critic’s pick 274: my morning jacket, ‘the waterfall’

waterfallLouisville’s My Morning Jacket has always been a band of seeming contradictions. It can wail with the bawdiest of arena rockers and then retreat into a Southern smoked psychedelic chill. Ditto for frontman Jim James, who can summon deep earthy moans when his songs call for it or sail into the vocal stratosphere with a soul-soaked falsetto when the music becomes less melodically restrictive.

Such a varied fabric is on rich display throughout MMJ’s new album The Waterfall. At its core, the 10 songs are soaked in varying degrees of heartbreak. Some strive to keep a brave face, others already show signs of renewal. But there is a tinge of sadness to all of them. Well, at least that’s the case lyrically. Musically, The Waterfall is a grab bag of pop-infused reflection alternately full of trippy orchestration, synth-pop simplicity and, yes, some quite entrancing rock ‘n’ roll.

“Roll the dice, set sail the ship and the doors will open on down the line,” James sings with a measure of hesitant hope on the album-opening Believe. While a hearty rockish affirmation breaks loose of a gurgling synthesizer intro, the song never evens out lyrically. It’s as if it finds solace in uncertainty (“Believe, believe, believe, nobody knows for sure”).

In Its Infancy (The Waterfall), however, turns kaleidoscopic. It rocks back and forth between an ominous downbeat passage anchored by guitar, Rhodes piano and a subtle scowl from James and a blast of summery pop bliss colored by a troupe of backup singers and an all-too brief steel guitar break from Carl Broemel. By the time the tune heads down the home stretch, the guitars and synths are flying as if it was 1974 all over again. The song then ends with the same moody rumination it began with.

The highlight of The Waterfall is probably Thin Line simply because of how boldly James plays with pop convention. He bends the titles from one of pop-soul’s greatest hits (Thin Line Between Love and Hate) and a retools it into a blackened verse of separation (“it’s a thin line between love and wasting my time”). As all this transpires, guitar lines morph from breezy pop orchestration into psychedelic deflation.

The seven-minute album-closer Only Memories Remain is about as lyrically and musically streamlined as MMJ gets on The Waterfall. A chronicle of love in the ruins, it balances hope and helplessness with a pop melody that builds to a near cinematic crescendo.

Okay, then. Bogie had As Time Goes By to brood to. Now James has Only Memories Remain. Both are romantic laments of unusual elegance fashioned for different times. It kind of makes you wonder, though, what Bogie would have been like if a trippy rock troupe like MMJ had his back.

in performance: jeff beck

jeff beck.

jeff beck.

Anyone doubting the power and playfulness Jeff Beck still yields on guitar at age 70 got an earful and then some last night at the Kentucky Center for the Arts’ Whitney Hall in Louisville.

Throughout a very briskly paced 95 minute set, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer approached tunes that shifted from fusion to techno to blues with the confidence and technique of a scholar but also the wonder and giddiness of a student in a lab experiment.

Take the show opening Loaded, a new tune that had Beck hammering out power chords and punctuated guitar squeals with oddly human vocal expression over a techno savvy backup groove. Later, for more muscular bite, he dipped back to 1989 for Big Block, a bulldozer of a tune with a monstrous ripple effect that Beck piloted over with guitar blasts full of playful immediacy.

As far the setlist went, there were large, important chunks of Beck’s repertoire that went missing. Champion ‘70s albums like Blow By Blow  and Wired were ignored completely. In their place, though, were curious covers of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s 1971 fusion fugue You Know You Know, which was built around a riff that repeated like a mantra save for the ragged variations added to keep the piece from sounding static, and an encore of the Celtic folk staple Danny Boy played as a county-esque reverie.

A little more problematic was Beck’s band, which included former Wet Willie vocalist Jimmy Hall, bassist Rhonda Smith and drummer Jonathan Joseph. All were capable and technically proficient artists, especially Hall, whose singing sounded mightier than ever last night. But none could match the sense of instinct, playfulness and edge Beck still dispensed with ease. In short, they answered Beck’s inventiveness by playing things too safe.

