Concert review: Steve Swell, Hamid Drake, Jemeel Moondoc

I have just witnessed one of the most spectacular live performances I have ever seen, of improvised music.

The band was the New York trombonist Steve Swell’s group, with Hamid Drake on drums, Jemeel Moondoc on alto saxophone, and William Parker on bass. They gave a stunning performance at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, after having been on the road together for about 3.5 weeks.

I have never seen anyone play so intensely on the trombone, as Steve Swell did tonight. He played lines that any sax player would envy, and his whole body shook with incredible energy as he moved the trombone effortlessly through space like it were a toy. Steve Swell is a powerful man, physically as well, so he has mastered and tamed his instrument like not many can. As well as playing highly in an”avant-garde” style, he also showed off his beautiful tone and melodic sense in a middle number, which left me sitting and thinking that I could listen to this music forever.

One who nearly stole the show was Hamid Drake on drums. I can’t even begin to describe what he was doing on those drums, but his playing showed a technique so deep, with such command of every possible sound that can be made with a drum kit, and such speed, energy, force and precision that drove the band into reaching new heights what seemed like every few seconds. I thought Lewis Nash was my favorite drummer before today, and while I still highly regard Nash, I must say that my mind has been forever changed! Drake rules!

The likes of the great Jemeel Moondoc on alto saxophone is not seen very often on the Vancouver jazz scene, and what creativity and talent he showed through his instrument! CJBS likened his approach to “the looseness of bar room blues with post-Ornette multi-key vigor”, but what I thought was the most impressive was how he easily exchanged musical ideas with the other players, especially Swell and Drake.

I think it is the hallmark of a good improvised performance when you can tell that the players are truly listening to each other and are subtly complimenting, supporting, and bouncing ideas between themselves. It makes listening more rewarding when you suddenly realize that “hey, the drummer just echoed that sax lick”, or “that sax player just carried on the phrase the trombonist started”. That happened for me a lot tonight, so I was very impressed.

And not to be outdone was William Parker on bass. CJBS calls him “one of the most inventive bassist/leaders since Charles Mingus”, and I can easily see why. On each of his many bass solos, he did something totally new, such as closing off the strings near the top of the neck and playing the strings near the tuning pegs (that created a very cool high-harmonic effect which he punctuated with the occasional deep tone). His sound was immaculate… so resonant and full, but yet with a sense of time and place that glued together the whole ensemble.

You might notice that it’s very late at night as I am writing, and I don’t usually write such long articles, but it’s only because I was just so excited from this concert that I had to share it with you. Definitely check out these guys’ recordings, or try and see them live if it is at all possible.

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