The new jazz: Sex Mob
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, February 28, 2003) – Jazz artists like Brad Mehldau, Dave Douglas, Joshua Redman and the Bad Plus have been shaking up jazz in the past year or so with feints toward pop and rock, covering pop tunes and bringing a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility to their recordings and performances -- this at the same time that jam-rock bands vie for jazz credibility with their meandering instrumental solos.
Trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein has been on this case for years with his band Sex Mob, which does for contemporary music what small jazz combos in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s did for the hit parade of their day. Instead of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, however, audiences are treated to avant-jazz versions of songs by the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Abba and Nirvana at Sex Mob shows.
Surprisingly enough, audiences also hear Norah Jones’s rhythm section at Sex Mob shows – bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wolleson do double duty in both groups. The group is at Club Helsinki on Saturday night at 9.
At Helsinki on Friday night, house favorite Amy Fairchild performs at 9. This time out, John Lennon Songwriting Competition-winner Fairchild shares the bill with fellow Boston pop-rock singer-songwriter Carla Ryder, whose album “Pulling Down Sky” shows the former lead singer of Boston’s Mudhens to be very much in Fairchild’s vein of melodic pop-rock.
North County audiences have been enjoying a crash-course in contemporary African music this past winter with the Clark Art Institute’s “Out of Africa” series, which continues next Saturday, March 8, with Alpha Yaya Diallo.
This weekend, the venue shifts to Williams College’s Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, where Malian artist Habib Koite will perform a free concert on Saturday night.
Hailing from a noble line of Khassonke jalis, or musician-storytellers, Koite transfers to the guitar the sound of the traditional kamale n’goni, a four-stringed instrument associated with hunters from the Wassolou region of Mali. He tunes his guitar to the pentatonic scale and plays on open strings as one does on the kamale n’goni. As heard on Baro (Putumayo), his music shows influences from flamenco, blues, classical and Anglo-American folk, but his songs are built of the melodic loops or patterns that characterize traditional African folk.
In recent years, Koite has reached new audiences through being championed by artists including Peter Gabriel, Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, with whom Koite co-wrote and performed “Back Around” on her recent album, “Silver Lining.”
Spoken-word artist Sekou Sundiata, one of the original “performing poets,” once had a student in one of his classes at New York’s New School named Ani DiFranco. Years later, DiFranco became a folk-rock star and the head of a record label, Righteous Babe, and Sundiata found himself on tour with DiFranco and with a recording, “Longstoryshort,” on her label.
On Saturday at 8, Sundiata performs his new one-man show, “Blessing the Boats,” at Mass MoCA in North Adams. The show is being called “a journey with music and visual media through three years of the poet’s life, bearing witness to his highest and lowest moments -- a time when the scope of his achievements was matched only by a tumultuous and unexpected health crisis that ultimately ended in a kidney transplant.”
Sundiata, whose “Longstoryshort” recalls the work of Gil Scott-Heron, has recorded and performed with a wide variety of artists, including Craig Harris, David Murray, Nona Hendryx and Vernon Reid.
Pianist Alan Simon, who leads his trio at the Castle Street Café in Great Barrington tonight, is a career player with several solo recordings to his credit as well as work with various big-name bandleaders, including Dizzy Gillespie, Anita O’Day, Slide Hampton, Frank Foster and Lionel Hampton, with whom he appeared at the Vienna Opera House and Carnegie Hall.
As heard on his own recordings, “The Present” and “Rainsplash,” Simon – who lives in Millerton, N.Y., and teaches at the Westport School of Music in Connecticut -- is an articulate player who moves from lush impressionism to fierce bop with ease. In addition to his own compositions, the music he draws upon includes a wide range, from Duke Ellington to Claude Debussy to Miles Davis to Thomas Chapin.
After several months of contemporary singer-songwriters, the Common Grounds Coffeehouse in Pittsfield shifts its emphasis towards traditional folk music with a program by the Rhode Island-based duo of Aubrey Atwater and Elwood Donnelly tomorrow night at the First United Methodist Church at 8. The two, who originally met as volunteers at the famed Stone Soup Coffeehouse in Providence, harmonize vocally and perform on a wide variety of instruments, including mountain dulcimer, old-time banjo, guitar, tin whistle, harmonica and bodhran.
As heard on the group’s recent live recording, And Then I’m Going Home, an Atwater/Donnelly show is a journey back in time through music, on a cappella songs, hymns, Irish ballads, child ballads and American tunes by the likes of Ralph Stanley.
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 28, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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