Seeing Matthew Berkeley in Berkeley always gives me a cheap grin. There's a rightness to it that makes me think that Colorado folks must have loved seeing John Denver. Rightness, and a companion drive to recognize wrongs, floats in the back of Matt's band Reorchestra - a six-man unit dedicated to bringing soul in all its forms to their percussion-inflected freedom jazz dance.
The crowd at the Starry Plough on this early July night is a mix of early college arrivals, cracked faced regulars and music hipsters in their carefully chosen band shirts. The guys get right down to it, opening with a dense, Fela-esque piece. Like much of their oeuvre, it's equal parts cerebral and corporeal. There's no foot-shuffling riot going on but the notes do inspire a conversation between head, heart and body. Everyone hits their mark as they state the theme and I hear how recent appearances at JazzFest in New Orleans and the High Sierra festival have sharpened their chops and tightened the nuts on this machine.
This is my first time seeing them with trombonist Rob Ewing and it takes some time to warm to him. When you're benchmark for the bone is Fred Wesley it’s tough for anyone to measure up. His use of effects gives the instrument greater color but also dilutes the hard, brass brightness. By the end of the night he was stepping out more, grabbing a greater share of the solo space, blurring the lines. His playing in the pack is right on but it’d be nice to hear him bring up the Scoville Rating in his solos.
Several times I was taken by how Ewing holds his own against the increasingly BIG drums. Micha Patri (percussion) and Adam Goodhue (trap drums) work the low end hard and aren't afraid to employ a cowbell, always an admirable quality in my book. Along with Berkeley's fat hand block chords and bassist Peter Canton, they form the bedrock for everything else to build on. From a Beale Street pots-and-pans clatter to a rubbery Kalahari stroll, this pair is growing into one of the most dependable rhythm sections in the region.
Between tunes, Matt says, "We’re here to spread some peace, spread some good times and send you home with smiles." That's an admirable goal especially in these bellicose times. With compositions with names like "9 Pulses of Peace" they live up to Berkeley's belief that music is about love and pure spirit and that peace can come from the notes. They're willing to play anywhere from chicken wings joints to a theatre stage in order to get their message out. A delicious, old-fashioned sincerity runs through what they do. They believe this stuff. Deeply. With so many live acts feeling like stamina contests, this band just feels more solid to me than all that wankery in service of nothing. Their skill as composers sets Reorchestra apart from similar units working the soul jazz road. The tails of a number of tunes drift off a bit so they need to work on their finishes, but that said they have a lot to play with already.
The twin poles that stir the gravity of Reorchestra are surely the electric piano of Mr. Berkeley and the six-string singing of Mike Abraham. When either of them whips the reins the whole pony show is off and running hard. Abraham always has something to say to the music, which means he never fills space. Whether he's throwing a stinging single note in to amp up the rhythm part or on a Grant Green-by-way-of-Sonny-Sharrock tangent, he continues to impress me as one of the premiere guitarists around these parts. Both he and Matt show all the signs of men who've spent too many hours in a practice room but manage to ditch the stiffness that usually accompanies that particular type of dedication. There's a natural-born wildness to Matt in particular that makes me want to stick a wooden dowel between his teeth when he solos. He twitches as his head gyrates Stevie Wonder fashion. Everything in him antes up. He has a knack for baaaadasss tones and messed up blocks of sound that snap you to attention. The best in both players emerges during the second encore, which Mike later describes as "a sort of freakout piece." Electric and angry, hot as a flash of thigh and more alluring for its brevity and unexpected power than a dozen epic meanders.
I look up late in the show after standing for several minutes with my eyes closed. On the silent TV monitor above the bar I see Hillary Clinton's coifed mug and feel the bile rise. Her endless shilling for her autobiography is endemic of the easy commodification of America's culture taking place. It won't be long until CEOs will be able to buy a spot next to George or Abe on Mount Rushmore. Honest. On the wall of the bar is a quote painted large from noted Irish Marxist James Connolly. Written in 1907, it flatly states that "No Revolutionary Movement is complete without its poetic expression." It appears that Reorchestra tries to live up to this ideal. Music as a form of personal morality was all the rage once. Today’s boner for style over substance saps this characteristic from a lot of what's played on stages. It's a pleasure on multiple levels to encounter a band that plays so well AND believes in something, too. It may make their progress a harder one actually. Sincerity is a mocked trait in our age but I hope they fight the good fight for as long as their limbs will carry them.
"Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinctive marks of a popular revolutionary movement; it is the dogma of the few and not the faith of the multitude." –James Connolly
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