The lone exception was co-guitarist Nicholas Meier, whose playing often remained in the background, providing tunes like Hammerhead with a propulsive rhythmic drive and his own composition Yemin with a lovely acoustic intro and efficient Spanish-flavored arrangement that Beck responded to with some of his most lyrical and relaxed soloing of the night.

in performance: chris stapleton

chris stapleton.

chris stapleton.

There is a quiet, unspoiled country solemnity to the music Kentucky’s own Chris Stapleton summons on his sublime debut album, Traveller. But earlier this afternoon, the Lexington native, who is currently one of the hippest breakthrough acts out of Nashville, trimmed his already frugal sound down to folkish essentials during a six-song in-store set at a packed CD Central.

Performing in a solo acoustic setting, the weathered detail of Stapleton’s songs gleamed with a narrative richness that unassumingly defied the Nashville norm. Take the set-opening title tune from Traveller, a tale of wanderlust both personal and painful. What you experienced in this kind of intimate performance arrangement was actually a sense of forwardness and faith. “Sure as my heart’s behind the pocket of my shirt,” Stapleton sang, “I’ll just keep rolling till I hit the dirt.”

There were two other distinct attributes to this 30 minute set, both emanating from the audience. Being a free show (on Mother’s Day, no less), the turnout was filled parents and their young children. Yet the crowd, even in this very non-traditional performance space, awarded Stapleton’s set with astonishing attentiveness and quiet.

The one sound you could detect from the audience was singing. People sang assuredly along with Stapleton on nearly every tune – an astonishing addition, considering Traveller has only been in stores for five days.

One could go on about the make-up of Traveller’s songs. But half the drive behind this quiet set was the vocal charge that came from the stage. The solo acoustic setting also empowered the simple rustic detail of Stapleton’s voice. It colored the stark narrative chill of When the Stars Come Out and Whiskey and You with conversational country ease but rose like a cloudburst during the unceremoniously defiant Fire Away.

The set serenely deflated with Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore. The title may suggest a loss of faith, but in fact the song dealt with the exact opposite. Again, the eulogy was delivered amid exquisite crowd quiet that enhanced the understated grace and severity of Stapleton’s words and voice to cement his place amid the finest, most powerfully authentic country talents of our day.

learning with les

les mccann. photo by martial trezzini-key.

les mccann. photo by martial trezzini-key.

The events surrounding today’s return of Lexington jazz legend Les McCann are rooted in education.

First, there will be the daytime commencement presentation of an honorary doctorate from the University of Kentucky, a belated honor for a jazz career that reached international proportions with the 1969 album Swiss Movement the keyboardist/vocalist cut with saxophonist Eddie Harris and its hit version of the activist anthem Compared to What.

In the evening, McCann will perform at the Lyric Theatre, just a few blocks away from his long ago home on Eastern Ave. The concert is designed to raise funds and awareness for the locally established arts school that bears his name.

For McCann, the degree and benefit are reflections of his devotion to a lifetime of learning.

“We all have the power,” said McCann, 79, by phone last week from his current home in Los Angeles. “It’s all within each one of us. It’s a simple word called creativity. We all are creative. We all have something special within us. We are unique. We all have a special talent, but everybody doesn’t know that. Life is learning. It’s about the lessons we learn to love each other more.

“The point I’m trying to make is that each one of us, even though we might not think we have anything creative to offer, just need to sit down, relax and open up to the part most of us never do and just listen to your heart. We always want to go with the head. The head is just another tool to use in life. It’s not the machine that drives the whole thing.”

Now in its second academic year of operating on a seasonal class schedule (including sessions during the spring, summer and winter breaks of other school systems), the Les McCann School for the Arts offers instruction in music, photography, theatre and other arts related fields at various Lexington community centers including the Lyric.

