REVIEW: The Bobby Avey Project at the Hen & Chicken in Bristol

Bobby Avey and Miguel Zenon
Photo credit: Roger Thomas

The Bobby Avey Project
(The Hen & Chicken, Bristol. 7th December 2014. Review by Mike Collins)

The maelstrom of rhythms died away from Jordan Perlson’s drums. Layers of sound peeled back to leave just looping, overlapping patterns ringing from the piano, straining slightly against a complementary ripple from Ben Monder’s guitar, hinting momentarily at resolution before stopping altogether. The roar from the Hen & Chicken’s slightly punchdrunk crowd marked the end of Bobby Avey’s Authority Melts from Me suite. It was a roar tinged with awe at the sustained intensity of the series of linked pieces.

The scene had been set by a first set of Avey originals brought to a close by Late November, a piece that started with the pianist leader playing a different, insistent asymmetric riff in each hand, overlapping in the middle of piano creating a tense, dissonant block of sound. Mike Janisch’s bass and Perlson’s drums soon joined, leaving Miguel Zenón to surf the combined furore of percussive piano, thunderous drumming and throbbing, fractured bass riffs with sinuous, crying alto lines. It was typical of the style of the pieces and extraordinary stuff with Zenón repeatedly reaching an almost ecstatic pitch, weaving between the layers and making a strange sense of the battling elements. The tumult from the drums frequently overwhelmed the rest of the band in the first set and some adjustments during the interval struck a slightly better balance for the long, unbroken second set.

Inspired by the story of the 1791 slaves rebellion in Haiti and using transcribed rhythms from drumming in Voudou ceremonies as elements in the compositions, the Authority Melts from Me suite unfolded over more than hour. The layered, churning tapestry was a constant, punctuated by quieter more atmospheric episodes. After the long first section, launched by another insistent volley of rhythms from Avey’s trademark approach, a piano interlude gradually gathered pace as chiming patterns evolved and shifted, blending into a more episodic piece. After another furious section of gradually shifting patterns, a spooky atmospheric series of washes from Monder gave way to swooping cries from the alto. Mists seemed to swirl. Then the clatter and churn returned and Zenón’s patient, forceful lines led us to another climax.

It would be hard to remain unaffected by this music. It was a dense, compelling, occasionally draining experience. Paradoxically, some of the most electric and spine-tingling moments of the evening were when the ferocity of attack diminished. By the time of that almost resolution at the end, there was a sense of having been on an epic journey.

Two long sets of this music felt almost overwhelming and the suite may be a little unbalanced in the concentration sound and fury for some, but Bobby Avey is a remarkable and distinctive writer. It may take effort to engage with his music but it will surely be rewarding.

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