Topaz, Harper’s Ferry, Allston, MA- 6/11
Topaz knows how to strike a pose. I’ve become increasingly interested in the geography of stages- the lay out, the line up, spatial interactions, and that little pocket of speakers, amps and dials where bass players live, and Topaz knows how to dramatize the whole thing by stepping out in front like the tall, widestanced urban cowboy he is, and blowing hard. In such moments he dominates the stage and sound, almost inevitably pushing the energy to a new peak and drawing attention to his person and position with some strange visual/aural charisma. At other moments, however, he recedes into the background, hides in the shadows or leaves the stage entirely. On Friday night at Harpers Ferry in Allston, he often crouched down in a darkened area just to the left of the drum kit nodding his head or clapping rhythmically, totally engrossed in what was happening.
In those moments, he left a broad space in the center of the stage, an open area that was sometimes filled with a lengthy, meandering B-3 solo, or one from Tewar on the guitar, who has in the year or so since I last saw him play become more aggressive and delves frequently into the realms of dissonance and discord. Such experiments in sonic tension add a whole new layer to Topaz’s music, and Topaz’s music is essentially about layers. Beats overlaid with driving bass lines, overlaid with rhythm runs, overlaid with catchy lead licks and free form improvisations, creating increasingly dense soundscapes that can easily rise to frenzy and fall back again as the layers shift or one is removed entirely. And the best moments of the night, the headiest moments, were when that central space on the stage wasn’t filled or covered with something new and dominant, but when it became a place where all the sounds on stage met and mingled. As Topaz’s music is not so much acid jazz as it is urbanafrodub, this means those moments were characterized by weighty, body shaking roots grooves, sometimes calm, sometimes ferocious. There was enough space to stretch out and let the music pool- let it find its own shape. Those moments were faintly blissful, sly musical grins that transported you to that moment. More importantly, they were frequent.
The set was included a good dose of material from Topaz’s upcoming, long awaited follow up to The Zone, including Son of Abraham and the newer Pharoh. For a while now, Topaz has had the Saturday night Tap Bar gig at the Knitting Factory in New York, and the residency, as it has for so many others, seems to have been a period of growth and exploration and it shows in the more recent compositions. There were also covers of Burning Spear and Fela Kuti, and a few older tunes. Mike Raskin from the Bomb Squad sat in for a particularly long Fat City Strut, and one of the highlights of the night, the quintet cracked open Walkabout and slowly cultivated their collective improv into an absolutely immense, crushing, kinetic sculpture of sound. Very impressive. I like the way this band is growing