“Some instructors may only have two or three students in a class,” said Denise Brown, the school’s artistic director. “But what’s been so nice is the instructors have been able to work one on one with students and really mentor them and do a lot of hands on teaching. The students get so much out of that. That’s especially vital in the early stages of the school.”

As with two previous performances at the Lyric in as many years, McCann will perform alongside saxophonist Javon Jackson during tonight’s benefit for the school. The partnership was struck after McCann suffered a severe stroke onstage during a concert in Germany.

“When I got out of the hospital and came home, Javon was one of the first people to contact me,” McCann recalled. “He said, ‘I want you to be in my band.’ Now I couldn’t even touch a piano at the time. My fingers didn’t operate right. He said, ‘Then come anyway and just sing.’ So working with him has allowed me to get back into shape and get my touch back with the keyboard because I had lost all the feeling in my hands. The only thing I could feel was severe pain. It’s been like that, but lately it’s started to turn around. So Javon has been real special to me.”

“When I had my stroke, they told me I wouldn’t be playing no more and that was it. But I went into intense therapy. Since I never take no for an answer, I just knew that I had to work. So my message to everyone is to celebrate every day. Find something new and great about every moment of every day because there is so much there.”

Les McCann Juke Joint 2015 Fundraiser featuring Les McCann, Javon Jackson and the Tee Dee Young Band performs at 7 p.m. May 9 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third. Tickets: $5-$50. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to

in performance: eric church/the lone bellow

eric church last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

eric church last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

“So how is the Commonwealth doing on a Thursday night?”

That was the icebreaking question offered by Eric Church last night at Rupp Arena. The response, needless to say, was rapturously positive even though the turnout of 11,500 was a few thousand less than when the country star played the venue in 2012. Chalk the difference up to timing. Any country show booked into Rupp on a weeknight is going to take a hit at the box office. Frankly, pulling in a five-digit attendance figure on a Thursday still counts as a solid affirmation of the meteoric rise in Church’s popularity over the last six years.

What defines that rise isn’t so readily explainable. Certainly last night’s two hour performance offered no easy answers, save for the fact Church doesn’t operate from an obvious musical template. The closest comparison, especially in songs like Homeboy, was Hank Williams Jr.

While Church packed a similar level of machismo, his onstage sound last night was considerably more muscular (the band boasted three guitarists, excluding the headliner) and his performance persona was more audience friendly. Credit the latter to a novel stage design essentially octagonal in shape with 360 degree visibility between artist and audience. Aside from the Spinal Tap-esque opening where the drum kit was lowered to the stage floor from near the lighting rigs, the technical make-up of the show was refreshingly unfrilly, right down to the black-and-white video imagery of the performance that played out above the band.

The real differences, though, were in the songs, especially in the eight or so tunes Church uncorked from his 2014 album The Outsiders. A more formulaic country attitude was at work in some of the older material – especially the monstrous sing-a-long coached during Drink in My Hand and the well-intentioned but pandering Merle Haggard tribute within Pledge Allegiance to the Hag. But songs from The Outsiders were musically concise while being stylistically all over the map.

The show-opening title tune to the album flexed metal-tinged guitar riffs that set the highly electric tone for the evening. But a four song parade from The Outsiders that broke out half way through the concert successively shifted gears from the sparse blues of Like a Wrecking Ball to the plays on country convention during Cold One to the combustible soul music drive at the heart of That’s Damn Rock & Roll.

But the champion of the Outsiders material was the hit Give Me Back My Hometown, a banjo-led dirge that could have been set in urban as well as rural America. It boasted Church’s most centered yet ultimately intense vocal performance.

The distance the show purposely kept from most arena-level country concerts extended to the opening band. It wasn’t a country act all, but the sharp Brooklyn-based Americana troupe The Lone Bellow. Somewhat akin to Dawes in sound and style but with a vibrant three-part vocal makeup, the band unleashed a U2-like level of intensity and immediacy during Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold and The One You Should Have Let Go, the songs that bookended The Lone Bellow’s fine 40 minute set.

