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The Sound of Colors

Artistic synesthesia abounded at the Kuumbwa last Thursday night, when the iconoclastic Dutch piano Trio Braamdejoodevatcher gave a brilliant, prismatic performance of original jazz improvisations, each one named for a different color. The idea for the project is based on the work of poet and radio personality Ken "The Voice" Nordine (www.wordjazz.com), who in 1967 was commissioned by the Fuller Paint Company to create a set of radio ads based on colors. They were short spoken word pieces with free jazz accompaniment designed to invoke the particular emotional feel of a color--a particular, yet ephemeral point of departure for a musical meditation, given that a lot of the way we feel about certain colors depends on our own associations with them. Like, is green really inherently envious? Was red really born to kill?

Imagine trying to characterize some 37 different colors, most of which have already been wielded by literary masters. Heavy-hitting monsters like T.S. Elliot and The Yellow Wallpaper author Charlotte Perkins Gilman have already hit home runs with their use of yellow, making reinvention an intimidating task. But the trio pulled it off with finesse and wit, recasting yellow as a nervous, playful thing at first, with drummer Michael Vatcher digging through his instruments like he lost his keys before an important interview, sounding off odd popping toys and stacks of wooden blocks while bandleader and pianist Michiel Braam fluttered over the keys like a caffeinated hummingbird.

Then, with a bit of rock flair, Braam pounded out an operatic list of melancholy victories, which gleefully degenerated with haphazard discord into a big rock ballad finish, reeling with an enlightened schizophrenia. Vatcher continued the thought by bowing a cracked cymbal, a sound like the angry grating of metal on metal, eventually turning the whole outfit into a factory of inevitable destruction. Then, in one of the evening's many wink-and-nudges, they swaggered into a devil-may-care bit of ragtime, disappearing into the sunset and leaving the ruins of yellow behind.

That's the beauty of this trio's work--they manage to be adventurous without being overly obscure. With the overarching goal of describing the colors, they tinker with jazz and the blues with irreverent affection, pitting Cecil Taylor against a deliriously repetitive nursery rhyme. Or right in the middle of in impossible-to-count foray into some abysmal depths, they'll trot out an easy, finger-snapping tidbit of nightclub sleaze. But like David Lynch's nightmarish take on the Prozac-happy sounds of the '50s, the trio's interpretation of happy fun music almost always seems to include an ominous tone of discord in the mix, keeping alive the tension between creation and self-destruction. Because the hatchet man is always lurking ...

Bobby Rush He Ain't

Not that Dave Alvin was trying to be like the big booty-loving bluesman Bobby Rush for the majority of the evening, being a country man and all. For the most part, he was rocking out with his Guilty Men like a regular country guitar hero. But when he dove into the blues, he went for a horny, old-fashioned, domineering, grab-your-woman-by-the-hair kind of blues that Rush can still pull off in his 70s. But it just wasn't working for the Alvin--especially when he actually demonstrated said method on his backup singer. Sure, he didn't mean nothin' by it, but she didn't seem particularly amused and certainly didn't bother to play along. Like one of the Afro-Cuban All Stars who went a bit over the line during his "audience participation" bit at the Civic show last spring, Alvin just seemed downright smarmy after that. But hey, I guess some people are into that sort of thing. I'd just as soon he left it behind and stick to the acoustic songwriting he does best.

Mike Connor

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From the December 10-17, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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