Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Prog rock kingpin Steven Wilson gets supernatural on latest solo tour

The only thing that needs to be done to get an idea of how multi-talented Steven Wilson is would be to just listen to a few of his compositions. But a gander at his live shows makes it even more obvious how much of a master he is in every phase of his craft. The British singer, songwriter, progressive rock musician, who is also the former frontman of Porcupine Tree, assembled a true feast for the senses at Atlanta's Variety Playhouse. He presented a feast not only for the ears but also the eyes as he seamlessly weaves together a true multimedia spectacle.

Steven Wilson bids farewell to the crowd, alongside bassist Nick Beggs.

He utilizes video projection in an innovative way to compliment the material being preformed onstage, bearing great similarity to the way Godspeed You! Black Emperor broadcasts video on to the backstage wall to provide a subtle background coloring and ambiance to the performance. The ticking of a clock, a bizarre face projected onto a screen -- it all provides a unsettling sense of tension that complements the spell Wilson is weaving.At times his show conjures the full bombast of swaggering British rock, at other times the band drifts through dark, brooding, visceral soundscapes, and sometimes he delves into meticulously arranged yet fluid and exotic jazz fusion. And of course there is a solid dose of humor and humanity stirred into the mix.

His excellent third solo album, The Raven that Refused to Sing (and Other Stories), was played in full. It's a uniquely structured album; each song is a vignette telling a story about a supernatural/occult being or incident. "The Holy Drinker" focuses on a cleric who loses his way, while "The Watchmaker" tells of how the titular character murders his wife. Blistering solos, demonic guitar scales, and gentle acoustic strumming provides a varied musical backdrop, but Wilson also shows he knows how to flow from one song into the next.

Following "The Watchmaker," the stage lights went down and there was a voice that sounded like an ancient dignified earth spirit. It reiterated the watchmaker's murder of his wife, and then proceeded to  announce that the next story was about someone who was "even more fucked up." This segued into "Index," which as he put it, was about a guy who can only relate to humans in the sense of organizing and collecting them. He may be a creep, but he has a hell of a soundtrack. Wilson is complemented by a brooding, electronic ambient backdrop as he weaves the collector's twisted tale. It concludes in a dark, oppressive whirl of overwhelming guitar, synth, and drumwork.

Aside from "Index," quite a few songs from Wilson's previous album, Grace for Drowning made the setlist. Perhaps most impressive was the 26 minute mini-marathon "Raider II," which he prefaced by explaining that he had originally written a Raider I. "It was shit!" he bluntly declared, which inspired him to write "Raider II." The tune itself tended to drag a bit on the Grace for Drowning album, but live it passes in the blink of an eye, and is an obvious easy showoff piece for Steven and the rest of his band.

The crowd goes wild for Wilson, Beggs and drummer Chad Wackerman. 

This brings us to the essential essence of what a Steven Wilson concert is all about. The stories themselves are well thought out and executed, but at the end of the day it's all about the instrumentation and composition. From Wilson's heartfelt performance on the beautiful piano ballad "Insurgentes" to Guthrie Govan's frenetic solos on "Luminol" and "Drive Home," to Chad Wackerman's clattering drum fills on "Index," Steven Wilson and his band know how to create moments that excellent concerts are built out of.

The sound itself was excellent, but one minor gripe was that it sounded like there were pre-recorded bits played through the speakers. During one of the early songs I heard a voice coming out of the speakers that sounded markedly different from Steven's. I thought it was someone singing along, but when I turned around no one was singing, and I could tell the singing was coming out of the speakers. It was very odd, to say in the least.
Related posts:

Steven Wilson - The Raven That Refused to Sing review
Steven Wilson - Grace for Drowning review

Monday, April 15, 2013

Sax legend Wayne Shorter dazzles Nashville with vivid improvisation

It's not rare to find a group of incredibly gifted jazz musicians, but not all of them know how to draw an audience in. When the music gets too technical and obtuse it runs the risk of losing the crowd. Which is why The Wayne Shorter Quartet one of the best in the world: they can be as technical and experimental as they want to be, while never having to worry about whether the audience is sticking with them. That's precisely what they provided for a packed house at Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center Friday night. The only thing more thunderous than the pounding of Brian Blade's drums was the applause the crowd rained down upon the band at the conclusion of each piece.