Especially striking was yet another departure from the country concert norm. Where many country acts that have played Rupp in recent years have devoted stage time to covers of songs initially popularized way outside the Nashville city limits (The Band Perry covering Queen stands out especially), The Lone Bellow did the reverse and cooked up a nicely propulsive version of Dwight Yoakam’s roots-savvy ‘90s hit Fast as You. So instead of country relying on rock ‘n’ roll, we had a true outsider act saddling up to country. It was pretty cool, too.

calling his own tune

chris stapleton.

chris stapleton.

Lexington native and country music revivalist Chris Stapleton will celebrate the release of his debut solo album Traveller with a free in-store acoustic performance at CD Central, 377 S. Limestone at 1 p.m. May 10. For more information, call (859) 233-3472 or go to

Standing on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre two weeks ago, Chris Stapleton couldn’t have looked less like a country music star.

His face buried beneath a healthy crop of hat, hair and beard, the Lexington born, Paintsville/Staffordsville reared songwriter resembled less the Nashville of today and more the Central Texas of 40 years ago. That pretty much held true for the music, too, as Stapleton and an unfussy combo that included his wife as a singing partner casually sailed through the weary but worldly title tune to his debut album Traveller.

The setting was telling, as well. Despite a songwriting career that has spun No. 1 country hits for Luke Bryan (the recent Academy of Country Music Song of the Year nominee Drink a Beer), Kenny Chesney (Never Wanted Nothing More) and George Strait (Love’s Gonna Make It Alright), Stapleton wasn’t making his network television out of Nashville. He was instead in a cherished New York theatre as a music guest during the final weeks of The Late Show with David Letterman.

“It was a surreal thing,” Stapleton said. “It’s one thing to get to stand there in the Ed Sullivan Theatre and be on that show, but to be in the last home stretch of what has become a real iconic thing – man, that was really a wonderful honor.”

New York and Nashville were obviously removed from Stapleton’s Eastern Kentucky roots. While his mother and coal mining father could “hold a tune,” they were especially encouraging as active listeners of the country artists that emerged from the region around them.

“It’s just part of the fabric of being from Kentucky,” Stapleton said. “Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam and Patty Loveless, the list goes on and on. Those names are just part of life in Kentucky. You can’t help but be aware of them and be influenced by them. It’s almost genetic in the sense that you don’t have an existence that doesn’t involve their music.”

A recommendation by Jesse Wells from the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University introduced Stapleton to songsmith Steve Leslie. The latter, in turn, helped connect Stapleton with the Nashville songwriting community.

“There was nothing frightening about it at all,” Stapleton said of his move to Nashville. “I tried college and that didn’t take. I tried various other jobs that didn’t really take just because of the disinterest in all things but music.

“Boy, as soon as I found out someone would pay you to write songs and play, I said, ‘That’s the job for me. I’ve got to figure out how to do that.’ So I was lucky enough to meet some of the right people fairly early in town. I had a publishing deal about four days after moving to Nashville.”

Four days? In one the most competitive music markets anywhere, Stapleton’s songwriting career was up and running in four days?

“That’s not most people’s story,” Stapleton said with a laugh. “But that’s mine.”

Two very different performance projects soon surfaced to plant the possibility of an eventual solo career. The first was a stint as vocalist and co-guitarist with the Steeldrivers, a progressive bluegrass troupe made up of Nashville A-list players.

“The Steeldrivers certainly challenged me as a player because I never saw myself as a bluegrass flatpicking guitar player. Neither did bluegrass flatpicking guitar players, but I still got to test myself. I got better as a musician because all the other members of the band were hot shot players that were very well respected.”

The second was a cranky, highly electric rock ‘n’ roll outfit called the Jompson Brothers that returned Stapleton to Lexington for several performances at Cosmic Charlie’s.

