Cats and Dragons perform at Alchemia

An art gallery owner I know sometimes speaks of paintings she doesn’t admire with the phrase “What you see is what you get,” meaning essentially that the first impression is all that exists, and that one hunts in vain for a profounder meaning. Even when speaking Polish she uses the phrase in English; perhaps there isn’t an exact equivalent in Polish, but I also suspect that English-speaking nations are, alas, seen as the homeland and stronghold of this disposable, “what you see is what you get” culture.

It is no easy business pinning down exactly the difference between watching the two bands that appeared at Alchemia on Tuesday, Feb. 23: Chicago’s Dragons 1976 and the Poznan band they hooked up with on tour, The Light. Both are trios of similar make-up. Both play unorthodox jazz with a strong rhythmic backbone. But ultimately one had the feeling that Dragons 1967 were combining pre-fabricated structures – never without marvelous skill – to create a whole that never lost its ring of familiarity while it experimented. While with relative newcomers The Light, you had the impression of listening to a narrative you were always one step behind figuring out, that slipped from one part to another with more of a faultless intuition than a structural logic. To put it differently, it’s the old opposition between professionals and amateurs in the original meanings of the words: musicians doing their jobs vs. those playing for the love of it.

In conversation after the show, Dragons 1976 are eager to point out that their band, and in fact their young generation of musicians, is consciously breaking down the musical divisions that has been the hallmark of the Chicago scene until recently – a segregation into the Thrill Jockey label, the Ken Vandermark camp, and a label that distributes only black artists. Bassist Jason Ajemian develops this into a ten-minute rant on the division reflecting the essential racism of the U.S. It is hard to see the Dragons’ music as essentially political, but it does bring together a great many elements into a surprisingly coherent whole. Ajemin interrupts his solo to start licking his palms and squeaking them on the body of his instrument, in a gesture more reminiscent of audio art than jazz. Drummer Tim Daisy’s work drifts through a spectrum that includes tribal hammering and a military drumbeat that evokes Ravel’s Bolero. Saxophonist Aram Shelton goes from sounding like early Coltrane to declarative passages in the spirit of Albert Ayler’s New Orleans permutations. All of this stays quite faithful to a steady rhythm and melody – Shelton notes in conversation that he feels free jazz has lost its motivation and is going through a commodification process, which means that much of the young American avant-garde is returning to a more traditional notion of structure.

Multi Culti label-mates The Light also vary in their work, but in their case we should speak of diversity and not eclecticism. Made up of bass clarinet, drums and bass, their music has the roughness of a band just starting out, but also – particularly in the work of the bassist – an uncanny quality that might almost be described as a spirituality. Their set has the remarkable effect of removing any aspect of routine from the jazz music – when a solo emerges, the listener never thinks of it as a tactic to break up the monotony of the piece, it develops as an organic part of the music. The Light are returning to Alchemia for the Fall Jazz Festival, and you are encouraged to remember their name.

Four days earlier, on February the 19th, Japan’s Gato Libre flew in to play a generous three-hour show at the same venue. The pleasures of watching them play were of two sorts: atmosphere and structure. Gato Libre are musicians who, like Glenn Gould for instance, take a special delight in laying the structure of the song out in front of the listener like a picnic meal, and then proceeding to eat. The song “Butter” is a fine example. To begin with, each of the musicians perform rather awkward solos. Natsuki Tamura makes a series of belching noises on his trumpet, Satoko Fujii uses both hands to play the bass notes on her on accordion, Kazuhiko Tsumura strums arrythmically on his guitar and Norikatsu Koreyasu sort of fumbles on his bass. When they have all finished and the listener has resigned himself to thinking the song is cute but rather idiotic, the musicians then play the same parts, except this time all together – and miraculously, the combination of these nonsensical elements makes some kind of sense.

But in the end Gato Libre’s music is about creating an oneiric, melancholy atmosphere that drifts forward with plenty of silences and repetitions. Their nods to European folk music are generally momentary bursts, played either much too slow or in the “wrong spirit,” but with a genuine affection and a strong musical knowledge. Their most likeable songs carry the titles “November in Krakow” and “Pierogi.” The trumpet solos are particularly effective here, sometimes gently experimental, but generally content to sit back in an easy chair and invite the listener to meander.

Readers are heartily urged to peek in at one of the four remaining March concerts of this current Alchemia jazz series, whose remaining highlights include Mikolaj Trzaska, Joe McPhee and Peter Brotzmann – and to arrive at least half an hour early to be sure of squeezing in the door.

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