Taylor, Ndegeocello Impress at Indelible Fest
Producer Jill Newman’s second Indelible Festival graced New York’s Highline Ballroom on Jan. 11, presenting musicians who, the festival proclaimed, “are forever, now and in the future.” But the evening's performers seemed little interested in what’s to come; they were inside the moment, tethered to the present. Featuring sets from pianist Cecil Taylor, bassist Meshell Ndegeocello and drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Indelible, at its best, was a study in immediacy.
While New York Winter Jazzfest geared up just a few blocks away, Thompson kicked things off with a DJ performance that drew heavily from the woozy, behind-the-beat music of late hip-hop producer J Dilla. From underneath an Afro pick and a black Prince T-shirt, he turned in Dilla creations like “Anti-American Graffiti,” a piece centered around dark, spaghetti western guitar; “Reminisce,” a slinky groove that turned up on vocalist Bilal’s 1st Born Second album; and the bouncy “Thelonious,” which features prominently on Common’s 2000 masterpiece Like Water For Chocolate. Thompson never sat on one beat for too long; his approach was to always to replace and start over.
Taylor favored a similar path. After a warm, humbled introduction from fellow ivory-tickler George Cables, who had finished up a pair of casually dazzling solo readings (“’Round Midnight,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is”), Taylor walked over to the piano and started strumming its strings while reciting abstract poetry. The next 20 minutes were a blur of spontaneous composition. Rich harmonic stabs were punctuated by fleeting rests. The 83-year-old pianist meditated on quick-paced runs for a few moments, and then a chord would ring out. Bursts of dissonance erupted suddenly. Tonal riffing appeared and then disappeared just as quickly. There were calmer moments, but they were followed by bruising pileups of notes. Taylor’s Indelible investigation was intense and unrelenting; listeners unwilling to hang on the pianist’s every move were likely left behind.
The evening came to a close with a liberating performance by Ndegeocello’s Spirit Music Jamia band, on this night a quartet rounded out by guitarist Chris Bruce, drummer Mark Guiliana and auxiliary bassist Fima Ephron. Ndegeocello’s session began with a sample of a Sun Ra speech that returned repeatedly to the phrase “destination unknown." Ironically, the bassist knew exactly where she was going musically. With the lights dimmed, a camera projected animated, alien-like creatures and dragonflies projected behind the ensemble. Ndegeocello played bass lines that were dark, lusty, charging and unshakable. The band grooved mightily around her, due in no small part to Guiliana’s solid trap-kitting. When the leader put down her bass to monitor the band or dance and sing without impediment, Ephron picked up the slack and acquitted himself well. (When Ndegeocello handled the low end, Ephron played very little or nothing at all.) The sounds of Spirit Music Jamia, which could be summarized as late-night music, touched on dub and punk rock and Afrobeat, but were always bathed in a blue, funky light.
The set consisted primarily of covers—Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place,” Lou Reed’s “Magic And Loss,” Gil Scott-Heron’s “Free Will,” and the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” all made appearances—but it was difficult to hear anything but Ndegeocello’s psychedelic vision of the present. Toward the end of the set, she promised two more songs before those in attendance could “go home and have a life.” That idea seemed counterproductive; this was music you could live in.