Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Material Live In Italy featuring Bernie Worrell

In a small rehearsal room in Milan, Italy, Bill Laswell, Hamid Drake, and Aiyb Dieng set up the rhythmic foundation for the next incarnation of Material scheduled to perform early the next day, Sunday, circa 11am. The covalence of their musical chemistry quickly merges into one blended harmonic force whose driving rhythms move and define the time and key. In 20-30 minutes they have the arrangements for 6 pieces worked out - maybe 1/2 - 2/3rds of the concert. They are making up the set list almost from scratch - "almost," because they're working off of ideas played together in the past.

For nearly a year this show was going to be Material featuring Gigi but that changed about a week ago because, as my friend John Brown said, "things are never what they seem." Gigi couldn't make it, I don't know why, but she is OK. At the last minute it changed to Material featuring Bernie Worrell. It's the same band that played with Gigi last year in Addis Ababa except that Abegasu, the other keyboard player, also couldn't make it.

Bernie and Dominic, the guitarist, were the next to show up at the rehearsal space. Bernie's only difficulty was getting the wah pedal for the clavinet to work which proved no more challenging than changing a battery. As long as he can hear himself and everyone else Bernie needs little or no instruction with the arrangements, he just does what he does with inimitably fortifying funkadelia and great class.

Bernie remains a musical prodigy. On the way to the airport early in the morning the day after the show, Bernstein mentions to Bernie that Bill sent him a copy of Blacktronic Science and how much he enjoyed the opening string composition called Revelation in Black Light. Bernstein asks him if he used to arrange for Parliament/Funkadelic and Bernie says that yes, he did string arrangements and horn arrangements until the synthesizer came along and then 'they wanted to save money and have me play everything on the synthesizer.'

Rewind to Gianni, one of the colorful Italian promoters enroute in transit in a van starts talking about Walter/Wendy Carlos. First Gianni points out the gender change, then mentions having met Walter ( at that point he would have been Wendy) at Lenny Bernstein's house. Gianni points out that Switched On Bach, classical music played on a Moog synthesizer, was bigger than any rock record when it came out, and that Walter Carlos made much more off it than Robert Moog. Not exactly sure why he brought this up or what the point was but I did say that I'd never heard Leonard Bernstein referred to as "Lenny" by anyone. Gianni said that he used to work for him. Later, Bill told me that he also worked with or for Sun Ra. He turned out to be a very gracious host, a friendly guide, though I wish I was able to talk to him more.

Before the rehearsal started Bill gave me a package of his recent music productions, his copy of a Ginger Baker DVD documentary, which I'll get to, and a copy of The Exegesis of Philip K Dick. Gianni was there as I received the book and mentioned how important music was to PKD and saying that he liked to have Cecil Taylor playing when he wrote. I have no idea if this is true or how Gianni knew this but it sounds plausible. Dick based characters on Brian Eno and David Bowie in VALIS ( Vast Active Living Intelligence System). He speaks of the beauty of Beethoven in the Exegesis.

The final two musicians to arrive at the rehearsal were the horns, Steve Bernstein on trumpet and slide trumpet and Peter Apfelbaum on tenor saxophone and flute. These guys grew up together in Berkeley and have been playing together off and on ever since. They are an instant, cohesive, solid horn section, no question about it.

The band started running through the songs. After about 10 - 15 minutes, by my temporal calculations, they gelled into a single unit that started to stretch its wings and fly, musically speaking. A small group of onlookers gathered and attentively went along for the ride. It became a small intimate show for the few in attendance. The band sounded great and the energy was high, feeling electric. Everyone left upbeat and in a good mood retiring to a restaurant with classically delicious Italian food alla Milanese.

Waiting to go to the restaurant, a dedicated fan, who drove down from Munich to see the Material rehearsal and show, asked Bernie, "who started the funky clavinet through a wah wah pedal technique? Billy Preston? You?" Bernie said that it wasn't him ... I didn't hear him affirm that it was Billy Preston. Unfortunately, I was pulled away to do something and didn't catch that funkological chronology lesson. By chance, last night I did discover a documentary on Bernie which I hadn't realized existed:

Stranger: Bernie Worrell on Earth is on Netflix or you can get it here.

The full house that packed Teatro Manzoni gave a robust round of applause and cheers at the end of the concert. The musicians of Material emerged from behind their respective instruments, congregated at the front of the stage and took a bow. It had been a good show, very different, too. I could tell by the feeling in the house at this moment that both the band and the audience (the aviators and passengers, if you will) enjoyed the musical journey they had just been through and felt good about where they arrived.

Material started the end of the encore with Voodoo Chile, Bernie began a roaring, Marshall-stack-feedback inspired solo on the growling Leslified B3 Organ adding thick midrange weight to Dominic's guitar who held the front line with only a distortion pedal and Twin Reverb for amplification. Bill doubled this iconic line giving it a thick, solid, harmonic foundation anchoring it to earth. Dominic went into the verse melody invoking the super-human mood of Jimi's lyrics:

Well, I stand up next to a mountain
And chop it down with the edge of my hand ...