“We went out with the songs, played some rock ‘n’ roll shows and did it all for the love of it, really. The Steeldrivers were the same way. I try to operate from that place at all times. I don’t like that opportunist kind of musical mentality. But it was a wonderful thing. We were loud and playing rock ‘n’ roll. We learned the hard way there wasn’t much rock radio left, but we sure had a lot of fun. It was just a lot of self-indulgent guitar madness. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with that at all.”

With this week’s release of Traveller (produced by Dave Cobb, who has overseen the recent solo records of another newly celebrated Kentucky country stylist, Sturgill Simpson), Stapleton has emerged as an artist finally singing his own songs under his own name.

“Regardless of commercial reception or whatever, I just can’t imagine being any prouder of this record. I hope people give it a listen – as in a hard listen. I hope they listen to it actively, engage in the music and not treat it as some kind of background noise. That’s my hope, anyway.”

life on the outside

eric church.

eric church.

With legions of predominantly young acts vying for sales, chart potential and all-around attention, it’s easy for country music to get caught up in the moment

Then there is Eric Church. Over the past four years, he has almost subversively become one of country’s biggest draws. But as the lasting popularity of his aptly titled 2014 album The Outsiders attests, he is not in the game for immediate sales or a handful of quick hits. Church is out for making a lasting, crater-like mark on the industry.

“Everybody gets so focused on first week numbers,” said Church, who returns to Rupp Arena for a Thursday concert. “Ours were great and all that. But I’ve always said I’m more concerned about week 100 than I am about week one or week four. That’s why you make albums. You make them for longevity. You make them to stay around and continue to roll, and I’m proud that this one has continued to do so.”

The roll into The Outsiders actually began with 2011’s Chief, an album whose charttopping success (bolstered by the No. 1 singles Drink in My Hand and Springsteen) surprised everyone, including Church.

Chief freaked me out because it was a big commercial success that nobody really saw. We had really minimal success with Sinners Like Me (Church’s 2006 debut album) and a little bit more with Carolina (the 2009 follow-up). But we were still a large club to a small theatre act. That’s what we were. Then Chief came out and went double platinum. None of us were ready for that, myself included.

“So when it was time to make The Outsiders, I just knew that it couldn’t be Chief Part II. It had to be schizophrenic and weird. It had to be a departure in every way. I don’t know where we go next. I’m not in that process yet. Once we get through this tour (which concludes later this month), I’ll start thinking about that. I think we can go anywhere now because The Outsiders was so all over the place. There are really no barriers here. There is nowhere we can’t go because it is such a weird and wild album.”

A mix of dark, internalized narratives (the No. 1 hit Give Me Back My Hometown), radio-ready country kiss-offs (Cold One) and frenzied, almost metal-esque rock ‘n’ roll (the album’s title tune), The Outsiders is purposely scattered in its musical mindset.

The Outsiders was always an outlier album for us,” Church said. “If you’re a Beatles fan, it’s somewhat like what the White Album was. For the Beatles, it was just fun to be kind of out there. It’s the way this one was conceived, too.

Church’s outsider status has also been distinguished by the company he keeps onstage. Since his current tour began last fall, he has personally selected a parade of under-the-radar country performers and, in several instances, decidedly non-country artists as opening acts. The list includes new generation Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers, Kentucky country celebs Dwight Yoakam and Chris Stapleton, Americana troupe The Lone Bellow (which performs on the Thursday bill) and the Pennsylvania guitar rock brigade Halestorm.

“Here’s an example of our thinking,” Church said. “Early in our career, Bob Seger took us out for 15 or 20 dates (which included a Rupp Arena stop). We were brand new. Nobody knew who we were, and frankly, Bob Seger didn’t need any help selling tickets. So we did him no good. But he took us on tour because he liked the music.

