Bass on Top

Yuganaut and the Andrew Lamb Trio
Buffalo, N.Y. April 8, 2008

With a half-sized violin and a didgeridoo strapped onto his double bass, a tambourine stirrup on one shoe and his tuba ready for action beside him, Tom Abbs negotiated the connection between two variants of improvised music during an early April concert at Buffalo’s Halwalls Contemporary Arts Center.

Wrapping up a tour of the co-op Yuganaut band just before recording with tenor saxophonist Andrew Lamb’s trio, a Hallwalls-associated arts grant allowed the Brooklyn-based Abbs to showcase both groups upstate. Completed by Ann Arbor-based Steve Rush playing slinky electric piano riffs, wiggly analog synthesizer oscillations plus trombone, whistles, ratchets and small percussion and Geoff Mann on drum kit, glockenspiel and trumpet, the tri-city Yuganaut expressed its instrumental bravura in jovial, foot-stomping tunes that recalled Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Roscoe Mitchell in their playful moments.

Tapping into the strands of selfless improvisation often expressed by more solemn Kirk and Mitchell pieces – as well as John Coltrane – New York veterans, Lamb and percussionist Warren Smith plus Abbs performed Energy Music that was simultaneously mystical and transcendent.

Often skirting parody with a few of his 1970s Chick Corea-like licks on Fender Rhodes and Moog, Rush was on firmer ground when his rainfall of keyboard arpeggios became gospel riffs or rollicking Professor Longhair-style piano vamps. To keep things moving, the pianist yodeled, gradually let the air out of a balloon, tooted a slide whistle and a kazoo, and manipulated a miniature, bolo-bat-like two-sided drum with string-attached balls thumping both heads. Once Mann joined in with a Second Line backbeat and cow-bell thumps and Abbs stopped alternating fiddle and bass spiccato licks to blast pedal point tuba, the small, but appreciative audience responded with revival meeting-style hand clapping and verbal affirmations.

Melding fun with functionality, at points Yuganaut harmonized horn riffs like an avant brass ensemble, gave Mann solo space for a series of rolls, flams and clip-clop paradiddles, and allowed Abbs to demonstrate that tough walking bass lines or layered sul ponticello string forays are possible, even while sounding stentorian blasts with the didgeridoo.

Limiting his honks on the Aboriginal horn and intensifying his bull fiddle lines – both arco and pizzicato – in the second set, Abbs’ four-square playing vibrated sympathetically along with Smith’s refined accompaniment which emphasized popping cymbals, rim shots, hi-hat taps and resonating glockenspiel chords.

For his part, Lamb lodged his saxophone reed firmly in his mouth, expelling wave after wave of sweeping Coltranesque timbres. Staccato, opaque, as well as emotionally affecting, he built glossolalia, false registers and repeated note clusters into a room-filling resonance. Eventually consisting of speedier trills and riffs, his improvisations were all-encompassing but not alienating. Meditative and gentle they swelled until they teetered on the brink of unbridled ecstasy, but never tumbled into the abyss of incomprehensibility.

Eventually the members of Lamb’s trio attained a climax of interlocking polyphony, with drum backbeat pings, throbbing bass line and mercurial saxophone split tones heard clearly. Then they paused momentarily and concluded with a breath-taking flourish.

Improvised music allows for a variety of strategies through which players can attain high levels of performance and communication. That night Abbs was able to use all his instruments to participate in two of them.

— Ken Waxman

— For CODA