A Weekend at Cornelia Street Cafe: Reviews of Secret Keeper and Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up (4/17 and 4/18/15)

This past weekend, Cornelia Street Cafe hosted two significant record release concerts. On Friday, guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Stephan Crump teamed up with their Secret Keeper project to debut their second record, Emerge (Intakt). On Saturday, Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up (including Halvorson, Jonathan Finlayson, Brian Settles, and Michael Formanek) debuted their third record, After All Is Said (482 Music). Both records deserve critical attention.

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Secret Keeper

Since forming in the summer of 2012, Secret Keeper has evolved considerably. The duo originally met to play some duets and just happened to record their first meetings. Those encounters, including their very first notes together, appeared on their fully-improvised debut record, Super Eight. Their sophomore release takes a different turn, with each of the musicians contributing four compositions in addition to performing “What’ll I Do,” by Irving Berlin. Both players display virtuoso talent as well as innovative musical vision.

The band opened with the title track and set the tone right from the beginning. The music moved slowly, while intimately weaving the sound of guitar and bass together. Halvorson’s guitar often danced like firelight above and amidst the deeper abyss of Crump’s bass. At times dark and foreboding, at other times, pure, yet patient energy, the two made the most of each note and each sonic relationship. Both players displayed bold, yet honest voices over a sparse landscape that built up to peaks and then gradually faded.

“In Time You Yell” was a cohesive, melodic chase with cutting guitar out front with bass sometimes echoing the leader, at other times creating a backdrop of revelry. “Disproportionate Endings” brought on cascades of sound in mellow and edgy lines opening up an ambiance of guitar over bedrock of bass. “Planets” set orbiting pin points of sounds in motion which led right into “A Muddle of Hope” in which Halvorson created a fantastic briar patch through which Crump moved with remarkable precision. The first set then concluded with “Bridge Loss Sequence” which opened with fiery, slashing sounds building towards a sudden withdrawal that reached up off the strings in celestial ascent.

The second set opened with “Turns to White Gold,” one of the more impressive pieces that showed what both musicians were capable of doing. The piece began with patient interactions gaining energy and then suddenly bursting with fire.  Then an improvised piece from their first record, “Mirrors” led into “What’ll I Do” in which they incorporated a certain buoyancy in supporting each other together with a beautiful resonance.

“Nakata” featured spasmodic earthquakes of sound flashing before the audience. “Toothsea,” another piece from their debut record, took a contemplative turn in which they did some worthwhile searching as they built towards a climax of focused mayhem. They closed with “Erie,” another standout, which opened with an aqueous abyss of sound and deep, cutting, bowed bass. It was the perfect pensive dark dissonance with which to send the audience off into the night. Confidence carries these two musicians to great heights in their exclamatory and vivid style. Emerge takes this band in a new direction, a big leap forward for this duo.

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Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up

After All Is Said is a bold statement featuring a number of top shelf performers. Fujiwara is one of the premiere drummers of his generation and has built an impressive discography in recent years. Following Actionspeak (2010) and The Air Is Different (2012), the band’s third release investigates related themes–memory and human relationships–in seven intriguing compositions  that put the strengths of the band’s members on full display. Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) brings a crisp style by which he articulates his ideas vividly and with great precision. Having developed a deep aesthetic understanding with Mary Halvorson as a member of her quintet and septet, the two displayed their communication readily throughout the evening. Brian Settles is the perfect counter to the trumpeter. The tenor saxophonist has a warm tone that moves like water amidst the others, providing some necessary cohesion for the ensemble. One of the most exciting developments with the band since its last release is the addition of master bassist Michael Formanek to the line-up. He brings peerless energy and robust sound to the ensemble in ways that push the band’s sound to new heights.

The band opened with “Lastly” which Fujiwara suggested wryly is a “possible ending.” It got the energy going and exhibited one of the hallmarks of the leader’s style and composition frame: constant movement with drums and bass in a leading role, guitar slashing across the musical canvas or creating tension, with the horns alternating on casting yellow across the deep blues, greens, and violets of the sound scape. Settles opened with stark, mournful flute lines, a harbinger of the emotional richness that was to follow. An ending with new beginnings.

The band followed with “Boaster’s Roast,” an appropriately titled piece because of its difficulty, which the band carried out with a confident air. After the horns opened in tandem, the players built toward a brilliant guitar-bass-drums interaction with Halvorson flashing above pulsing rhythms. Then the tune returned to complex meters driven by bass and drums with trumpet, guitar, and tenor taking turns moving sure-footed over the top. This piece is one of the most impressive songs on the new record.

The first set closed with “When,” in which Halvorson opened with a Kurt Cobain solo reference that sent a satisfied shiver through any bona fide Generation X-er in the audience. But then she morphed it right into one of her signature ambient twists before returning to the theme several times. After the full ensemble added significant energy, the piece split into a trumpet solo. Finlayson then showed his remarkable ability to add emphasis to selective notes by making perfect use of space. The half-seconds he placed at key moments throughout his lines framed the sounds with crystalline clarity.

After opening the second set with “Lineage” from their sophomore record, the band took fun turns through “The Hook Up” and “Folly Cove” before ending with the masterpiece, “The Comb.” From a multitude of disparate sounds from all five players, the song emerged to take shape, then established definitive cohesion with a trumpet-bass duet. Then tenor sax began to ascend over a boiling mix of the others, with trumpet and guitar also having their moments with bass throwing its shoulder into the underbelly of the piece with brilliant cymbal work flitting at the tips. Of all the investigations into memory that Fujiwara has yet offered us, this may be the most touching and provocative. The story behind the song, told at length in the liner notes of the record, gives light to a piece that is a well-proportioned mix of mourning and hope.

Both of these records are well-orchestrated and deserve some serious ears. The live performances this weekend at Cornelia Street Cafe gave them a worthy send off.

–Cisco Bradley, April 20, 2015

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