It's not hard to see that Shorter's presence here carried a certain significance  Nashville's main draw is country and indie clubs; it's not often that Music City attracts the highest luminaries from the world of jazz. But there are virtually no living musicians who come more highly respected or regarded than Shorter. He's been around for ages, having originally entered the field in the 1950s and picked up gigs playing alongside bebop legends Miles Davis and Art Blakey. But you may know him better as the co-founder of beloved jazz fusion outfit The Weather Report, where he showed off his skills alongside colorful figures like Jaco Pastorius and Joe Zawinul.

Wayne Shorter's shrieking sax splits the air.
These days he plays with his own quartet, every one of them deviously talented musicians capable of leading bands in their own right. Their ability to improvise and play off one another is nothing short of astounding. The key is their incredible sense of awareness. Each player is constantly keeping up with what everyone else is doing and tailoring his play to fit with it, while at the same time doing it in their own distinctive way. For example, if pianist Danilo Perez is ripping into a crazy solo, then Blade might respond in kind with a bunch of lightning fast rolls and fills. But some situations call for a little more subtlety. Sometimes Perez might just play a simple melody while Blade goes nuts, so as to allow him to soak up the spotlight.

Not to be outdone Shorter himself put on a clinic of speed, skill and precision. If you came in expecting some kind of easy listening or parlor jazz, Shorter will dispel that notion in the blink of an eye. He barraged his way through dizzying sax runs and solos, splitting the air with its sharp and piercing tone.

The quartet moved through several different moods over the course of their 45 minute set. Things started off moody and ominous, setting the stage for Shorter to blast out the main riff from "Orbits," a tune he penned for Miles Davis in 1967 and recently reworked for his latest album Without a Net, from this past February. There were also sunny and carefree moments; several bars bore remarkable similarity to The Weather Report's jazz fusion mainstay "Camino Real." Somewhat unexpected was the level of autonomy Shorter gave to his bandmates. He would drop out of the action for extended sections and just sort of sit it out for a while. The rest of the guys were more than capable of carrying on in his stead, but the absence of that ringing sax was hard to ignore.

The second part of the concert saw the Nashville Symphony Orchestra join The Wayne Shorter Quartet onstage. Not surprisingly, the legion of strings, flutes, and woodwinds opened up a mind boggling amount of possibilities for Shorter and crew to play off of. Blade and bassist John Patitucci enjoyed an invigorating workout, while Perez and Shorter found themselves swapping leads with members of the symphony. They kicked it off with Shorter's arrangement of "Vendiendo Alegria," while also working their way around to "Diana," a piece arranged by Nashville Symphony Conductor Vince Mendoza.

The grand finale was a spectacle to behold with Esperanza Spalding serving as the cherry on top. If you're going to add a vocalist into an ensemble, there isn't anyone in the jazz world who commands greater buzz or name recognition right now than Spadling. She didn't take long to show why. Most all jazz singers are blessed with smoky, sensual voices, but Ms. Spalding's pipes are truly on another level. During the 30 minute masterwork "Gaia," her talents combined well with the aggressive play style that Wayne Shorter's Quartet tends to employ; once the musicians get rolling, Spalding would cut loose with one of her ringing high notes, which majestically sweeps all the way down the aisleways and reverberates through the rafters. It was nothing short of extraordinary.

The brief closing number, "Midnight in Carlotta's Hair," finally gave Shorter and Spalidng a chance to complement one another after Shorter mostly sat out during "Gaia." Even though it was for so brief a time, it was gratifying to see these two icons interact -- one of them with a legacy well established and the other well on the way to establishing her own. Spalding sang beautiful, wordless arias and plucked on her bass while the sounds of Shorter's saxophone and the symphony orchestra filled the air. In a city not often frequented by top billed jazz musicians, Nashville had the pleasure of hosting some of the world's best. It was a privilege watching them play.

Photo provided by the Nashville Symphony Center, taken by Andrew Hurlburt.
See Also: Wayne Shorter - Without a Net Review