Monday, December 10, 2007

Jeremy Steig @ Cornelia Street Café, New York, November 17, 2007

The music started with Jeremy Steig playing the well-known bass line of Miles Davis’ ‘All Blues’ on the flute. The small downstairs room in Cornelia Street Café became quiet except for the low sound of the flute. People here had come to listen to Jeremy Steig and were now putting down their wine glasses to hear the sensitive start of the concert. Soon the bass and drums joined in and the music settled into a moderate swing.

It was evident from the very beginning that the musicians were in a great shape tonight and that we in the audience were in for a treat. Jeremy Steig was accompanied by the veteran bassist Ron McClure whose credentials span playing with a host of jazz greats on his acoustic bass to providing the electric foundation to the legendary jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears. The drummer was a younger, but no less musical talent Gerald Cleaver.

‘All Blues’ set the stage for things to come, which would combine modern jazz standards, such as ‘Nardis’, ‘Yesterdays’, ‘Billie’s Bounce’ and ‘Solar’, with adventures into Steig’s own music, free improvisation and, as it turned out, Eastern tones, Jeremy flaunting his breathy sound and wild runs accentuated with fast double-tonguing with a flair.

That night Ron McClure would be at his best, melodic and bluesy even when venturing outside to more avant garde forms. His tone was thick and sweet whether he played solid bass lines or wandered up the neck of his big wooden instrument. Throughout the evening, Gerald Cleaver proved himself to be a highly musical percussionist, listening closely to his partners and sensitively inserting nuanced commentary in reaction to their playing.

For me personally, this was close to perfection. I vividly recall the times when as a teenager in the Helsinki suburbs I would sit for hours after school listening to jazz records with a classmate. Both Kittis and I were aspiring flutists and Jeremy Steig was one of our utmost idols. We would listen to the classic recording, ‘What’s New’, he made with Bill Evans in 1969. But our real favourites were his own more experimental and funky recordings, such as ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ and ‘Legwork’. I couldn’t have imagined that decades later I’d be sitting in an intimate space in the Greenwich Village listening to Jeremy play at a close range.

It turned out that I was not the only one having a similar experience. Turning to talk to my neighbour, she responded in a German accent that she, too, was a great Jeremy Steig fan for many years. Ela was a flute teacher from Germany now studying jazz in New York under Jamie Baum.

At times, Steig would use his trademark trick of singing along with his playing. Alongside Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, Jeremy has been using this technique for years. However, he does not only use it to create an effect or to make the flute sound raunchier. His way of playing and singing the overtones adds unexpectedly complex harmonies to the music.

Suddenly there was an unforeseen surprise. Jeremy Steig announced that Badal Roy was in the audience and would join the band on stage. The famed Indian tabla master was an old friend of Jeremy’s and had just shown up at the club (during the break, Jeremy’s wife Asako confirmed that they had had no idea Roy would be here). This encounter resulted in a lengthy improvised session between the four musicians that invoked lovely and breezy tones from the South Asian subcontinent.

One of the most memorable moments of the second set was a moody rendition of the standard ‘Willow Weep for Me’, a mellow tune that is especially suited for the flute. On a couple of occasions, Jeremy brought out the long curved bass flute to add its deep haunting tones to the evening’s repertoire. He would play a brisk walking bass on the flute setting the room into a swinging mood. Then McClure would pick it up with the double bass switching roles with the leader who in turn would now play the lead. It is amazing how the trio – with the temporary addition of the tabla – could create such a broad soundscape with such sparse and fully acoustic instrumentation. This surely is a lesson that many younger musicians should remember.

This evening also marked the pre-release of Jeremy Steig’s new CD, ‘Pterodactyl’, which he recorded alone overdubbing various flutes and blowing into bottles. It is, as he himself says in the liner notes, “the closest you will come to seeing the inner workings of [Jeremy Steig’s] musical mind.” In my mind, the record, like the concert, is evidence of Jeremy Steig’s originality and continuous innovation.

© Juha Uitto 2007

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