Review and photographs by J Hunter
“This is a curated series,” Matt Steckler told us as his quintet Persiflage arranged itself on the huge Oriental rug in the middle of the GE Theatre’s floor. Steckler ought to know, since the Schenectady High alum isS the curator of Proctors’ “Party Horns NYC” series. To be fair, though, Steckler hasn’t put a foot wrong, because in musical terms, every group he’s convinced to take a drive up the NY Thruway has hit it out of the park. But every time Steckler’s made the trip himself, his gonzo big unit Dead Cat Bounce has accompanied him. It was Steckler’s surprising choice to bring his “other band” to Proctors this year that made me choose this show over watching Chick Corea “paint” Cubist portraits of his audience at Massry Center.
Don’t misunderstand me: When I first saw Dead Cat live (at Party Horns 2012), my jaw dropped like a turkey from a helicopter; their 2011 Cuneiform release Chance Episodes is still my favorite disc from the burgeoning list of Greater Nippertown musicians who’ve left our scene for bigger and better things. What’s more, the times I’ve seen Corea in a non-group setting (solo at Massry in 2012, and in duet with Gary Burton – twice – and Bela Fleck) remain some of my best live-show memories. The deal-breaker was the possibility of seeing a player and composer I deeply respect in a setting I hadn’t experienced before. Ergo, off I went to Proctors. QED.
The first set began with “March Nor’easter,” which Steckler told us is “really old… about 10 years, which is old for me.” With a title like that, you’d expect stormy charts and crashing drums. What we got was a rock-steady beat from drummer Harvey Wirht and an off-kilter reggae vamp from guitarist Todd Neufeld; Dead Cat bassist Dave Ambrosio’s typically fat sound made it all throb with pleasure as Steckler’s alto blended with Curtis Hasselbring’s trombone to serve up the first of many smile-inducing harmonies. Steckler then took his alto up and out as Neufeld (and the piece) became more enthusiastic. Hasselbring’s own solo had serious teeth, reminding me of the ska-influenced work of Josh Roseman, who led Party Horns 2014’s opening act Line of Swords.
There were plenty of older tunes to come, not the least of which was the mind-blowing blues “Country Rake Fight,” which Steckler wrote when he was a Mozart-like 20 years old. That all those pieces come from the same thoughtful, complex place as Dead Cat Bounce’s material is no surprise; however, having only guitar and trombone as primary foils (instead of the multi-reed front line of Dead Cat) tightens Steckler’s ideas while giving each of them a spine of steel: “Abri Turismo” reminded me of Steven Bernstein’s satisfying reboot of Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks for Fellini films; “Do the Betty Rubble” was less a dance than it was a trip into a deep, dark cave; and “What It Seems (Eternity in Salem)” had palpable affection that belied the piece’s sinister title and downtown sound.
It still boggles me that Wirht isn’t even the regular drummer, because he caught anything Steckler threw at him that didn’t sting, and maintained a righteous bond with Ambrosio throughout the night. In addition to his own sense of lyric, Wirht also contributed a world-music sensibility that broadened the music even further. In contrast, Neufeld’s solos and fills were as tight as the Triborough Bridge at rush hour, particularly on the kicking “Night Cravings” and the percussive classical-and-more “Scene Change.” Hasselbring never lost the aggression he started with, getting fun and feisty on the closer “Hitting the Windshield,” while Ambrosio’s pulsing bass laid beautiful foundations when he wasn’t using it to sculpt his own righteous solos and in-the-clear intros to “Cravings” and the Dead Cat classic “Township Jive Revisited.”
It’s too easy to remember Steckler as “that kid from Schenectady High,” and way too easy to forget that he’s been making big-time music for nearly 15 years. Whether he’s playing alto, soprano sax or flute, Steckler has tremendous concepts, sensational technique and a personal energy that can bathe you in light most times and blind you in others. He doesn’t seem like he’d put his career on hold for a year to start a family, but that’s what happened. If the performances on this band’s new in-search-of-a-label recording come close to what Steckler and his partners dropped on us here, that career will attain its previous upward trajectory in nothing flat.