“Now we’re at a point where we can do the tickets we want to do. I just thought it was cooler than who everybody else takes on tour. Everybody just repackages tours. That’s what happens in country music. That’s what happens in all kinds of music. They just take the same four or five people, whoever had had a hit this year, whoever’s hot, and sticks them on the bill.

“There is just so much music out there I love that doesn’t have the outlet. You know what? We didn’t used to have the outlet, either. We used to play the bars and clubs and couldn’t get on a tour. Nobody would take us out. I remember thinking then, ‘If I ever get the opportunity, I’m going to make sure we take people out that we love, that have a chance to grow. Going forward, this is something we’re going to continue to do.”

Eric Church and The Lone Bellow perform at 7:30 pm May 7 at Rupp Arena. Tickets: $25-$61.50. Call:(859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to

critic’s pick 273: todd rundgren, ‘global’

todd global“I want to wrap my arms around the world,” sings Todd Rundgren amid a sea of synths on his new album Global. “And dance.”

On the surface, getting a party on its feet would seem to be priority one for this veteran pop stylist throughout these new tunes. Global blasts off with enough beats, grooves and electro-enhanced propulsion to ignite any dance floor. Even Flesh & Blood, the album’s second song, is a narrative ode to clubbing. But then the party really gets started.

After the oceanic electronica settles in, Global becomes exactly that. The music shifts from world beat to soul balladry to the kind of unabashed pop melodies that have long made Rundgren’s music so striking. Lyrically, the record becomes similarly expansive to address themes of climate change, spiritualism and the struggle (or perhaps balance) between isolation and liberation.

Sound a touch heavy? It isn’t. Sure, Rundgren is blunt when he chooses, as on Blind, a global warming wake-up call (“God is a scientist; He don’t play dice with the universe”). But the lyrics are wrapped in beautifully tempered keyboard orchestration that comes across as a futuristic vision of the blues. Just as fascinatingly textured are the mantra-like countdown to doomsday Rise and the equally apocalyptic Fate.

Such instances, in essence, encapsulate the charm of Rundgren’s work. His gift of gab has always been great. But his command of the pop lexicon, and the subsequent ability to create seemingly endless parades of melodic delicacies from it, continues to be greater.

If your lone references to Rundgren’s music remain the ‘70s hits that once won him radio airplay, then the dance party slant of Global might seem abrupt. But trace his entire recording history (excluding music made with the prog-pop combo Utopia) and you will discover the vast majority of Rundgren’s albums have been one man band affairs with keyboards being the dominate voice.

The only detriment in the modernization of such a design on Global is the near total absence of guitar. Rundgren has always been a powerful and inventive axeman. Too bad that prowess couldn’t have been weaved into Global the way the out-of-nowhere alto sax solo by Bobby Strickland (the only other instrumental contributor on the album) was during Blind.

What we do have, though, is a mountain of expertly constructed tunes, from the girl power salute of Earth Mother to the pop-soul bliss of Soothe to the singular spiritualism within the worldbeat-meets-synth pop charge of Holyland (“no matter where you stand, you’re in the holyland”). Again, the messages ring loud and clear. But what you take away long after Global’s groove-a-thon is over are the hooks, melodies and lyrical appeal of a master pop craftsman still at the peak of his powers.

critic’s picks 272: alabama shakes, ‘sound & color,’ mavis staples, ‘your good fortune’

Separated by two generations, Alabama Shakes vocalist/guitarist Brittany Howard and gospel empress Mavis Staples today work as two stylistically different soul music ambassadors united in their goal of a greater artistic good. What makes their two newest recordings so fascinating is how respectfully they wander into each other’s camps.

alabama shakesThe Shakes’ Sound & Color, one of the more eagerly awaited sophomore efforts of recent times, is a complete inferno of a record. Expanding upon the retro reputation of its outstanding 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, Howard and company tantalize with a collar-grabbing mesh of torrential funk, deep pocket grooves and, often, orchestral psychedelia without shedding the music’s roots rock foundation.

