LIVE: Broken Shadows @ Atlas Studios, 5/19/18
Review and photographs by J Hunter
There’s something horrifying about seeing entire trees either snapped off their trunks or torn out of the ground, and I saw both as I made my way down Liberty Street. The tornado that had ripped through Newburgh may not have been an f5, but it was enough to cut power to the area and make dozens of people homeless after their buildings were deemed unsafe. Atlas Studios – the re-vamped factory where the Jazz @ Atlas concert series makes its home – had taken enough damage to put the concert scheduled for Saturday, May 19th up in the air for a day or two. Fortunately, damage to the structure was not as bad as first feared, allowing the strapping alt-jazz quartet Broken Shadows to blow the roof off the place in the best sense: metaphorical.
“Broken Shadows” is the title of an Ornette Coleman composition, one of several the group performed for a howling full house at the indie promotion’s high-ceilinged corner concert space. But this group was not simply an Ornette “cover band; rather, the goal of the quartet – tenorman Chris Speed, altoist Tim Berne (described by Speed as “our hero-mentor…”), bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King – was to pay tribute to Coleman, Julius Hemphill, Charlie Haden and other like-minded individuals. Miles, Monk and Mingus may have been the groundbreakers, but Berne and his partners were advocates for the “ground shakers” – that is, players and composers whose work truly put jazz through seismic shifts as powerful (and, some say, as damaging) as the tornado that ruined Newburgh’s day a few weeks back.
I’d been lucky enough to see most of this group perform in other situations: Berne with Snakeoil and Sun of Goldfinger, Anderson and King with the Bad Plus. Speed was the only outlier, though I’d enjoyed his recorded performances for years. I was pretty sure his tenor sax would dovetail with Berne’s alto, but I didn’t know the quarter of it as the group lit into the opening “Humpty Dumpty” like a pack of hungry sharks. Berne and Speed flew formation on the melody while Anderson and King laid down the foundation as only they knew how, and then Berne went soaring off on his own. His opening solo raised the hair on your arms with its level of exploration, and although I’d seen him perform similar feats before, the experience was still an eye-opener. Eventually Speed took over the spotlight, but his opening note mirrored Berne so well, anyone not watching the stage would have been hard-pressed to notice the changeover.
As amazing as the reed players’ respective solos were throughout the night, it was their work as a two-headed monster that really left a mark. More often than not, Berne and Speed bookended pieces with a dual attack that redefined harmony in about six different ways: Their lines on the opening to Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” highlighted the isolation of the title character better than any previous take I’ve heard, and their counter-arguments during Haden’s “Song for Che” were so strong – both individually and collectively – that your head was on a constant swivel as you tried to capture everything that was happening. They almost achieved prime funkiness on Hemphill’s “Body,” but they were at their best creating divine chaos on Dewey Redman’s “Walls-Bridges” and on the Ornette tune that gave the band its name.
Anderson’s bass was the only amplified instrument – not surprising, given the unadorned brick walls and hardwood floors that made up the concert space. Aside from being able to be heard over Berne and Speed’s sonic assault, you needed to hear the brilliant nuance Anderson brought to everything he did, be it solo or foundation riff. His in-the-clear opening to “Che” was utterly sublime, and his bowing underneath “Broken Shadows” added a bottomless resonance to the piece as the reed players passed the spotlight back and forth like the Golden State Warriors on yet another fast break.
King had some nuanced moments of his own, painting with brushes on “Shadows” and “Lonely Woman,” but overall, he was in Animal mode right from the jump, inciting screams from the crowd at will. If there was anyone who could lasso the other-worldly time signatures that drove most of the 90-minute set, it was King, and as the night went on, his wolfish grin (a standard feature of Bad Plus shows) got wider and wider. You couldn’t help but get the sense that King was having more fun than humans ought to have, and that leaving the Bad Plus behind to work on this exercise in experimental music was a powerful refresher – both for him and for Anderson, who was on point on every piece.
When it comes to the pieces Broken Shadows played (and will be taking into the studio very soon), there is no middle ground: You either love it to death, or you think it’s the Antichrist’s walk-up music. The crowd here was firmly in the former camp, giving the quartet two standing ovations and frequent huzzahs throughout the evening. Newburgh will be hurting for quite some time, but for one evening, that hurt was literally blown away by four astounding musicians who wanted nothing more than to give those who came before their rightful due.