All About Jazz – March 27, 2007
by Ivana Ng
If you listen to a record long enough, you may find yourself liking it more than you did on first listen. But listening to this live session from the Knitting Factory in May, 2001 repeatedly still does not help Native American wood flutist Mary Redhouse’s trilling, whistling, flute playing, which strangely enough often sounds like her own howling vocals. Naisia is a traditional Navajo chant that melds Redhouse’s wailing vocals and meandering flute notes. As the second track on the disc, the ethereal tune sets the tone for the record, which is angular, fully out there improvisation. Unfortunately, the emulsion of Lake’s robust sax timbre and Redhouse’s distinctive howling tone is much like oil and water, they just don’t mix. Lake’s flavor of jazz is quite dense and Redhouse’s Navajo hymns are, as expected, complex and difficult to decipher. Neither shines a light on the other’s compositions and performances.
Montana Grass Song, a reinterpreted Indian powwow song, comes closest to reconciling jazz and Native American music. Drummer Gene Lake and acoustic bassist Santi Debriano’s eager, swinging rhythm complements Redhouse’s vocals. The result is a tune that not only swings but also has the delicate purity characteristic of Redhouse’s Navajo chants.
On the rest of the record, Lake’s solo improvising soars. In Brass & Oak, he leads with a saxophone voice that is at once forceful, meticulous and evocatively precise. Cloth is Lake’s best performance on the album. For the first minute and a half, he plays alone, with no percussive backup, evoking an intimacy between him and the audience. Then, the bass and drums saunter in timidly, hesitant to intrude on the private dialogue. As the song progresses, the rhythm section becomes more extroverted and Lake’s sax continues to simmer, never boiling over and never overpowering the percussion.
Overall, the disc is a showcase for Lake’s remarkable improvising skills and opens the door to more collaboration between Lake and Redhouse, or jazz and Native American music in general. There is also a lesson to be learned from this record: the happy medium between the freedom of jazz and the ethereal quality of Native American cadence is hard to obtain, but when it is achieved, as in â€œMontana Grass Song, the outcome is unparalleled.
Track listing: Brass & Oak; Naisiai; Yo’ Dance; No VT; Levels; Montana Grass Song; Cloth; Broken in Parts; Pure Improv.
Personnel: Mary Red House: vocals, Native American wood flute; Gene Lake: drums; Santi Debriano: acoustic bass; Oliver Lake: alto and soprano sax, spoken word.