On Sunday, May 28, the eve of the 22nd annual Vision Festival, and within a challenging political climate that has certainly affected all artists, the back room of Williamsburg’s quiet Legion Bar was packed in anticipation of two brass-heavy ad hoc quartets. Fire Music at Legion has been a going concern since last fall, taking its name from saxophonist Archie Shepp’s incendiary 1965 Impulse! album. The programs are curated by tenor saxophonist/Out Now Recordings instigator Yoni Kretzmer, and have presented music running the gamut from contemporary improvisation, noise, and “free jazz” to units offering more pre-composed programs (full disclosure: Jazz Right Now editor Cisco Bradley formerly co-curated these events). The ensembles on the 28th included a quartet featuring trombonist Steve Swell, cornetist Thomas Heberer, bassist Pascal Niggenkemper, and drummer Jeremy Carlstedt, and the quartet of trombonist Jeb Bishop, Kretzmer, bassist Damon Smith and drummer Tom Rainey. The evening closed with two brief duets between Carlstedt and Tel Aviv-based tenor saxophonist Assif Tsahar, who had performed a solo set at the venerable Downtown Music Gallery the previous evening and would also play the Vision Festival.
The first set was broken into three parts: a trombone-percussion duo; a cornet-bass duo; and a full quartet. Swell and Carlstedt reveled in the innate physicality of their instruments’ presentation, the drummer stammering delicately on heads aside the trombonist’s impulsioned swagger and half-lit vocal flashes, a pensive midrange intensity developing into floor-skirting slide and tousled brushwork as Carlstedt, chomping at the bit, began to stoke a throaty, metered and rockish tumble. The duo seemed to find their core juxtaposing gravelly abstraction and panning cries with taut, backbeat-rendered flair. Niggenkemper (Cologne by way of Paris) and Heberer (Cologne by way of Manhattan) are two-thirds of drummer Joe Hertenstein’s trio HNH and have recorded and performed as a duo. Applying painterly harmonics in sparse daubs (punctuated by bleed through from a country song at the bar) and extended lip buzz, the pair built up a crackling lyricism augmented by the snap of metallic bass preparations, the latter frequently poking at Heberer’s long swirls. Assembling into a foursome, Carlstedt immediately centered on a robust gallop, giving the top-heavy and lean format an extra push, brass at turns darting and explosive while Niggenkemper’s metal lampshade and small drumstick additions lent a clattering jounce. The set closed with an electric toothbrush spinning on the stage – one of the bassist’s preparations gone amok — with Swell and Heberer trying to blow it around with a rare bit of slapstick humor.
Two rugged blowouts followed from Kretzmer and Rainey, joined by recent Boston-area transplants Bishop (Vandermark 5, The Engines, The Whammies) and Smith, beginning with a deep burred charge as pointed blasts and ecstatic peals nearly obliterated the rhythm section, Bishop especially forward with his controlled slushy projections. Rainey was mostly particulate, with small charges in a large space, granting scale and propulsion to dappled events and interleaving his knitting needles with Smith’s airy arco spurs. Influenced by fellow travelers Niggenkemper, Sean Ali, Barry Guy and Ben Patterson, Smith has expanded his palette with plastic chains, a second bow, metallic implements, brushes and amplification, mostly adding a rumbling, percussive array of subtones though this bluntness is offset by a poised, neat arco. Bishop and Kretzmer made quite a front line pair, the trombonist’s clacking mute and bluesy tailgate matched to a throaty, redoubled tenor roar, the whole ensemble denser than the sum of its parts though beholden to moments of intricate solemnity. The closing set with Carlstedt and Tsahar was a surprise and apparently somewhat unplanned — friends and colleagues from Israel’s well-documented but obscure free music scene, Kretzmer is the younger heir to Tsahar’s dynamic fluidity, which mates forebears like Rollins, Frank Lowe and Evan Parker in a flinty stew. The saxophonist drew breathtaking lines and methodical peals given to a hot charge of flowery beauty, ratcheted by Carlstedt’s doling out of coppery energetic clamor. Across two brief improvisations, the pair lent a voluminous cap to an already first-rate evening. Though venues may come and go, there’s still a rambunctious and florid center within Brooklyn’s underground.
–Clifford Allen, June 13, 2017