By Marc Lee
Blue Note Records’ “New Directions” showcase, featuring four of the label’s hottest young shots, chugged along mainly in reverse gear at a surprisingly full Gypsy Tea Room on Tuesday night.
Alto saxophonist Greg Osby and tenor-player Mark Shim, with vibist Stefon Harris and pianist Jason Moran, blew almost nonstop through two one-hour sets of avant-garde original compositions and noisy interpretations of classics composed by such famous label mates as Herbie Hancock.
Backed by nonbilled drummer Nashid Waitts and bassist Tarus Matin, the group plunged into Mr. Hancock’s “The Theme From Blowup” to start the first set and finally stopped for breath 45 minutes and two original compositions later.
“Sorry about that,” Mr. Harris apologized at the break. SHIM “Sometimes the music tells you to keep on going.” After the shocking bombast from the stage, his voice was physically comforting.
But one deep breath and the band quickly swung into the vibraphonist’s composition “And ‘This Too Shall Pass” – a sometimes meditative, sometimes cacophonous piece that highlighted his versatility. At times he veered toward melodic R&B, other times he played percussively, reversing his mallets and hammering plinking notes from muted keys.
Mr. Osby, the veteran among the group with two records to his name, showed his own animal chops. He played in bursts and skips, fooling around with time signatures, flirting with the melody and making interesting whirring noises as if taking part in some primitive mating ritual.
Both Mr. Shim and Houston native Moran had shining moments, but not as many as their peers. The tenor has a big warm sound like Sonny Rollins and straddles the line between trad-jazz and avant-garde, kinda like Coltrane. Mr. Moran showed a flair for dynamics, especially for building tension behind soloists. He and drummer Waitts worked in tandem and introduced many shoulder-scrunching moments.
As virtuosic as the players were, the show lacked pacing and nobody was willing to take control on the bandstand. Solos often ran long and out of ideas. With music as intense as that, it would have been a relief to have breathing space between songs, too.
Those are old complaints, though; it’s the unfortunate nature of the avant-garde. It’s also a good example of why there’s nothing new here. “New Directions” is heading straight toward a place we’ve already been, the loft scene.