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Published: 2004/01/17
by Brad Farberman

Ropeadope New Music Seminar, Bowery Ballroom, NYC- 1/9

On January 9, the word was loud and clear: when Ropeadope throws a party, you accept the invitation . The Brooklyn-based record company's fourth "New Music Seminar" in three years assembled a wealth of gifted musicians (from their own roster and beyond) to perform and cross-pollinate at New York City's Bowery Ballroom that night; more than four hours later, the packed house poured back out into the frigid, downtown air, smiling ear to ear. Traditionally, the organization's "Seminars" have proved breeding grounds for unique collaboration. Ropeadope's inaugural affair paired Gov't Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, Dave Matthews Band bassist Stefan Lessard, and Phish's Mike Gordon with lesser-known greats like Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin, and guitarist Vernon Reid. Seminar II featured an unannounced appearance by Miles Davis alum John Scofield, and last summer's seminar enjoyed the presence of Brooklyns hyper-talented Benevento/Russo Duo.

These nights have always stank of a certain magical unpredictability, and this most recent jam was no exception.

New York City's own Sex Mob started things off with an energetic set of freaky jazz that made you shake your hips and scratch your head. Slide trumpet genius Steven Bernstein led his avant-quartet through a number of dissonant romps that would have made Ornette Coleman proud, including the sinister Mob original "Mothra." Their music, a colorful brew of dance grooves and "wrong" notes, also rendered itself a fitting match for infamous ivory-tickler John Medeski's manic organ work, as he was called upon early in the set to augment the foursome.

And Medeski, of Medeski, Martin and Wood fame, would serve as the thread to his own set of music, a duel of sorts featuring pianist Jason Moran. As their set wound down to a cacophonous finish, the Mob exited and 29-year old Moran strolled onstage. What ensued was an interesting, if not terribly exciting, improvised keyboard duet. Medeski, remaining at his organ, sat opposite Moran as he eased into the acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes at his disposal. The two alternately laid down bass lines and took leads; the brief set appeared to lose momentum at times, but often congealed just as one's attention might have wandered. Medeski and Moran eventually hooked up on a blues to close the duet, and were joined by drummer Bobby Previte.

This is where things really picked up speed. Previte settled into a funky groove over which the two pianists continued for a few minutes, leaving the audience wondering as to why they had not included a drummer in the first place. Sparks flew as three musicians who might not ordinarily play together jumped on a jam.

Then, all hell broke loose. Entering from stage left, a creature not of this earth was released into the wild. Skerik, tenor saxophonist from hell, took his place and began to blow. Known for his bizarre on-stage theatrics and penchant for wearing a devil costume, the Seattle native has played with everyone from Pink Floyd's Roger Waters to incomparable bass wizard Les Claypool. And for good reason: any time he picks up his sax, he makes the music his own. And tonight's "seminar" was one of those times. A soulful deluge of sound leapt forth from his horn, matching every demonic "squonk" along the way. He rocked back and forth, shook, and appeared as if he would burst at times. You could watch the music flow through him.

And just when you thought it was safe to keep listening, 8-string guitarist Charlie Hunter and DJ Logic had entered the fray in lieu of Moran. Soon, Medeski would abandon his organ and leave the baddest cats in town to do their worst.

The music swelled, swung, banged and dived. The sounds these four freaks had created were making you sweat, dance, scream and shout. It was hip-jazz, it was soul-hop, it was bluesy avant-funk, it was whatever you wanted it to be. And whatever you might call it, it was damn good.

And just as the walls threatened to cave in, the soothing sounds of sacred steel had arrived to cool things down a bit. Chuck Campbell and his lap steel guitar had taken their place by the front of the stage, and he made that steel sing. Soon, everyone's favorite freaky jazzbos had left the room, and the Campbell Brothers had assembled before us. Hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, this gospel sextet meant business from the moment they stepped on stage. The charismatic Denise Brown on lead vocals led her down-south brethren through a moving, cathartic display of musicianship and spirituality.

As the brothers Campbell brought their set to a close, the audience was transported from the American south to South Africa. Ropeadope's newest sign, Brooklyn's Antibalas, slowly made their way on stage. All 15 of them. Antibalas, the seminar headliners, play an earthy blend of funky, soulful music highly influenced by African and dub music. "Afrobeat," first pioneered by the late, great Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, has become an increasingly popular form over the last several years. Having originated in Nigeria during a time of great unrest, it often features lyrics of a political nature. However, it was Antibalas' hypnotic grooves and slammin' horn lines that kept the packed house grooving throughout their extended set. Running through tunes like "Battle of the Species" (off their first disc, Liberation Afrobeat Vol. 1), the group's five-piece horn section and captivating lead singer, Duke Amayo, kept the audience rapt in attention. The outfit's keys-man, Victor "Ticklah" Axelrod, also made subtle, yet significant contributions to the group sound and his solo release, Polydemic, is a superior outing.

Finally, once the substantial ensemble had blown through their impressive set, it was time for the games to begin. A free-for-all would ensue, featuring players from throughout the night, and names from all over the scene. Downtown B-3 mastermind Marco Benevento was first out of the gates, and he hopped on the organ, riding the groove maintained by what remained onstage of Antibalas. Pianist James Hurt followed, settling in at Ticklah's Rhodes. Next came the horns: the Living Daylights' Jessica Lurie emerged, alto sax in hand, as did Cochemea Gastelum (sax-man for Robert Walters group), sporting a new beard. Elizabeth Walker also returned to play percussion, as she had made a brief appearance during Skerik's set.

Bernstein materialized briefly, and Charlie Hunter made a rarest of appearance on bass, where, similar to his guitar work, his lines were killin'. This final jam, featuring musicians from all walks of life and many from Antibalas' crew, closed out the seminar on a triumphant, joyous note. Smiles onstage matched those in the crowd, and as the final tune wound down, the crowd cheered for more. And when it seemed no one would ameliorate the ecstatic crowd, Benevento returned to the acoustic piano, solo, for one last song. What a night in New York City.

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