Hittin’: Louis Cole @ Blue Whale

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Serious music played by serious musicians, when not taken too seriously, is always a special recipe. Add a little tutu for good measure, and I find myself writing the first Hittin’ review in three years.

The little tutu belonged to Genevieve Artadi; the music belonged to Knower—love/brain-child of singer Artadi and drummer/programmer, Louis Cole. The additional musicians were Sam Gendel, sax; Dennis Hamm, keys; and Tim Lefebvre, bass.

This was billed as an experiment—Knower, since its origin in 2010, has largely performed as a duo (sometimes with Lefebvre), backed by sequenced tracks and signature low-budg 80s-era projections. Last night at Little Tokyo’s Blue Whale, Knower was, in a way, stripped-down from duo to five-piece band…six including backing-singer, Nindy Wibisono. There were no sequences; no cosmic lion or atomic bomb loops projected behind them.

The result: my first contribution to this neglected site in three years. Seriously, three years?!

A-ha!
It was somewhere into the second piece (hard to call these simply songs) that the inspiration hit. We, the audience (now overflowing beyond the listening room to the listening bar—how great is Blue Whale? Right?!) were experiencing something special indeed. The sudden urge to write about it was reflexive. But, of course, I’ve seen special shows over the past three years. There was something more profound urging me.

The first thought was that well(damn-well)-played music—live musicians—will always transcend programmed music-in-a-box. Think: The Roots in the early 90s. I had no interest in rap music until I heard it played by real, serious musicians. (Granted, suburban white boys weren’t expected to be hip hop way back then.) Or, a decade earlier, when Missing Persons brought musicianship to synth-pop. I’m not gonna lie here—there is evidence of Human League, Soft Cell and A-ha dalliances in my record collection; but, my thing for Missing Persons was for real. I’ll reminisce with those records to this day.

Knower?! I Barely Know Her!
I’ve appreciated and dug Knower from the beginning, when they were simply known as Louis and Genevieve. The premiere self-titled Knower album (2013) was defining, and kind of a mind blow. I’ve seen them live three or four times and it’s always satisfying musically, and otherwise entertaining—Louis in an over-sized (tall-order for a remarkably tall, albeit paper-thin, dude) corn-cob t-shirt, or his n’ hers glow-in-the-dark skeleton unitards is surprisingly (or not) entertaining. One show had Nate Wood sitting-in on drums (file under musically-satisfying). Come to think, he had a skeleton costume on too. File under awesome.

But this was different.

Certainly, they’ve heard it before: something along, “You guys should play this stuff with a real band!” I imagine the statement triggering degrees of contempt and dread. Contempt at the idea that the duo is not a real band or somehow less-than; dread at the idea of actually getting musicians to own that music…more so, actually letting them.

The Deep End
Technically, a pool of players (while small—a kiddie-pool of big-time players) that could pull it off exists here in Los Angeles. Although, it could be argued (I’ll just frame the motion) that the crucible of musicians most technically and conceptually adept at replicating/re-inventing modern electronic music (transforming their instruments in the process) is fired via the east coast. The musicians on the Blue Whale stage last night, NYC and LA natives alike, were an overlap of generations forged from that electro/acoustic, techno/jazz alloy and steeled to the task.

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Surely, the challenge of playing Knower music with a live band was not the primary reason they came so late to the experiment. Necessarily, intrinsically, their music would morph through the sweaty, unpredictable hands of humans—technology will always take better direction. There are the elements of comfort and control creating alone with keyboard and screen. There’s no particular judgment inherent in that. But, there’s a reason we dread the Reckoning of the Robots.

There is sanctity in the sweaty, unpredictable, imperfect hands of humans.

Where there is Loss of Control there comes Leap of Faith.

This experiment of Knower’s—of ours—last night embodied these truths. It’s the reason, the inspiration, the urge for my words this morning.

Sure, human hands manipulate the buttons and dials that control the machines; just as they manipulate the keys and strings and valves and sticks that control their instruments. It’s not the creative process I’m qualifying. It’s the quality, the immediacy, the excitement, the virtue of sound and interaction in live performance that elevated Knower’s music and deepened the human connection in that space and time.

Simply, the music came alive.

OK, The Thing’s Got Louis Cole’s Name In The Title…
I mentioned he’s remarkably tall, right? He’s also remarkably dry-witted in an over-sized corn-cob t-shirt kind of way:

“Genevieve is getting-over being sick. After just being sick.” Pause. “Her new nickname is Double Sick.” That she is.

