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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Concert Review:`Smoke on the Water

Matt Haimovitz' Uccello play jazz at Bargemusic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hot jazz on a cello can have this effect. Art by Evilistical, © the artist.
On Sunday afternoon, the Uccello ensemble visited Bargemusic, the floating chamber music venue on a coffee barge tucked under the Brooklyn Bridge. Led by Matt Haimovitz, the the Grammy-nominated unit of "eight cello warriors" brought some unusual repertory: fusion jazz of the Mahavishnu Orchestra alongside more "trad" offerings by Miles Davis, George Gershwin and Billy Strayhorn.

Mr. Haimovitz formatted the show somewhere between a chamber performance and a jazz set, taking care to act as emcee and introduce each number before it was played. The concert opened with "Half Nelson," a piece by the Miles Davis nonet that originally appeared on Birth of the Cool. With Dominic Painchaud playing the bass line, Mr. Haimovitz and Leanna Rutt spun out the long, elegaic solos, creating a palpable "big band" sound that echoed the Davis group.

Next on the program: the Mahavishnu tune "Open Country Joy," from that group's Birds of Fire album.  Andrea Stewart slapped and drummed on a battered instrument to recreate Billy Cobham's percussive groove. Mr. Haimovitz took the role of Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman. Leanna Rutt played the high-speed John McLaughlin guitar part. The players tore into the funky, cyclic groove, trading rapid lines over the rhythm and stopping to break down and take another chorus.

The cellists then tackled the free jazz stylings of Ornette Coleman, playing the complex, polytonal "W.F.U." Ms. Martin and Bryan Holt "prepared" a cello for this piece, turning it on its side and lacing sheet music through the strings on the neck to create the click and clack of a percussion set. Powered by their drumming, the ensemble soared through Coleman's free forms in a jaw-dropping display that was nonetheless melodic and coherent.

The next selection was Blues in A Minor by the Modern Jazz Quartet, allowing the players to expand into a deep, soulful groove. The first set concluded with a powerful return to Mahavishnu with the title track of Uucello's 2010 album Meeting of the Spirits. Drawn from The Inner Mountain Flame, this is even more difficult music, with spiky, intertwined melodic lines, twisting like roller-coaster tracks.


Meeting of the Spirits was a collaboration between Mr. Haimovitz and arranger David Sanford. The second set featured two of the composer's originals: the first New York performance of the funky Triptych and the heart-rending Seventh Avenue Kaddish. Written as an elegy to the destroyed World Trade Center (which was once visible through BargeMusic's riverside picture windows) it was difficult to not imagine the specters of September 11th even as the shiny new towers rose over the Manhattan skyline.

Also powerful was Blood Count, the final big band work written for Duke Ellington by composer Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn's work is a potent meditation on his imminent death from leukemia. Then, the ensemble down-shifted into a mellow groove for Liza. The Gershwin ballad was peppered with quotes and references to other jazz standards, and played with depth and feeling. The set concluded with Charles Mingus' raging, muscular Haitian Fight Song. Mr. Painchaud took the Mingus bass solo, with the other cellos playing the big band groove. It was a powerful way to end the set.

The concert ended with a proper "classical" piece. (At the announcement, somebody in the back yelled "Yay!")  This was a piece that has become a Matt Haimovitz trademark: the Requiem by Czech composer David Popper. This finale was sad, mournful and glowing, with complicated textures and a rich, heart-melting sound. It was an elegaic way to end this afternoon concert.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.