The Rest is Only Sky: Bill Laswell and Laraaji in Concert

Bill Laswell and Laraaji, with Ka Baird
Ambient Church
Bushwick United Methodist
Brooklyn, NY
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Live from Denmark: The Copenhagen and Aarhus Jazz Festivals (2017)

If jazz is about freedom of expression, then it is also about expression of freedom. Both philosophies were alive and well in Denmark’s coastal cities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, as if to quell the tide of social unrest that is our zeitgeist.

The Copenhagen Jazz Festival (July 7-16) boasted an overwhelming 1,400 concerts over 10 days. For the three I was there, Denmark’s capital was bursting at the seams with music. Whether catching tenor saxophonist Jens Erik Sørensen swinging with his quartet in the central square of Café Sari, drowning in the torrent unleashed by French guitarist Nina Garcia and Danish trombonist Maria Bertel outside the city’s Jazzhouse or reveling in the Dixieland delights of reedplayer Henning Munk and Plumperne on the postcard-perfect Nyhavn canal, there was something fresh to be sourced in nearly every quarter.

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(Garcia and Bertel)

Anticipation was largely met by the festival’s bigger draws. On the beautiful stage of the Royal Danish Playhouse, Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias presented her tribute to the samba with bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Rafael Barata. The trio bobbed and weaved through meaty arrangements of Antônio Carlos Jobim, João Donato, Roberto Menescal (an epic take on his “Você” being a highlight of the set), João Bosco (his “Coisa Feita” being another), along with a smattering of the tried and true, including “The Girl from Ipanema,” one of three encores.

Erykah Badu plied her soulful trade to a boisterous audience at Tivoli Gardens, where she preached some of the jazziest creeds of the festival. Decked in ebony from head to toe and with a drum machine ever-present at her left hand, she and her airtight band dipped healthily into the songbook of her New Amerykah duology. She allowed plenty of room for improvisation and her bandmates even took part in one of the legendary after-hours jam sessions at Copenhagen’s La Fontaine later that night.

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(An eager crowd swoons to Erykah Badu)

Higher expectations, however, made for lower returns in the case of guitarist Jakob Bro, who offered an even-keeled set with a sizable band that included drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonist Mark Turner. But while the music showed artful restraint and Cyrille proved his mastery in a memorable solo, Bro never really acknowledged the audience. Furthermore, Turner’s presence felt wasted, as his brilliance was subdued in favor of breathy long tones in a role that was rarely more than supportive.

It was on the wings of Copenhagen’s local talents that the most surprising flights took place. Whether in the blues-tinged art rock of guitarist Mikkel Ploug and his tight rhythm section or the appropriately named I Think You’re Awesome, led by bassist Jens Mikkel and standout guitarist Alex Jønsson, pleasant surprises abounded.

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(Mikkel Ploug)

Vocalist Mads Mathias was another noteworthy act. Though often compared to Harry Connick Jr., Mathias showed refreshing lucidity and a sense of humor all his own.

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(Mads Mathias and his band)

This year also marks the 150th anniversary of Denmark’s diplomatic relations with Japan and the festival did its commemorative part by inviting a range of Japanese artists, including MoGoToYoYo. This brilliant project of drummer Yasuhiro Yoshigaki, by its deft balance of play and patience, was on par with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, an obvious influence.

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(Yasuhiro Yoshigaki)

The Aarhus Jazz Festival (July 15-22) was an altogether different experience. Bassist and vocalist Kristin Korb, backed by pianist Magnus Hjorth and drummer Snorre Kirk, set the tone for the Aarhus journey, making the city’s sunlit Concert Hall foyer that much sunnier. In addition to playing tunes off her 2016 tribute to Johnny Mercer, Beyond the Moon, Korb gave insight into her globetrotting personal life, belting out life-affirming energy with tact and hospitality. Two days later, singer/songwriter Madeline Peyroux headlined in the Concert Hall proper with guitarist Jon Herington and bassist Barak Mori, slinging a politically savvy program by way of her sly yet heartfelt delivery.

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(Kristen Korb)

The choicest action went down under the auspices of 12 Points, a roving festival-within-a-festival. Featuring twelve acts from as many countries, it was a veritable cross-section of the future of European jazz. Danish pianist Lars Fiil kicked off 12 Points with his aptly named group, Frit Fald (Free Fall); much of the music was through-composed, but gave leeway to free interpretation. Other composition-leaning groups were Norway’s Significant Time (a hodge-podge ensemble featuring wordless vocals); cinematically inclined Marie Kruttli Trio from Switzerland; Louis Sclavis-inspired Post K of France; and SCHNTZL, a keyboard- and-drums duo from Belgium.

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(Kirke Karja)

The atmospheric Kirke Karja Quartet from Estonia was especially on point. Featuring the Terje Rypdal-esque stylings of guitarist Kalle Pilli, the quartet played mature arrangements of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Waage (Libra)” and Bill Frisell’s “Hangdog,” as well as original tunes. Other groups were more improvisation-heavy. The Francesco Orio Trio from Italy, for example, built Giovanni Guidi-like bodies around fragmentary organs of melody. The best balance between these two soft extremes was struck by chuffDRONE of Austria. Backed by the intuitive drumming of Judith Schwarz and brought into unexpected directions by soprano saxophonist Lisa Hofmaninger, chuffDRONE achieved a welcome balance of cloud and sky. Another highlight was Tommy Moustache. This savvy quartet of unabashed Dutch gentlemen brought verve and high-octane precision to their humorous yet rigorous blues.

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(Francesco Orio)

The remaining bands were rooted in noisier soil. These included Ireland’s Big Spoon and Lithuanian outfit Sheep Got Waxed. The latter trio of alto, guitar and drums (along with an array of electronics) was another zenith and brought about an energy rarely produced since the heyday of John Zorn’s Naked City.

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(Simonas Špiavičius of Sheep Got Waxed)

The festival closed with a set from UK act Taupe, another fierce trio of similar makeup balancing blast and groove with clear punctuation.

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(Two thirds of Taupe)

Despite being separated by a three-hour train ride and thematic divergences, Copenhagen and Aarhus were cut from the same dynamic cloth. Depth of appreciation was palpable across the board, further emphasized by a variety of child-focused programming at both festivals. Such outreach to a growing generation of jazz lovers and creators served as assurance that jazz is healthier than ever and that we are fortunate to lend an ear at its cusp.

(This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)