Cole is also remarkably good. I’ve seen him play a few times over the past few years, and he’s never sounded better. His conceptual clarity and technical fluency reflect a maturity that moves him further away from up-and-comer and toward an established artistic voice. Yes, it’s easy enough to hear influences such as Wood and Guiliana in his approach; but it’s become more easy now to foremost hear Cole.

What does Cole sound like? He’s a risk-taker—confident and fearless; but not reckless—committed to groove. He’s largely bass drum centric—leading with his right foot, his grooves are grounded, rarely ethereal. His rhythms and voicings are angular and broken and his sounds (ubiquitous splash on tom, dry cymbals, muted tunings) are mostly staccato; yet his feel is almost always round and fluid. Not surprisingly, as a multi-instrumentalist and composer, Cole’s drumming, while exciting and unpredictable, is fundamentally driven by fealty to song.

In a real sense, this was Knower’s coming out. And not just from underneath a tutu. Let’s hope it was more than just a tease.

Steve Krugman

Hittin’: Mike Clark @ Upstairs at Vitello’s

Mike Clark

Raw. Uncensored. Honest. Fearless. Brash. Effusive. Provocative. Confrontational. Entertaining.

Words that describe equally Mike Clark’s late-night smoke-out Facebook rants and his drumming style. Mike would likely have you believe it’s a New York thing, man. You square, vanilla, boring west-coasters wouldn’t understand.

A sample Facebook post: “I always find it laughable when cats talk about the groove, the pocket the time, gettin real funky and all that bullshit then they get up there and play as loud as they can they walk off the stage thinking it was killin ..meanwhile at that volume there is no funk, no groove, no grease and you can’t play shit inside it..that is some juvenile stupid shit…”

A sample of his drumming style was dished out last night in a rare L.A. appearance at Upstairs at Vitello’s with The Wolff & Clark Expedition. One thing is certain: The man knows something about playing shit inside a groove.

Mercy.
It doesn’t require much interpretation to understand that Clark considers himself a bop drummer who happened to gain notoriety, and incidentally a career, from his stint as the supremely funky drummer in Herbie Hancock’s seminal 70s fusion band, The Headhunters. By applying his bop roots and aesthetic to the stanky cauldron of funk that was San Francisco’s East Bay music scene at the time, he won the gig and helped change the instrument.

The performance at Vitello’s forty years later mostly showcased those roots. In addition to a couple swinging Michael Wolff originals, the late set hinted at a Real Book jam at times including renditions of “Song for My Father” and “Mercy Mercy Mercy.” Choices that may have seemed lazy at first were adequately justified by accounts of the personal connections behind them. And what the hell, this wasn’t just any jam: Wolff and Clark were joined onstage by veterans Bob Sheppard and Tony Dumas.

Wolff&Clark

The inclusion of the incessant Zawinul composition–a piece Wolff played with Cannonball Adderley–alongside the more straight-ahead swingers, revealed a perhaps ironic dichotomy of Clark’s drumming style; and one he might adamantly rebuke. On or off Facebook.

He is an accomplished bop drummer. As a funk drummer he is exceptional.

He is absolutely right (Duh.) about dynamic and touch largely defining funk, groove, grease, all of it. He took this truth from Melvin, Clyde and Jabo and blended in 52nd Street and the East Bay to create a signature style that is unmistakable, undeniable, and–sorry, Mike–inescapable. It’s a joy and thrill to behold, and still the reason many show up…

Another Dynamic
Although on this Saturday night for set number two at the now esteemed Studio City jazz club, not so many showed up at all. And for those who did–at least for a large, buzzy center-room tableful–the second set began with an annoyed admonition from Wolff: “I can’t play if you’re going to talk. I mean, I don’t mind not playing, but…”.

I didn’t blame him; I was, empathetically, on his side of the sentiment and stage. Must say, I felt a bit embarrassed for the Los Angeles jazz scene generally and the scene I found myself in specifically. The table at issue got up and left en masse mid-performance just as ill-manneredly as they sat down. The rest of us remained to enjoy these world-class musicians in peace and a full-range of dynamics. Wolff publicly expressed his relief that the table had cleared. “They were pissing me off.” I later wondered if that explained the terse 45 minute set.

Clark proceeded to introduce a new tune saying, “This next one features someone on stage that I’ve been a fan of for a long time…me.”

He wasn’t alone.

Steve Krugman

Revisit our September 2009 Q&A with Mike Clark.

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Special thanks to April Williams at Upstairs at Vitello’s.