaned on the kind of electric bass players that made their own space on whatever stage they were standing on. Jaco Pastorius could plainly be heard in Esposito’s work during NEQ’s beautiful take on Joni Mitchell’s “River,” which Quintana dedicated to the ailing singer-songwriter. That said, the tremendous focus that links all NEQ’s material kept Esposito from going off into never-never land even as laid down bodacious lines that had the crowd cheering throughout the set.
As with the music on Here, NEQ’s new material can’t just be stuffed into one single rocking bag. Although it holds the same “You talkin’ to ME?” feel that I love about NEQ, “Samba for Chloe” is just what it says it is, even though we’re talking samba with attitude; sambas are usually cool and removed, but there was none of that here – thank goodness! “Savanna Sky” has been pegged as a Latin tune, but a deeper dig into the piece finds African rhythms and melodies that first caressed our ears on Graceland, Paul Simon’s mid-’80s collaboration with African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Esposito’s muscular solo evoked that sound as Quintana’s drumming lifted his partner higher and higher. Nelson comes in at the back of the piece and just builds and builds the joy and the energy until you’re absolutely crying out for a dance floor. Quintana’s drumming has its own complexity, but it’s the steely resolution behind everything he does that gives NEQ that extra set of muscles that tells bullies to back off and go away.
“Element Midnight” is the kind of snarling tune you want to take with you in a dark alley because it snarls like a pitbull even as it morphs from this deathly noir-film soundtrack into this twisted waltz that a citizen of Vienna might have recognized but would never own up to. It was here where the band brought in loops and effects to take their attack even higher. If any part of the post-punk/new wave world that was Nelson’s old stomping grounds lives in his current direction, it would reside in this facet of their attack. Esposito’s titanic solo on the rockin’-the-country “Free Range Pickin’” was swathed in noise, but he never got lost, and he never lost sight of the piece itself.
As NEQ put a cap on the night with singular takes on Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” and John McLaughlin’s “Little Miss Valley,” it occurred to me that it made so much sense that this band debuted this disc in the Madison Theater. I used to live in the Madison’s neighborhood way back in the day, but between the massive development at College of Saint Rose and new eateries and drinking establishments that are packed into one section of Madison Avenue, it’s hard for me to remember what the “old” neighborhood looked like, except it was a lot more run-down than this. Like the neighborhood, Nelson has evolved into a new and different place, and thanks to his partnership with Esposito and Quintana, that place is one of the nastiest (and best) places for Greater Nippertown jazz fans to hang out and see what’s happening now.
Units drummer Al Kash (sporting a curly white pompadour and a black leather vest he might have worn onstage at the late, lamented J.B. Scott’s) was the powerhouse that drove opening act Seven Rabbit Stew, which was playing its second gig in 25 years! Saxman Will Zwink – who knocked it out of the park on tenor and soprano – talked about how the Units were the local component of a musical movement that caught him by the ears and dragged him out of the dorm at UAlbany. That said, Seven Rabbit Stew was an electric take on straight-up jazz, with bassist Jim Daggs’ hot and tasty tone booming through the space. Ralph Pezzulo’s original “Zawinul’s Boogie” put a great cap on a solid set, and let us know that if their agent would just find them a few more gigs, this band could do some damage of their own!