Click here to [close]

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Nu Band (KSET, Zagreb, Croatia; 2/1/2016)

Photo by Martina Vuković

There aren’t that many groups in the constantly shuffling and rearranging world of jazz that manage to have relatively long and consistently creative careers. The Nu Band, with Joe Fonda on bass, Mark Whitecage on alto saxophone and clarinet, Lou Grassi on drums and Thomas Heberer on trumpet, is one such band. Almost fifteen years and seven records on, rising from the grief of losing the legendary trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr, they’re still here, doing their thing, and carrying all those indelible experiences collected through decades of taking part in free and modern jazz’s formative moments.

At first glance, The Nu Band’s mixture of styles might appear as a dated remnant of history, unpalatable to lovers of current, adventurous iterations of free jazz and improvised music. Yet, in reality and especially during live shows, the quartet comes across as an immortal and always fresh fragment of the past that has been reinvigorated with many characteristics of the contemporary and experimental sides of jazz collected along the way. The result is a style in which free jazz, bop, free improv, and experimental tendencies combine with that well-known activism and spiritual energy that fueled musicians like Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman. Sonically, they might remind the listener of younger outfits such as Mostly Other People Do the Killing. But while Moppa Elliott’s band often uses influences from the history of jazz as peculiar building blocks, these guys were actually there when these elements were being created. Because of that, their approach to jazz is inseparably tied to the origins and traditions of the genre and, as such, carries strong undertones of bop and melancholy lyricism.

Photo by Martina Vuković
All of this and more was obvious during their recent concert in Zagreb; from the disjointed, free bop start of “Seventh Heaven” right until the end of the groovy, handclap-eliciting closer “Listen to Dr. Cornel West.” Even if appearing a bit tired and possibly blue, The Nu Band played a very good concert that at times reached powerful, sincerely inspired heights. This spirit of joy in the music was especially obvious in Joe Fonda’s and Thomas Heberer’s performances. If Fonda often appeared to be a human conduit for all the elation and zest of politically and spiritually charged tunes (“Listen to Dr. Cornel West”), then Heberer injected considerable amounts of European improvisational and avant-garde schools of thought and his ICP Ensemble into the typically funky and groovy New York-scene pieces. In that regard, it was very interesting to hear how Heberer’s usually ascetic, angular, and freely improvised style relaxed and took shape around the significantly more metaphysical, danceable, and softer music. It’s difficult to find faults in the way that Heberer has been incorporated into the band, refreshing certain aspects of its sounds, while avoiding any temptations of mimicking or emulating the irreplaceable Mr. Campbell.

While The Nu Band’s presented repertoire was compositionally diverse, featuring tunes (predominantly from the latest two records) written by all band members, some patterns could be discerned. For one, the structures of each of the songs were carefully and strongly composed with a purpose to act as anchors around which the musicians were to roam freely. Thus the firm rhythmic and harmonic components became foundations for long group improvisations, whilst the themes and moods that they strolled around took on alternately joyful and calm, nostalgic tones. It’s a very enjoyable formula whose many qualities became especially obvious during Lou Grassi’s and Joe Fonda’s dynamic songs, punctuated with bursts of improvisational freedom, solo spots, and segments in which the players’ trajectories matched, bringing them into a swinging, bopping motion, but always under the shadows of bluesy notes. Somewhat expectedly, alongside Whitecage’s pieces like “Little Piece,” it’s Heberer’s compositions, such as the one dedicated to the memory of Roy Campbell Jr, that painted the bravest and most dissonant picture, appearing as improvised music trapped in a moment.

This was a concert that yet again underlined the beautiful dichotomy of The Nu Band’s music; strewn between calculated, minutely prepared music and the compelling, rather loose performance. A wonderful evening, even without the encore.

Photo by Martina Vuković

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Hi Stef,
thanks for posting this review!
The Zagreb concert was actually 3 weeks ago on 2/1/2016.
We did a 12 concerts tour in 5 European countries in January and February.
A recording from the concert in Geneva, Switzerland will be released later in the year.
Hugs, Thomas Heberer

Anonymous said...

Hi Stef,
thanks for posting this review!
The Zagreb concert was actually 3 weeks ago on 2/1/2016.
We did a 12 concerts tour in 5 European countries in January and February.
A recording from the concert in Geneva, Switzerland will be released later in the year.
Hugs, Thomas Heberer