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Covering the Basses

Here's a little known fact about the tune "Sexual Healing" by MARVIN GAYE. The second time through, the chord change in the bass line is not played by the electric bass, but is actually carried by a human voice. It's a subtle change, but it really kicks the tune off on the right foot. It's yet another example of the remarkable similarity between the sounds of the contrabass and the vocal output of a large gentleman. Whether it's the aforementioned soul groove or PIMEN in MUSSORGSKY's opera, BORIS GODUNOV, vocal chords can give wood and strings a good run for the money most nights.

Last Saturday night the Cayuga Vault featured not one, but two outstanding human bassists: CLOCKWORK's STEVEN SAXON and THE IDEA OF NORTH's ANDREW PIPER. Both were able to conjure up the sweet sonorities of the bull fiddle while also propelling their a cappella ensembles through the chord changes. Saxon is especially tasteful in his rhythmic phrasing. Whether the group was doing bebop or soul, his lines were both stylistically in the pocket and impressive as all hell.

It's a shame that a cappella has been so maligned in the commercial music world. No offense to the members of MANHATTAN TRANSFER, but it's too bad their reworked jazz standards are more well-known than the awesome albums put out by groups like MIRIAM MAKEBA's first group, THE MANHATTAN BROTHERS. It's also a shame that Clockwork's outstanding arrangement of RADIOHEAD's tune CREEP was met with absolutely no recognition from the crowd. As tenor ERIC FREEMAN beautifully rendered the chorus, people thought it was a joke. At least they recognized the new arrangement of FIELDS OF GOLD. I hope that Clockwork's next record will feature "Exit Music for a Film." It's pretty hard to laugh at that chorus.

Obi-Wan Corea

HIROMI is definitely CHICK COREA's protégé. Her flawless technique, odd affinity for the ring modulator and amazing montunos are all hallmarks of Corea's tutelage. Hiromi has the kind of touch on the keyboards that simultaneously fills your heart with warmth and your soul with envy. Her work with her band was innovative and conversational, but her solo tune, "Green Tea Farm," broke my heart. Her unabashed sentimentality in that tune was reminiscent of some of the solo piano work of DUKE ELLINGTON, but the Duke never had such cool hair, and he never wrote a tune about JACKIE CHAN.

Hiromi's bassist, TONY GREY, is another wunderkind. Most jazz players who pick up the fretless electric tend to go down the route established by JACO PASTORIUS, but Grey has taken more licks from flamenco virtuoso MANTIAS DE PLATA than from Florida's finest musical export. Some of his solos got a little noodly, but certain moments were beyond belief. Actually, that formula applied to the whole evening. There were parts of the show that were really inaccessible and showy for showiness' sake. Then these moments would give way to an absolutely stunning melody that grabbed your attention and riveted it to the spot. This ensemble and this composer must be watched over the coming few years. My guess is that she will do her mentor proud. Please though, Hiromi, don't cover "Spain"--that tune is so done.

Playing the Ass's Jawbone

UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE had a show Saturday night, but I begged off the Catalyst gig in order to go see their guitarist, RENZO STAINO, play MUSICA CRIOLLA on Sunday afternoon. This African music from the coastal regions of Peru is yet another manifestation of the triumph of the spirit over the forces of colonization and deportation. Renzo and his group presented eight different tunes, including a reworked version of TORA MATA, and some lovely MOROPONS. This genre might be best described as the Peruvian blues, but accompanied by lots of polyrhythmic clapping and too much grain alcohol. With AURA BARR and DAVID 'PACHA' ALVAREZ providing vocals, the show was positively uplifting, though the acoustic signature of the UCSC Recital Hall is not very forgiving when you cart the CAJON and the QUIJADA DEL BURRO out onstage. Apparently the donkey's jawbone is a bit more difficult to sonically dial in than the CELLO. Who knew?

Regardless of the house sound, Renzo's skills with the classical guitar are almost limitless. Not only is he a fine technical player, but he really digs in, forcing a normally delicate instrument to behave very brutishly. I'm glad he doesn't worry about the finish on his guitar much--it sounds so good when he hits it like that. Que bonita.

Peter Koht

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From the April 20-27, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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