LIVE: Jeff Lederer’s Shakers n’ Bakers @ The Falcon, 5/27/18
Review and photographs by J Hunter
I love three-day weekends. For one thing, concerts that would have been considered “School Night shows” suddenly become attainable. For another, the impossible seems to become much more possible: The idea that you can see a group that features seven legitimate bandleaders goes from laughable to “Holy shit! There they all are!” That’s what happened in Marlboro on the Sunday before Memorial Day, when tenor madman Jeff Lederer brought Shakers n’ Bakers to The Falcon to celebrate some truly world-shattering music.
That music came from revolutionary free-jazz icon Albert Ayler in 1968, when he and his partner Mary Maria Parks created New Grass, a heady mix of R&B and soul that was produced by Bob Thiele for the legendary record label Impulse. Sadly, jazz fans can be incredibly parochial, and being revolutionary works both ways; so when Ayler’s fan base heard this music that was so NOT what they were used to, both the fans and the jazz journalists who had lionized Ayler attacked him for the dreaded crime of “selling out.”
New Grass promptly disappeared from view until Lederer – an Ayler acolyte himself – decided this music needed another day in court, which he gave it on Heart Love, Lederer’s latest release on his own Little i Music label. When I first heard Heart Love, I could understand how anyone dedicated to free jazz would have heard Ayler & Parks’ work and run like a scalded dog. However, it would take an incredible amount of effort to deny the power and beauty this music contains, and on the stage of The Falcon, that beauty was expanded tenfold.
Ayler’s free-jazz sound was all over the opening tone poem “Message to Mother Ann,” one of several 19th-century Shaker “Vision Songs” interspersed through the two-set night. Vocalists Mary LaRose and Miles Griffith sang/spoke deep poetry of love while Lederer and the rest of the front line – trumpeter Stephen Bernstein, baritone sax boss Lisa Parrott and trombonist Joe Fiedler – crated a cacophony that was as beautiful as it was terrifying. Then in a flash, drummer Allison Miller hit the downbeat, and we were wrapped in the gospel-soul arms of “Everybody’s Movin’.” The front line was grooving on the tune’s muscular vamp, and keyboardist Jamie Saft had me jumping out of my seat, one hand raised to the heavens.
Mind you, just because this wasn’t free jazz didn’t mean that the instrumentalists were playing it safe. Lederer’s been an absolute favorite of mine because he doesn’t just stretch the outside of the envelope – he blows that sucker apart without a hint of apology, and he was doing that shit all night long. Parrott followed his lead, finding octaves that her instrument simply shouldn’t have been able to achieve. Reggae plays as big a role in this music as R&B and gospel, and that’s where Fiedler’s trombone had the biggest role and the most fun: The cartoon banners that hanging from the Falcon’s rafters may have hidden Fiedler from the chest up, but he was in no way invisible on this night.
Watching Miller play can be disconcerting for anyone who has only been exposed to traditional drummers. Her playing style is entirely unique, and looks like there should be a law against it. But the results are so fierce and so expansive that you can’t help but be enthralled by it. Between Miller and bassist Chris Lightcap’s constant inventiveness, the foundation remained otherworldly throughout. As far as Bernstein goes, his best moments were when he was relatively chill, like during his flugelhorn solo on “In Me Canoe” (which was a cross between a gospel rave-up and a Middle Eastern protest song) or his slide trumpet solo on “A Man Is Like a Tree.” Bernstein can blow up real good any time he wants, but it’s when he gets simple and soft where you see what an outstanding craftsman he is.
LaRose may not have the biggest voice in the world, but her phrasing and intention is world class, and her love for this music shines through on every number. Griffith is an entirely different animal, and I mean that literally: Imagine Howling Wolf combined with an ACTUAL wolf, and you have a general sense of Griffith’s ferocious vocal attack. There were points during the night where I was convinced he was eating the microphone. Pairing him with LaRose should not work – and yet, on tracks like “Movin’” and “Heart Love,” the two entirely divergent styles come together to take the music over the top.
I find Lederer’s musical vision to border on the psychedelic, in that it comes at you from so many angles that your synapses eventually say, “You’re on your own, monkey boy, because we give up!” While it may not have been the free-jazz crowd’s cup of cappuccino, the barrier-breaking elements stitched into the seemingly simple R&B stylings makes Heart Love, and Shakers n’ Bakers, unlike anything on the menu today. Seeing this music live, with these incredible players, was a blessing from Mother Ann; seeing them on a three-day weekend was an added bonus.