I left work early this Wednesday to pick up my pal John DeSilva and drive up and over the hill to Santa Cruz and take in the early show at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. We were there to see Allan Holdsworth (guitar), Tony Levin (bass and Chapman Stick), Terry Bozzio (drums), and Pat Mastelotto (drums).
The first noteworthy thing was the sheer visual presence of Terry Bozzio's drum set. You can get a gander at it from some of the photos on Tony Levin's website. I joked that perhaps he might have a trapeze rigged up to allow him to rapidly get from one side to the other... It occupied about 90% of the floor area of the small stage, leaving little room for the other players. If the stage was only slightly smaller they would not have been able to play the venue.
We had excellent seats, almost dead center and about six rows back from the stage (the Kuumbwa seats about 200). Shortly after 7 the lights dimmed, the announcer introduced the show, and out came the musicians. Almost immediately Mastellotto began hitting some parts of his very non-standard kit (which includes lots of electronic percussives and miscellaneous odd objects), and Bozzio started playing some bells... Tony Levin stood up with his Ned Steinberger electric upright and started playing some long tones... and Holdsworth started to play some intriguing harmonies on his custom Bill DeLap guitar... and so it began.
For the next hour they kept playing, constantly shifting between sparse, a tempo sections into dense grooves of various kinds. Mastelotto seemed to be leading the way a lot, but the interplay was astonishing (he and Bozzio recorded a CD of improvised duets in 2000). Levin alternated between his electric upright bass and the Chapman Stick. He has played quite a lot with both Mastelotto (in King Crimson) and Bozzio (two CDs from the trio Bozzio Levin Stevens, with Steve Stevens on guitar, from 1997 and 2000), and the three of them seemed very comfortable with everything, clearly delighting in the sonic tapestry that was being woven.
Holdsworth seemed to be the odd man out at times. It seemed like he wasn't very sure about what to add. He also seemed to have a bunch of effects that he hadn't quite set up and tweaked to his satisfaction. Occasionally he would seem to forget about it and fall into following something Levin was doing with washes of his signature dense, close voicings (chords that very few human beings can play - he has monstrous hands that twist into seemingly impossible spidery stretches), or start playing bursts of fluid lines in his inimitable way (nobody plays like Holdsworth... his note choice is so unusual and cliche-free, and his speed and fluency so powerful and astonishing), but too often he seemed to be unsure about what he should do. It didn't help that his sound was a bit too low in the mix all night. His first "solo," if you can call it that, was almost lost in the surging of the drums and growl of Levin's bass or Stick. Things got a little better each time he played a burst of lines, but never really got into proper balance, in my opinion.
Finally the evolving improvised music came to an end, to thunderous applause. Bozzio emerged from the structure and introduced everyone (as if anyone present didn't know who was on the stage) and spoke briefly about how none of this music was prepared, and about how it they were presenting a one-of-a-kind, never-to-be-repeated musical experience, and how much fun it was to play with this group (he introduced Mastelotto as "my favorite drummer," Levin as "my favorite bass player," and Holdsworth as "everyone's favorite guitar player").
It was amusing to watch them leave the stage as Levin and Holdsworth both had to thread their way through the narrow space between Bozzio's and Mastelotto's kits - Holdsworth had particular trouble since he was carrying his guitar.
After a minute or two of clapping, hooting and hollering, they returned and played another improvised piece that lasted about ten minutes or so, this one exhibiting a bit more of Holdsworth's talents - it seemed as if he established the direction for this one.
Fascinating stuff! Not everyone's cup of tea - and very, very hard to pull off for mere mortals - but these four are not mere mortals.
Their tour continues tonight through Sunday at Yoshi's in Oakland, and then down south for a couple of dates before they go their separate ways for a while, regrouping in April for a brief tour of Europe.