LIVE: The Arch Stanton Quartet’s “Shadow & Act” @ the Book House, 2/18/17
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu
I’m all in favor of putting live jazz in spaces not associated with live music. It’s simple mathematics: The more places we put the music, the more chances we have to turn somebody on that might not have been exposed to the real thing.
The Arch Stanton Quartet’s latest gig was at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, but for once, the group’s “garage-band jazz” wasn’t the sole star on the afternoon. This show would be the second time the ASQ would perform compositions inspired by one of the most powerful works in American literary tradition: Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” I first read the book in 2015 while flying from Albany to San Jose, and when I’d finished, I felt like someone had spent the eight-hour journey smacking me upside the head with the book.
Published in 1952 and set in the early 20th century, Ellison’s unnamed narrator takes the reader on a winding, episodic journey that stretches from his small hometown in the South, through a black college loosely modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee University, and straight into the heart of New York City, where we find the narrator hiding in a basement and reviewing his life.
Throughout the book (which guitarist-composer Roger Noyes calls “an American ‘Ulysses,’” though I see parallels to Homer’s “The Odyssey”), the narrator finds himself in – or is literally thrown into – social, professional, political and physical situations that prove racism is not exclusive to the southern bigots he grew up with; indeed, he discovers that there is as much racism on the liberal side of the scale as there is on the conservative side.
I missed the debut of this music two years ago at Albany Public Library, but I literally had a front-row seat (and a nice, cushy front row seat, at that) for “Shadow & Act” when Noyes made the introductions at the Book House. Noyes writes non-fiction as well as music, and his love for the words and mental pictures Ellison stitched together was more than evident, as the guitarist set up a seemingly simple premise: How does something you read turn into music?
To set the stage – and the tone – for the afternoon, the Stanton Quartet eased into an old classic that plays an important part in Ellison’s novel: Louis Armstrong’s “Black & Blue.” To put it mildly, standards aren’t part of the ASQ’s normal repertoire, let alone something as deep in the jazz tradition as Satchmo, but the group put the slow, sweet blues on like a favorite jacket, and it fit absolutely perfectly.
Horn blower Terry Gordon pulled a cornet out of the brass arsenal at his feet and expertly used a plunger mute to create that mournful sound Armstrong could conjure at a moment’s notice. Noyes’ solo was more traditional than I’m used to, but Noyes also does trad damn well, so what do I know? Chris Macchia’s fat bass rolled right down the middle while original Stanton Quartet drummer James Ketterer pushed the piece straight on through with brushes and attitude. The piece didn’t sizzle, but it bubbled like hell, just like the book, and if you closed your eyes, you could easily transport back to the days when jazz was the thing and Satchmo was king.
Noyes took great care between tunes to break down “Invisible Man” for the crowd, explaining how the narrator went through life as “an invisible man” from childhood to adulthood, and was only seen as whatever (or whoever) it was the people in front of him saw him as. Noyes also talked about how the book showed that life is like jazz, because the narrator “walks through the breaks, and then fades back.” He even broke it down for us visually with pictures of the music from the opening of the Noyes original “Prologue,” which was inspired by the narrator’s opening “monologue” from deep in his basement. You could hear a little of Armstrong in the piece, though Gordon and Noyes definitely showed higher levels of aggression that evoked the ASQ’s earlier recorded work.
As such, the barely contained rage inherent in the narrator at the beginning of “Invisible Man” kept the piece crackling, just as it did during the suite-like piece “Atalanta.” The latter work allowed Noyes to compare and contrast Booker T. Washington – who the narrator greatly admires in the beginning of the book – with Washington contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois, who embodied the spirit of social activism that presaged the civil-rights movement: The narrator clings to Washington’s “accomodationist” views in the beginning, but is much closer to Du Bois’ more confrontational attitude by the end of his journey, and Noyes’ pulsing composition lets you hear that transition.
The afternoon finished with the straight-up groove “Liberty Paints,” which is the name of a company where the narrator works for a short time; Noyes also pointed out that the word “Paints” could be used as a verb: “What does Liberty paint over?” As we’ve seen recently, it can “paint over” quite a bit. It’s why “Invisible Man” is just as relevant in the age of Black Lives Matter as it was in the days when the battle in the African-American community was Washington’s calls for social responsibility versus Du Bois’ push for social equality.
Noyes’ between-tunes presentations had enough detail to jump-start a doctoral dissertation, and could have used a PowerPoint display to bring it home completely. But between the excitement Noyes brought to the discussion and the smoldering fire the Arch Stanton Quartet always has burning, this was the most interesting time I’ve ever had at a bookstore, and I hope the passers-by caught in the concert felt the same way.
GO HERE to see more of Rudy Lu’s photographs of this concert…
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