Review: ACS (Geri Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding) at the Barbican (LJF)

Geri Allen, Terri  Lyne Carrington,  Esperanza Spalding
Barbican November 2013. Photo credit : Roger Thomas

ACS (Geri Allen, Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding)
(Barbican Centre, Sun. 17th Nov. 2013. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Alison Bentley)

ACS sounds like an understated title for such an illustrious trio. Three strong, gifted women from different generations: pianist Geri Allen, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and Grammy-winning bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding (still in her 20s). Their biographies read like a who's who of jazz luminaries, past and present. This gig included their arrangements of some of Wayne Shorter’s tunes to celebrate his 80th year. The trio were nearing the end of a long Autumn tour, and played together so freely and intuitively, that there was a sense of listening to them all at the same time- as if they were one instrument.

Carrington opened the set (an unnamed Eric Dolphy tune) with delicate bar chimes, but a huge restless energy soon burst out, as if the drums were playing her. There was constant creativity and contrast, in the spirit of Tony Williams (they both had the same drum teacher and worked with Shorter). The trio were all listening intently to each other. Allen (rather low in the mix at first) played some mischievous runs of notes, and Carrington responded with detailed drum rolls. At first there was no obvious tonality, but some dissonant notes over the rumbling bass, and drums like a controlled explosion. Piano and drums duetted, and neither seemed to be leading. Spalding had an elastic double bass tone and a wealth of musical of ideas- then settled into just one grooving note, resting on the rim shots. Allen studied classically, but never seemed Romantic in style- her Debussy-esque phrases were played with a Monkish determination.

Nat King Cole's Beautiful Friendship hinted at a more familiar chord sequence. Spalding soloed as if she was singing the lines- as if the bass were a front line instrument, but also very rhythmically. Many bassists look as though they're fighting their instrument, but Spalding’s left hand crept along the neck of the bass with delicacy and strength, as if she was coaxing the sound out. She's a very inclusive performer- as if she was saying to the audience, 'I've found these amazing notes in the instrument- what do you think?' Or as she told one interviewer, 'The bass and I just resonate.'

They took it in turns to pin down the pulse. Allen's fragmented piano phrases were like shafts of sunlight, unexpected and angular, like her work with Steve Coleman. The melodies were just starting points. Bluesy, swinging piano (Allen also studied with Kenny Barron) gave way to hints of funk, as sinuous bowed bass and piano lines slid across the bass drum's arrythmic heartbeat. As the major piano chords floated above the mercurial bass, flickering drums and tingling percussion, something indefinably special seemed to be happening.

Shorter's Virgo and Nefertiti began with Spalding whistling the tune over Allen's elegant Bill Evans-like triads, and the swing emerged like a mirage from Carrington's Brian Blade-like drumming. Every note in Allen's solo was voiced with richly-clustered notes, with a dark intensity, introspective, every note meant, communicating with her instrument. Piano and bass swapped thorny atonal phrases like throwing a ball. Spalding’s almost rocky bass grooves reminded us of her soul/R&B side, and Carrington's funky whispers of drum 'n' bass recalled her M-BASE days.

'I'm not worthy,' was Allen's self-deprecating introduction to her tune Unconditional Love, sung wordlessly by Spalding in her delicate, perfectly-pitched voice, a little like Round Midnight-era Bobby McFerrin. She sang the way she played the bass: wide intervals, complex, but natural- as if she was finding the thread to lead her through the chords, without ornamentation for its own sake. When Allen layered repeated rhythmic chords behind the long, winsome vocal lines, they could almost have been early Azimuth. The audience loved it.

Shorter’s Infant Eyes concluded the set. Carrington mostly played with sticks throughout the evening but here used thundering mallets and rods in her charismatic solo, a little like Elvin Jones. Her Afro-Cuban rimshots sounded like timbales. Allen leapt headlong into the theme, arpeggios flying, like Grieg’s piano concerto. She sounded as if she was wrestling to find the right piano notes, never settling for less than the right one- a relentlessly honest pianist.

Allen's spoken of her desire for the audience to share in their 'spirit of adventure' as they improvise together, and that's how it felt- three extraordinary musicians fearlessly exploring where their music would take them.

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