Howard again serves as the Shakes’ earthshaker with a vocal fervency that is consistently arresting. Hearing her gather vocal ammo over a chattering guitar intro and a resulting groove of molten funk on Don’t Wanna Fight is like hearing James Brown wind up. The singing slides into action with an exhilarating squeal and then explodes.

Gimme All Your Love, on the other hand, balances suave soul cool with monstrous power chords. Howard’s vocal lead opens with Billie Holiday-like vulnerability before detonating into take-no-prisoners gusto bolstered by a blast of gloriously fuzzed out guitar mayhem.

But there are wonderful dynamics at work here, too, like the finger-popping falsetto Howard employs on This Feeling, the moody soul-blues feel the full Shakes crew creates to orchestrate Gemini (which wouldn’t sound out of place on a ‘90s Prince album) and the whispery confessional Over My Head that eases Sound & Color out with choral like overdubs and the same jazzy reserve that began this extraordinary album 12 songs earlier.

mavis staplesListen to Sound & Color side-by-side with Your Good Fortune, a wonderfully assertive new four-song EP from Staples, and you might actually be convinced you were taking in more of the same recording.

With vocals that roll in like waves during the title tune and production that blurs traditional and modern soul accents together, the resulting music defies time zones. Of course, once that deep and sagely voice enters, which has lost none of it emotive impact at age 75, you remember exactly who you are dealing with.

Staples sounds like a million dollars as she powers her way through a solemn reading of the Blind Lemon Jefferson blues staple See That My Grave is Kept Clean, a modernized reading of father Pops Staples’ 1963 gospel confession Wish I Had Answered and two new tunes by Roots/RJD2 collaborator Son Little, who produced the recording.

Little essentially provides Your Good Fortune the sound of a remix album, but his groove-centric approach is very complimentary to Staples’ earthy vocal command – a sound that still offers a few rootsy shakes of its own.

in performance: keefe jackson quartet

keefe jackson.

keefe jackson.

Even within the Outside the Spotlight Series, where music is never formulated given its often exclusively improvisatory nature, there is some track record to go by, some level of past history to serve as a reference point.

Not so with last night’s performance by the Chicago-rooted Keefe Jackson Quartet at the Farish Theatre. This was the regional debut of a new band, made up largely of OTS frequent flyers, that mixed compositional passages with a wealth of free improvisation. The resulting music was challenging to say the least. The composed sections, themes that seemed to surface in almost classical fashion, gave the program an accessibility some OTS concerts purposely avoid. But the three pieces Jackson unveiled (or maybe there were two; the second and third bled into each other like a suite) had Jackson and Dave Rempis juggling various saxophones (and, in Jackson’s case, bass clarinet) while Jason Stein grounded the music somewhat by playing bass clarinet solely.

Cellist Tomeka Reid and Norwegian drummer Tollef Ostvang often worked independently of the quintet’s front line and, in many instances, of each other. Ostvang colored the music with percussion both sparse and spacious while Reid proved the group’s most resourceful player, creating sounds that filled percussive and bass roles. But there were also several places where her bowed playing took on a gorgeous life of its own.

Presented in a largely academic fashion (Jackson’s only spoken acknowledgement of the audience was a quick introduction of his bandmates ) that brought to mind the way Henry Threadgill designed a concert here some years ago, the quintet saved its most exhilarating stylistic mash up for the program’s conclusion.

With the saxophones and clarinets engaging in quick, roulette-style solos, the front line slowly locked into a fearsome melodic charge that Ostvang and Reid quickly turned to swing. Then the whole passage quietly imploded, offering a fascinating slo-mo deconstruction of the compositional complexities the quintet had taken such pains to that point of creating.

Such was the design of this Chicago/Norway brigade, a band that employed composition only as a means of navigation. No wonder the players were so eager, after finding their bearings, to steer straight into stormy waters.

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