Thursday, January 29, 2015

Live in Brooklyn: Yoni Kretzmer's New Dilemma (Jan. 22, 2015)

Israeli tenor saxophonist and composer Yoni Kretzmer has been incredibly busy since arriving in New York just shy of five years ago. Most musicians seem to land on their feet by playing a hell of a lot of sessions and making gigs with just about everybody – and that’s one way to perfect one’s craft and connections. Kretzmer appears a little more patient, though he leads or co-leads several different ensembles, runs a label (OutNow Recordings) and has curated grassroots series at a few Brooklyn bars – series that, importantly, didn’t always feature his own music. One could hear that patient yet powerful drive in his latest work, a suite of three compositions for chamber sextet (excerpt below) premiered at Williamsburg’s Firehouse Space on January 22 – an warm space in a former firehouse that features excellent acoustics and one of the better pianos in the area.

New Dilemma began in Tel Aviv with similar instrumentation – as Kretzmer put it in an email, “I was always listening to classical music and was drawn to chamber music, first of all due to the timeless string sound. Yet I was never into playing classical music or wholly written music of any kind. Thus the idea of incorporating the ‘chamber sound’ into improvised or directed settings seemed very appealing.” In this concert revamping of New Dilemma, Kretzmer brought into the fold a multinational (though all New York-based) crew of musicians, including reedist Josh Sinton, cellist Leila Bordrueil, violist Franz Loriot, bassist Pascal Niggenkemper and drummer Flinn Van Hemmen. The three pieces were each given arbitrary dates as titles – in Kretzmer’s words, these were placeholders that just denoted their copy date – and spotlighted each individual player’s heft while cohesively organizing both dramatic flair and electric detail.

Kretzmer’s playing and writing are clearly from the same mind – his saxophone gestures are considered, soft and throaty, reminiscent of someone like John Tchicai but without the same level of acerbity. He’s an interesting contrast with Sinton, for when he ventures into gritty screams, they’re “cool” at heart, while the latter’s economical bass clarinet phrasing actually presents hot and wooly. Personality is the key behind each of these compositions, and not just that of Kretzmer’s forceful pillows – Loriot’s skittering, keening viola and expert control of harmonic filaments was often front and center, or darting in tandem with the robust, supple pizzicato of Niggenkemper’s bass (eschewing his yen for curious preparations) and the dry, floating gestures from Van Hemmen’s kit. Only Bordrueil was difficult to hear – and I was right in front of her – which is a shame because her small-group improvising and sound art work is certainly a valuable part of the contemporary music climate. About the pieces themselves, Kretzmer may favor dirge-like movements and the obsessive springs of repeating harmonic glissandi, but the music was arranged in clear sections that favored small group improvisation.

The opening composition, “October 12,” began with pizzicato viola scrabble, low cello moans and the rattle and ping of gongs and small percussion instruments, before reeds began long, lowing waves atop Niggenkemper’s furious arco. Each reedist took extensive, deep solos that were both commanding and focused, though these extemporizations were partly textural and rooted in contrast, against the strings that swooped over Van Hemmen’s tinny, precise motion. Originally from Holland, Van Hemmen approaches classical precision with a decidedly roguish and unfussy physicality, so his playing feels both utterly spontaneous and quite poised. Programatically, Loriot and Kretzmer dovetailed in duo before engaging in high-pitched, explosive knots; as with the bulk of the New Dilemma book, there is a tendency to focus on duos and trios (Sinton and strings followed), while at the same time allowing relationships between these small group areas to define a truly massive whole. Rather than emphasizing how “big” the sextet could sound, this music felt quite spare and localized. Traditional jazz (or even free-jazz) rhythm seemed to be less of a concern, though at times the music did open into an off-kilter, dissonant stride as horns and rhythm would egg one another on in pulsative commentary – Niggenkemper being a good choice to carry the sextet in deft, hairy precision.

Surrounded by like minds who brought their own experiences and interests to the table, it will be interesting to see how Kretzmer’s music continues to evolve. Though recently redefined with a new cast of players, New Dilemma felt ready for prime time – predominantly loose and with a colorful, varied approach. Surely more evolution is likely in Kretzmer's world, both in chamber ensembles and in other work, but this music is surely some of the saxophonist’s most fully realized to date.