My latest article for All About Jazz is an extensive report on the 2018 Winter Jazzfest, which included a handful of ECM-associated musicians, such as David Virelles, Aaron Parks, and Sylvie Courvoisier. Click the photo below to read on.
On 11 January 2018, singer Alicia Hall Moran took to the Bank of America Winter Village Rink in New York City as part of the 2018 Prototype Festival to stage her latest vocal experience. Breaking Ice examines the mythology behind what came to be known as the “Battle of the Carmens,” when skaters Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas coincidentally chose Bizet’s Carmen as the music for their long routines at the 1988 Winter Olympics. For this 20-minute piece, offered under cover of burnished clouds and surrounded by the skeletal trees of Bryant Park, Moran was joined on the ice by Kaoru Watanabe on taiko drum and Maria Grand on saxophone, along with skaters Elisa Angeli and Jordan Cowan. Drawing upon her own experience as a figure skater, Moran turned the rink into a personal concert space. With microphone in one hand and blood-red bouquet of roses in the other, she was compass, vessel, and map in one.
Songs from her new album (see my full review for All About Jazz here), including the poignant original “Not Today” and a “Habañera” mash-up of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” threaded by passages of improvisation and vocalese, delivered a mood and message that was distinctly Moran’s own. But that was only the surface.
Here’s what was going on underneath.
First, one must consider the space itself as an extension of its sonic foci. Before a single note flew, Moran made the rink her own by marking off its center, almost ritually, with a circle of orange and green traffic cones. Although suggestive of Christmas, if only by association with the enormous tree behind, they were first and foremost a sign and signal of self-containment. This was her circle, and the act of laying it out reminded us of all-too-rare a thing in this historical moment. At a time when politics (and the words that constitute their violence) have become so fragmented that it’s all we can do to keep from getting slivers, Moran showed us that the orthography of change will be written not on walls but across open borders. Still, despite the porosity of her circle, in communion with the drums she was bound by no other rules but her own.
Even as the circle was an invitation, it was also a warning, symbolically drawn as much to keep herself protected as others from invading. In this reversal of colonial power play, she threw her voice like a net—to see not what she could catch but how much she could filter out. This was the heart of each moment: to see and feel the audience breathing through all those things that let us through. Just as the wind found no purchase in the branches above her, so did she pass without contact through the tangle of flesh and blades that was her gypsy forest.
Before she strapped on her skates, ice was already speaking. The Bryant Park fountain had frozen to a crisp, its flow ephemerally memorialized as a drip too ponderous to visualize as movement. Not unlike Moran’s songcraft, which in any context slows the march of time so that we may examine its soldiers in much the same way, that which is frozen is open to the possibilities of interpretation.
The rink, too, was its own reflective surface, distorting the cityscape before a single note was sung: a heart of urban ventricles and an aorta honed in glass unfolded across a flat plane.
By the end, Moran had sent us back into the cold with a morsel of warmth, and in so doing showed us that the power of a song lies not only in what goes into it but also where it is unleashed. A song is nothing to ignore, but something to be reckoned with and, from the open hands of her delivery, proves that a language of one must be a language of all.
Bill Laswell and Laraaji, with Ka Baird
Bushwick United Methodist
December 16, 2017
The space is an introduction: the moment you walk into it, you’ve turned the first page. Walls and ceiling comprise the shell of a body memorialized by the reverberations of its weekly visitations: a “church,” you might call it, but whose actual name lies buried in the speech of those who’ve forgotten it. Headlights peer through stained glass and into the hearts of everyone who has come to listen. This place, you realize, has chosen you as its resurrection vessel, a memory stepping out of the haze as an itinerant preacher whose only scripture disintegrated long ago as padding for worn-out shoes.
Looking above and behind, you notice a beam of light: a “projector,” you might call it, but whose actual name floats preserved in minds of the technically inclined. The light stretches forth its arm, seeking a surface as a mudra would its vibrational link, until the skin of musician Ka Baird opens millions of tiny wings.
Her activations, privately ordained yet congregationally shared, uncover your ears with all the wakefulness of a sunrise recounted after sunset. By means of an instrumentarium that in any other context would pay secular homage at best to its origins, Baird unpacks her motifs at the molecular level. Threading prismatic arias through a chittering forest, looping her flute in recurring dreams of possession all the while, she refracts the self until it exhales a world apart. With each sustain, a thought reaches its climax, while echoes of a new beginning carve hieroglyphics of courage across your forehead. She fills her mouth with galactic marbles, shooting each into an unwritten future.
Between dimensions, chains of conversation re-link themselves. Still, you stand alone, drinking in all those breaths as if they were a sutra exploded. The ceiling opens its eyes as a wall socket cannot close them and holds those depths close, a blanket against the cold.
The effect is such that by the time Bill Laswell and Laraaji draw their own curtain through the room, you’ve already turned inside out. What were once your ears are now your optical nerves, and vice versa. Amid a landscape of water and choral winds, Laraaji’s amplified zither is his field. Be it struck, bowed, plucked, hammered, brushed, or strummed, its language compounds the allure of burning magnesium, minus the threat of blindness. Each of its strings feels attached to something unseen. His mbira likewise treads with care, a clock’s dream made real.
Laswell’s bass is his talisman, a slab of wood and wire plucked from its heavy metal roots and transfused with a tambura’s drone-blood. His lines emerge, organic as they are brief, from the gift of spontaneous generation. Their patterns begin to match your own, following rhythms that tremble far below the floorboards. Without a map to follow, that which is written migrates into territories of the spoken, so that only poetry seems able to convey the prosaic spectrum of experience.
Whether singing or laughing, their voices are shimmering shadows. Like the incense wafting about the pews, their dimensions stretch the nostrils of your soul into canvases, across which to plot every fragrant constellation in a blush of indigo promise. All of which points to one truth: the groove is Earth, the rest is only sky.
My latest review for RootsWorld online magazine is of a fascinating side project by violinist Bjarte Eike (known to ECM listeners for his appearances on the Siwan recordings) called the Alehouse Sessions. Click the cover below to read my thoughts on the album and the group’s debut stateside performance in New York City.