The encore was actually Voodoo Chile (slight return) because Dominic quoted the Hendrix riff earlier in the morning during his solo portion of the show. The line drew a healthy cheer of recognition when he first served it up. It grabbed their attention and Dominic held on to it with some soulfully elegant lead guitar concluding with the most famous riff from Ginger's band, Cream - you know the one I mean, you can hear it right after the lyrics: "It's getting near dawn ... (riff here)." I thought this might sound cliche, however the Italian audience ate it up. Bill immediately launched into the heaviest dub bass line that I've ever heard in my life.

Everyone in the band had their turn to shine multiple times, and shine they did as demonstrated by mid-song applause after solos. This was the first time I heard Bernstein and Peter really step out and show their free jazz chops. They both make very clear statements with their solos and both surprise with the unexpected. When they play sectional parts together, they sound like brothers - two halves of a unified sound.

Another highlight was the drum/percussion solo by Hamid and Aiyb later joined by Peter on a metallic clanker that kept steady time while the other two forayed out even further to the edge of rhythmic frontiers and beyond as they defined time in this space and defined the space by their time. Syncopation never sounded this sweet. The drummers handed off the baton to a Bill Laswell ambient bass solo that sounded from a different world.

The audience seemed remarkably alert and attentive for the whole show. Maybe the early hour helped. The concert goers, many of them middle-aged or older, appeared rather upscale, to me. Not necessarily wealthy, tickets were only 20 euros, but upscale in demeanor - a crowd of sophisticated aestheticians out to enjoy some quality music in a distinguished theater. The performance rose to the occasion and everyone left with more material wealth than when they arrived.

Bernie started the show with one of his classic solos setting the pace by lifting the ground out into space, a gentle lift-off into parts unknown. For much of the concert Bernie had that swing like Duke Ellington, both rhythmically and harmonically, though not stylistically. He had his own thing going on. His musical language gets more precise with age, and he's always listening.

Sound check was fairly easy. The Italian sound crew was professional and on point. Teatro Manzoni is a thousand seat venue owned by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The acoustics are warm and clear if a bit on the muted side. The PA was a little light on the bass response so I ended up liberally augmenting it with my Kosmos Subharmonic synthesizer.

The idea of these inexpensive late Sunday morning concerts is to draw people in from the suburbs to shop post-concert, so I was told. The theater stands close to the center of Milan's fashion district, not that far from La Scala. Here is a link to a number of photos from this show.

Post concert found us back at the same restaurant as the night before. We were joined by a grande formaggio, somehow, I didn't catch how, related to Berlusconi. She had a bit of a severe look and a passing resemblance to Joan Rivers. She sat at one end of a line of tables about 20 feet long, I was at the other. I can't eat garlic or I'll get sick. The waiter serving the food assures me there is no garlic in it and lists the ingredients. I'm about to dig in when il grande donna in commanding voice says, "don't eat that, there's garlic in it." I was surprised as much as I was grateful to be watched out for in this way. That was the only interaction I had with her.

For some reason quite unknown to me, the after-lunch discussion also sees Dominic criticizing the Rolling Stones for being amateurs. He cites an appearance on Saturday Night Live as being particularly bad. I remember that performance well, they played the song Shattered, their dystopic ode to New York City. This was 1977 or '78 and they sounded and looked very punk rock but in their own way. Bernie begins defending his friend, Keith Richard's guitar playing, "Some people say Keith can't play solos, but if you listen to what he's doing, he's playing three parts at once on the guitar." Bill agrees that Keith has something going on with his playing.

Later in the afternoon I got out for a walk - my mission to get into the world famous opera house, La Scala to get a sense of the acoustics. As I move through the fashion district passing all the designer stores, Versace, Prada, Gucci's, Valentino's etc. amongst the crowds of shoppers, a verse from Shattered plays around my brain:

Life is just a cocktail party on the street
You've got people dressed in plastic bags
Directing traffic, some kind of fashion...

Must be my contrariness. I didn't get into La Scala but had a nice walk there. Weather perfect, life good.

Just down from La Scala is a long street that's been turned into a pedestrian mall. A glass roof spans across the two rows of buildings on either side of the street connecting them to make it quasi-indoors. Exactly halfway down, another street crosses it at a right angles. It's also a pedestrian mall with a glass roof. On the ground in the very center of this whole complex had been painted a shield like you might see on a coat of arms with a Celtic cross on top of it. Celtic style spirals and knots and infinity signs surround it. Real Da Vinci Code type stuff here. As a matter of fact, a regal statue of Leo lives right across from La Scala.

I spent part of the evening watching the excellent Beware Mr. Baker documentary, a superb portrait of the cantankerous but incomparable Ginger Baker. More on that soon.


  1. Interesting. Material has been missed. Hope to see the Mr. Baker DVD myself.

  2. I had trouble figuring out who "Dominic" was. Is it Dominic Kanza?

    Don't jazz musicians always claim that rock musicians are amateurs? It seems to me that many rock bands don't embrace the virtuoso esthetic.

    Is there going to be a live album of this concert?

  3. @Cleveland Okie: Yes, Dominic Kanza. He also plays with Angelique Kidjo.

    It does seem those divisions exist for sombunall musicians. I've met classical musicians horrified by anything electric, but they're rare it seems.

    There could be a live album, I don't know at the moment, but will let you know if they decide to release it. The recording came out pretty good.

  4. Very interesting.... It would be shame to waste a recording like that! If you say it is 'pretty good' it is very good.

  5. Thanks OZ... Didn't know you were such an eloquent writer! Very Poetic!

    Much Love... Tommy!