Wednesday Night Becomes Improvisation Festival

Brian Slattery PhotoToward the end of the last set in the back room at BAR Wednesday night, Cretan lute player George Xylouris — one half of duo Xylouris White with drummer Jim White — was beginning a quiet piece when his head suddenly turned the bar, where a cluster of people were talking. He stopped playing. The people kept talking. So he rose from his seat and walked over, into the middle of the group.

“Shhh!” Xylouris said loudly. The entire room fell silent for a second. Then almost everyone in the room clapped. Xylouris returned to the stage, took his seat near White’s kit, picked up his lute, and started where he left off.

The command that people listen was a rare exception to the rule in a righteous marathon of improvisation-based music that spanned five hours of Wednesday evening. Beginning at Best Video and ending in BAR, the night was marked by intense performances by local and visiting musicians from start to finish, and the rapt audiences to match. It was a little festival of improvised music in all but name.

Best Video saw a triple bill of solo sets from guitarist Chris Cretella, bassist Zach Rowden, and visiting bassist Tom Blancarte. Cretella started off his set by explaining that the idea for the evening came to him after he had a dream that comedian Louis CK called him for guitar lessons. They met at CK’s house, Cretella went in for the handshake, and blew it — the handshake was just all wrong.

In the dream, Cretella said, CK was gracious about it. But “now I’m so attuned that I can’t shake hands because of the dream,” Cretella said, as the audience laughed. Recently, he said, he shook the hand of a colleague of his boss’s and thought, “wow, I just blew that.”

Without warning, Cretella then launched into an aggressive improvised piece in which his fingers flew over the fretboard, throwing a sheet of stuttering notes out of his hollow-body guitar that grew more lyrical and flexible. They then dissipated into a shivering note from the highest string, like a distress call from a dying radio station. After wrenching moans and whispers from the guitar, notes returned, pixelated and swooping, to return to the texture Cretella started with — and then stop on a dime.

Rowden used the tuning peg on his bass to move overtones in and out of phase, loosening the string enough to let the sound of it slapping against the fretboard create a rich rumble from the amp at his feet. As the bass continued to vibrate, Rowden lifted the instrument to his face and hummed violently into the pickups; the instrument responded in kind, sounding like a low flute over the distorted drone of the lowest string, before that texture gave way to a tone like a failing air pump.

Tom Blancarte, visiting from his current place of residence in Denmark, began his set with a plea to get more politically involved in the wake of Trump’s election. As if channeling his fears about the future, he began with an exploration of the harmonics on his bass that grew more agitated until he was getting tones from his instrument that sounded almost like dogs fighting. As his set developed, Blancarte ditched his bow for a stick, and proceeded to use it as percussion on the instrument, plucking with his left hand while playing the instrument’s lowest string with his beard. The end of his set showed just what he could do with a more traditional use of the instrument, no less ridden with energy and anxiety, yet in the end, cathartic.

Meanwhile, less than five miles away, the New Haven-based Rivener — Paul Belbusti on guitar and Michael Kiefer — took the stage at BAR. Rivener has been making waves on the improv scene lately with their new release, Svengali Gaze, which came out to some notice at the end of October. Rivener’s set started spacey as Belbusti and Kiefer found their footing in BAR’s cavernous space, then tightened into a groove that became downright melodic as Belbusti found an unusual, almost organ-like tone on his guitar and Kiefer laid down the sparse, expressive rhythm he needed to explore it. Their performance ended strong with a rolling squall that stopped and started with little more than glances between Belbusti and Kiefer and quick signals from Belbusti’s guitar.

Marisa Anderson was up next on solo electric guitar. Her playing style pulled from the blues and country, with hints of flavors from other corners of the guitar world, to conjure up expansive and highly evocative landscapes, sometimes Appalachian, sometimes from the dusty borderlands of the Southwest. The piece “Deep Gap,” written in honor of country legend Doc Watson, gave Anderson a chance to flex her muscles, but it was her newer compositions from her latest release, Into the Light — and the haunting song “Colfax” (above) from 2015 — that really let her stretch out, to mesmerizing effect.

Xylouris White, touring in support of their latest release, Black Peak, drew both improvisation fans and members of the Greater New Haven Greek community to BAR to come see them, making for a nicely crowded house. George Xylouris is beloved in his native Crete as he has carried his family’s deep musical tradition well into the 21st century. Jim White is most famous as the drummer for The Dirty Three, an Australian instrumental rock group. Together, Xylouris and White threw off musical sparks with nearly every note and rhythm they played. Xylouris’s lute gave White the space to draw out the melodies in his kit, and White’s playing emphasized the percussion in Xylouris’s attack. Their set began around 11 p.m. and was still going strong after midnight as the duo kept exploring the music they were making, digging deeper, and finding treasure. And New Haven’s audience was there, listening, until the end.

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