The performance in no way revealed any ad-hocism or lack of practice. On the contrary, the music was finely arranged, while improvisational, and the four musicians played together tightly. The six pieces that made up the 75-minute set were all composed by the band members. The music was like made for the informal atmosphere of Zinc Bar, the intimate club in Greenwich Village. And the crowd was just right, as Yoko observed: all of the small tables were full and there were people in the bar behind the music room, but everyone had a seat and nobody was forced to stand. The audience was also quite varied in background and age.
All of the four musicians have significant credits to their name. Chris Dingman is perhaps the most established of them, at least in the jazz circles, having lent his vibraphone talent to performances by many of the greats of contemporary jazz and recorded with the likes of Anthony Braxton. He is a graduate of the Thelonius Monk Institute. Kaoru Watanabe, whom we know personally because he used to play traditional Japanese music with Yoko, comes from a different background. He used to be a long-time member and artistic director of the taiko-drumming group Kodo. In fact, Kaoru still is heavily involved in the genre and has established his own taiko center in New York. However, he is a very versatile flutist with advanced improvisational skills. Matt Kilmer, the percussionist, has performed and recorded with artists as Simon Shaheen and Krishna Das, while Tim Keiper’s collaborations as a drummer include personalities like Cyro Baptista, Vieux Farka Toure and John Zorn. Tonight he focused on playing kamale ngoni, a kora-like bow-harp emanating from West Africa (he had brought two instruments, of different sizes and, thus, of different tunings). All of these influences—from Asia, Africa, jazz and elsewhere—blended into a wonderful musical mix that was both lyrical and rhythmically enticing.
The show started with an African influenced tune written by Tim Keiper, the primary custodian of the West African sound of the band. The tune kicked off by Matt Kilmer laying out a beat on hand drums joined by Tim tapping on the gourd that formed the base of his kamale ngoni. After a while, Dingham and Watanabe joined in and the mood intensified. By this time Keiper had switched to strumming the kamale ngoni strings with both hands. Although Kaoru played a fine lead on the bamboo flute, fue, the band was yet to find its balance. The polyrhythms laid out by Kilmer were complex—in fact so much so, that I initially suspected there was a supplementing tape, but later realized that he was actually able to create the multiple beats and different sounds just by using his ten fingers as well as his feet—and the entirety of the band was not immediately at ease with the rhythm. Picking the bass string with his thumbs, Keiper was a couple of times slightly behind the beat, resulting in a halt in the music.
The second tune, ‘Iceland’ by Matt Kilmer, took the music to a different direction. The vibraphone provided a lovely somewhat ethereal harmony upon which Kaoru played beautifully on a Western silver flute. The third piece was his composition, ‘Together Alone,’ dedicated to his wife Mari sitting in the audience. To her embarrassment, Kaoru explained that as a working musician he is constantly on the road and when he leaves home the wife sometimes tells him it’ll not be worth coming back. But the piece was about being together even when apart. For the song, Kaoru picked the longest of his three fue with the deepest sound. The introduction bore distinct Middle Eastern harmonies. The tune ended with the men chanting a repetitious phrase until fade-out.
The next piece started with free improvisation by Kaoru using the glissando headjoint on his flute. This invention was created by Robert Dick, according to some the best flutist alive and Kaoru’s former teacher, to imitate the whammy bar on the guitar. The sliding flute was backed by Tim clanging on an assortment of bells and caps spread on the stage floor, even hanging some shakers from his mouth. The piece moved on to a moderate tempo on which Kaoru played a haunting flute solo.
The dexterity of Matt Kilmer was fully on display in a lengthy solo that followed. It was one of the moments that most captured the enthusiastic audience. It was quite amazing to hear the variety of sounds that Kilmer was able to tease out of the single hand drum by using all his fingers and the entire surface of the drumhead at no moment losing the energetic beat.
This was followed by another tune by Tim Keiper, ‘Greed.’ It was an intense piece with superb solos by Kaoru on fue (the clarity of the tone and the clean tuning Kaoru is able to create with the bamboo flute never fails to amaze me) and Chris on the vibes. The author of the piece did not solo, per se, as he generally didn’t during the entire evening, but the kamale nguni again provided an essential element that combined the functions of chord and bass instruments. The composition was complex yet naturally flowing, with the band playing an impressive double-tempo pattern in unison ending each of the solos.
The final number of the evening was composed by Chris Dingman. He explained how the melody had come to him originally already some three years ago, but at that time he had discarded it. But it kept of coming back to him and, luckily for us, he had finally decided to develop it into a full piece (still with no title, however). It was one of the loveliest pieces of the overall excellent set. The composer started with a calm ostinato played on the vibes to which fue and percussion effects added color. The beginning evolved into a medium tempo piece rocking gently in 9/8. Kaoru soloed on the smallest of his fue. This was a superb ending to an outstanding concert, which demonstrated the considerable talents of these four young men. After the concert, Yoko and I urged Kaoru to get the band performing more regularly. If the audience reaction was anything to go by, we will not be the only faithful followers to the group.