About a month ago, I wrote about some exciting jazz events in the Hudson Valley. And last night, I had the pleasure of seeing a great performance by Nasheet Waits’s Equality, which featured Waits on drums, bassist Mark Helias, and pianist Orrin Evans, at the Falcon in Marlboro, NY. All three musicians are known for leading their own bands, but on August 3rd, they definitely functioned as a group, silently communicating and seamlessly moving from free sections into tightly arranged moments. Communication was key when these three virtuosos effortlessly traded taking the lead throughout the improvised sections; it was rare for one musician to play an extended solo in the middle of a tune, instead the whole group function as a unit, playing together (reminiscent of the dialogue between Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian).
As soon as the band began their first tune, a highly energetic take on “Tough Love” by the great Andrew Hill (with whom Waits had often played), I knew this would be a night to remember. All three musicians were improvising freely until Evans and Helias emerged with the central six-note riff, which they repeated and played with throughout the piece. One factor that made their music unique was that this trio would base their open improvisations not on the harmony of a piece, but around very small riffs, which they developed and explored. Near its close, “Tough Love” featured an engaging bass solo, in which Helias expertly employed slapping techniques and harmonics. The next piece, “Hesitation,” opened with an unaccompanied introduction by Evans. As Helias and Waits joined, the beautiful and subdued beginning grew into a wild and frantic explosion, in which Waits offered some of the most powerful brushwork I’ve ever heard and Evans emphasized angular melodies and minor seconds in his playing.
As I mentioned before, the banded consistently improvised around some motivic phrases, not long harmonic forms, and one of my favorite moments of the night came at the beginning of their fourth number, “Unity,” in which Waits played straight-ahead time and Helias and Evans simultaneously repeated distinct ostinato phrases of slightly different lengths. These dissimilar lengths allowed the phrases to continuously align in new ways and create different harmonic qualities with each repetition.
Their fourth tune, which is known by varying titles according to Waits, had a highly expressive melody (which at times sounded somewhat like Miles Davis’s “Blue in Green”), played in flawless unison by Evans and Helias, while Waits danced around his cymbals, adding shimmering colorful atmosphere. They closed the night with Helias’s original “Storyline,” which once again improvisation based around a simple, repeated riff.
It was a night of jazz unlike anything I’ve heard before. By presenting free improvisation based on such minimalist material, Nasheet Waits’ Equality pushed the boundaries not only of themselves as musicians, but also of what a jazz composition can be.