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Spontaneous Semicombustion

Formanek / Ehrlich / Ballou / Gilchrist / Cleaver, An die Musik, May 19

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Jess Harvell | Posted 5/31/2006

Pianist Lafayette Gilchrist—perpetually chewing gum in a milk-chocolate hat and jacket—dedicated Eric Dolphy’s “The Prophet” to Malcom X, who would have turned 81 on May 19 had he not taken an assassin’s bullet four decades ago. Bassist Michael Formanek introduced Charles Mingus’ 1974 “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” by noting that a few name changes would render the title’s sentiments eerily up to date. A brand-new Gilchrist composition was apparently called “Bush’s Cell.” Was genteel An die Musik, with its soft yellow lighting and soft high-backed chairs, turning into a political forum?

Not really, at least not tonight. But the ad hoc quintet convened by Formanek was certainly a model of ordered democracy. Each piece allowed the five performers to take a solo turn, prompting the usual polite applause in the appropriate places. Once you twigged the structure, things felt a little constrained—not exactly the fire music of Archie Shepp’s “Malcom, Malcom, Semper Malcom.” But the quality of the playing kept the heat on, even if things only occasionally boiled over.

Fittingly for a group led by a bassist, the quintet played multiple Charles Mingus tunes, and like Mingus, the brute with the watery eyes, the music split the difference between the gutbucket and the ballad. “The Prophet” opened the set with a romantic run by Gilchrist and then a sweet-and-sour trade-off by saxophonist Marty Ehrlich and trumpeter Dave Ballou. The stubby-fingered rhythms of “Attica” prompted an extended trumpet showcase from Ballou, who spent the night scowling from the stage like a younger, crankier Larry David. By the end, Formanek was twanging the shit out of his bass—you could almost see Mingus grinning—as Gerald Cleaver alternated snare and bass drum like a palpitating heart.

The third, uncredited tune was the evening’s highlight. Cleaver laid down a funky-ass hip-hop pattern full of stuttering rolls that kept tripping over themselves, a stop-start shuffle that any computer-bound beatmaker would have been proud to program. Gilchrist inserted a concert-style break that spread out like creeper vines, as zips from the horns made Ehrlich’s leg uncontrollably jerk into the air. The second set (and the remainder of the first) was less manic, more lyrical—a little ironic as the audience skewed younger. Occasionally, the players looked a bit distracted, like they were marking time until it was their turn for a solo; Gilchrist slumped into a chair between sets complaining to a friend that he couldn’t shake a cold. But despite the constraints of formalism and illness, Formanek still had reason to beam from behind his bass, and the applause at the end was genuine, even if polite.

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