Saturday, December 10, 2011

At the Risk of Madness: Mike Dillon and Mark Southerland's Snuff Jazz Find New Ways to Take Us There

"In addition to it being Laura's birthday," NOLA-based but longtime KC vet Mike Dillon called from behind his drum kit, indicating a friend of the band sitting behind him, "it's also Bushwick Bill's birthday!"

Some laughed, some looked puzzled--did I imagine someone looking offended?--but to this listener, it was the perfect seque into perhaps the most raucous piece to close a wonderful evening of that free ranging collective called Snuff Jazz.  Tenor sax player Rich Wheeler and upright bass (well, any kind of bass, but that night...) Jeff Harshbarger may be a bit stealth in their ability to offend.  But a mad scientist of a jazz visionary like Mark Southerland (who I've seen do everything from fashion jam sessions out of deejaying 8 track tapes to playing horns wrapped around a dancer's torso) and Dillon (who goads the other musicians and the crowd with his insistent drum and vibe performances and that manic glint in his eye and that mischievous grin just a hair's breadth from a snarl), those guys certainly have a kinship with the most outrageous member of the Geto Boyz.  Maybe the two Malachy Papers' madmen can most easily be labeled jazz, and Bushwick will always be known as gangsta, but they're all from an ancient musical impulse--the trickster ready to tear down all established institutions, while visioning new kinds of community beyond the disorder.

All of these musicians do it night after night, and that shout out to Bushwick Bill launched just such dirty (as in mud-pie-intersteller) work.  Dillon taunted the other musicians with this charging drum pattern that pulled Southerland and Wheeler into a percolating response.  Harshbarger began to vamp his way down to the bottom of the neck of his instrument, plucking hard, fast and fluid.  He and Dillon seemed to be locked into a battling, percussive exchange until Wheeler and Southerland took the moment back with a melody seemingly shaped out of thin air.

Once that melody was established, Dillon stood with his four-head-per-hand mallets and exquisitely defined the melody on the vibraphone.  He played those vibes with such supple, quick precision that the cascading notes soon took on multi-colored and multi-textured dimensions dancing in front of the rhythmic backdrop.  Southerland brayed a brightly lit call to the left and Wheeler answered.  And then they all began some frenetic tug-of-war merengue.  All four musicians jousted and danced and drove the beat right through those club walls and out into some vast open soundscape.  Having made its many points as one, the band sizzled to a finish.  One more completely unnecessary--but nevertheless appreciated--coda-like number closed the evening.

For some of us, that Snuff Jazz set at the Grunauer somehow did the impossible--brilliantly followed Mavis Staples and her band having delivered a remarkable set at the new Kauffman Center a few blocks north.  Of course, Staples' show had been hampered (at least from my cheap seats) by the fact that Helzberg Hall seemed to be a room perfectly suited for acoustic music and perhaps not even adaptable to amplified instruments and a rock and roll drum kit.  A friend of mine who had been there before said that the sound had been perfect for the symphony, but for Mavis Staples, it was drums (snare, high hat especially) way up top, guitar way out front and Mavis's extraordinary low ranging alto just about the deepest thing in the mix even next to her three back up singers.

Because of the acoustics, the first clear musical highlight of the evening came with Mavis Staples alone on stage with guitarist Rick Holmstrom, singing the painfully beautiful Randy Newman ballad "Losing You."  Later, the Stax-flavored Little Milton number "We're Gonna Make It" and, of course, the Staples' Singers classic "I'll Take You There" offered such hook-laden excitement that I might have imagined I could hear the nuance in Mavis's voice even if she'd tossed her mic away.  (That might not have been a bad idea, actually...I could hear her asides about as clearly as anything else anyway.)

And, don't get me wrong, it was a terrific show from beginning to end.  Staples' band--drummer Stephen Hodges, bassist (usually, he took some lead) Jeff Turmes and Holmstrom--were as engaging on their instrumental numbers as any band imaginably could be, especially considering one of the greatest voices on the planet is sitting a few feet away.  Her back up singers--sister Yvonne, Chavonne Morris and Donny Gerrard also offered eloquent and exciting support, Gerrard particularly good at cutting through the mix.

Mavis makes sure the show is about the band, and she does it with a fiery display of human expression worth watching for its own sake.  She conducts the band, pumping her arms and delivering handclaps that pop like the beat of a drum.  And on "I'll Take You There," she prods and mimics each musician fueling that classic groove, testifying to the role of each part in the creation of the whole before she turns and calls on the audience to respond with happily returned singing and shouting and handclapping.  That night, she said she intended to make us feel good "for the next six months!"  The afterlife of her performance will extend way beyond that.

With that fire kindling in our hearts, some of us headed down to see those musicians at the Grunauer.  Southerland, Wheeler, Harshbarger and Dillon did not disappoint.  In "Sonny's Blues," an exploration of music so vital that I could spend the rest of my life writing essays based on its individual lines (and I probably will), James Baldwin writes: 

"And Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about.  They were not about anything very new.  He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen.  For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard.  There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness."

Few lights shine nearly so bright as Mavis Staples and her calls to keep pushing down freedom road, but upstairs at the Grunauer, we found our way to another warming light and fresh visions of what could be if we could risk allowing ourselves to hear.

Mike Dillon and, it has been said, Go-Go Jungle perform tonight, December 10th, at the Brick. 10:30....probably not something to miss.