Event Review: Fay Victor Ensemble
Cartwheels at Galapagos
The Fay Victor Ensemble takes the mantle of that musical pirate’s treasure called jazz fusion by returning to the essence of what once upon a time was called jazz-rock. Fusion is a pejorative term - a straight up diss - in some quarters because it calls forth images of chops-aholic showboat musicians playing to impress other musicians with their, ahh, technique.
Jazz-rock, on the other hand, came out of the boundary-smashing music of the sixties and early seventies, with jazz players such as Miles Davis and Charles Lloyd adding psychedelic rock influences to their jazz (electronics and rock beats) and rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa using jazz elements (non rock structures, expanded harmony and improvisation) to their rock-based music.
Jazz-rock musicians took the sophistication of jazz and merged it with the devil-may-care dynamism and primal energy of rock to create music that reflected the darkness and the innocence of that era. Fay Victor, whose voice blends the jazzy soulfulness of Nina Simone and the angular, melodic twists of freedom jazz vocalist Jeannie Lee and her cohorts, all veterans of jazz and other music forms, harkens back to this original concept and leaps forward with it to create an original blend.
After trudging to the show through the face-twisting icy cold, one could only hope that it would be cozy at Galapagos, the Williamsburg club where Fay and Ensemble had their much anticipated record release party. The club’s cavernous room lent the air of a concert hall to the show, which featured songs from the group’s new CD, Cartwheels Through the Cosmos, which was both well represented and expanded upon by live performance.
The CD starts with the dynamic “Leap of Faith,” perhaps the group’s signature song. This piece drives and swings like rock and jazz. T. A. Thompson, who sounds like no other drummer this drummer-writer has heard, plays a clattering, orchestral style of the trap set, which supports and brings out the elements of the music, by both playing the beat and propelling the music with a Greek chorus of sharp and crashing cymbals and tom tom drums.
Ken Filiano weaves his throbbing, rumbling bass throughout. Anders Nilsson scatters rock guitar licks like a jazz-deranged Keith Richards, with forays into atonal blues. The entire tsunami of sound supports Ms. Victor’s voice in a song that is defiant and uplifting with a dash of sass. If there is a theme song for the band (or New York for that matter), this should be it.
Live, they hit the ground running, like an action sequence in a movie with the CD’s second cut, “Exchange Rate.” Ms. Victor started alone with a plaintive cry that located the song in an old African marketplace (a mournful sound that presages the punch line of the piece). The band then entered with a strident blast of sound: T.A Thompson and Mr. Filiano played a loping but driving pulse, with Mr. Nilsson adding startling but tasteful shards of guitar textures and licks. Their free form-sounding musical phrases reminded this listener of old field hollers and spirituals.
The waves of music built up, then waned as Ms. Victor sang: “I wonder if all the cowry shells and seeds would have been enough to pay for me / in Dahomey 1723.” She could have railed against slavery, slam poetry style, but all good poets and lyricists present such sentiments in ways that get at the listener in oblique ways.
The strength of the live show, as well as the CD, is that the group’s music is infused with an array of black musical influences. “Stray Dogs” is a deceptive, quirky ballad with a waltz-like feel over a regular 4/4 floating groove. The bluesy essence of the tune contains passages that have the atonal angularity of Thelonius Monk that perfectly fit the song’s story of loneliness and love lost.
“Pillow in My Ear,” on the record a duet by Mr. Filiano and Ms. Lee but live included guitar, belies the Ensemble’s avant-garde influences and penchant for spontaneous reinvention. On CD, the song opens with the bass playing passages of percussive noise interrupted by stately, bowed phrases. Ms. Victor enters with a disembodied vocal cry that is sparsely and softly cajoled by the bass.
Live, the bass intro was more intense - no doubt reflecting the emotions of the moment - with electronically enhanced sound creating an ethereal aural landscape. With the guitar mimicking and answering the bass and the vocal more arresting and dynamic than on the record, the audience hardly noticed the faint sound of disco bleeding through the walls from the other room.
“Spin” is another band tour de force. It started with a drum solo where T.A. showed his unique style of creating percussive melodies. He explored the sounds and textures of the cymbals and drums played by his fingers and slapped by his hands. This built to a dynamic peak that lurched into a driving funk rock section, with Ms. Victor’s vocals riding over top. The song then morphed into a dense, free form jam before going back to the central tune.
The Ensemble brought the audience back to earth with “It’s Coming,” a song best described as a happy little ditty about our planet blowing itself up, forcing humanity to float in space, either in despair or whimsy, as Ms. Victor sings: “I’ll swim back strokes keeping up with the asteroids / hope to avoid those black holes doing cartwheels through the cosmos/ when the earth is done done well done.” The easy bossa nova feeling of the song and the gentle vocals capture a sense of humor, fantasy and irony not often heard in jazz.
The highlight of show was the finale, “Earth,” which also ends the CD. Ms. Victor explained that the lyrics were to be for a vocal version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun.” But legal issues made it impossible to do for the record, so the band wrote a song for the lyrics. Musically it combines jazz, rock and funk. Mr. Filiano played standup that bridged the three musical worlds, as did T.A.’s brush and bass drum beat. Mr. Nilsson played a snaky rock line, interspersed with jazz chord accents. This proved to be the perfect coda to the evening and has the effect of a ship taking off and doing cartwheels through the cosmos.
For more information and to purchase this and other Fay Victor CD’s go to www.myspace.com/fayvictorensemble
or to www.fayvictor.com
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