EMERGENCY | 1.15 | NEW YORK

Just got back from a great evening of music at the Mercury Lounge. Emergency was some NYC heavyweights, John Zorn (tenor sax), John Medeski (organ), Marc Ribot (electric guitar) and Kenny Wolleson (drums). I wasn't sure what to expect at all - with these guys anything was possible.

The show started off with the white noise that you come to expect from certain Zorn outfits but it only lasted a minute or two before finding a groove. Before it could start to grate on you the band congealed into a funk outfit. But it wasn't long before the groove was fluttering aimlessly again. It sounded as if they were playing a fractured Meters tune, like Look-A-Py-Py in a blender. For moments you would get a nice chunk floating by in which all the members were moving together. These were followed by the moments of puree which took those essential pieces and whirled them together. It worked on some levels and lost me on others. You could bob your head to it for sure, but only for short spurts after which you found your head was horribly out of beat. I perceived this as a deconstruction of the funk/groove music that is rife in today's NYC music scene these days - one that Medeski himself helped to cultivate at it's beginnings.

This tune was followed by a short pause and then more noise. Even more than the first go at it with Zorn puckering up and making kissing noises through his saxophone. Once again the band found a groove and congealed... a pattern was forming which would follow for the night. It was as if the band was made of wax which would melt under it's own heat and splatter as a liquid without form. Given some time, though, the wax cooled and was poured into a drum/guitar mold to form interesting, recognizable structures to decorate with saxophone and organ. But again they would create their own heat and melt and start the process over again.

The second tune was Latin in flavor. As with all the songs, the "genre" was characterized by the Wolleson's beat and the style of Ribot's tone and playing. Like the first tune, the general theme was interrupted with some spurts of free-form directionless fuzz, but much less so. The jamming was intense and tight and featured mainly all three of the players working together. They layered each note on each other's in knowing fashion erecting a wall of spontaneous groove that was explosive and wonderful.

Again the structure melted and reformed. This time the form was a song of Middle Eastern-flavor. Ribot's guitar took on a tone of some Arabic string instrument heavy in pleasant reverberation. Zorn took an absolutely stunning solo that took the rest of the band along for a ride. It was halfway through his playing that I just had to smile. I had no idea what to expect from the evening and I was being treated to some world-class ear candy. Medeski followed but his was less a solo than suggestive leading as Zorn and Ribot seemed to be there for each note, adding exotic spices to the already brimming stew. More intense sonic pleasure as the band twisted around each other and flung out Ribot for his turn at the wheel. Marc continued the full-throttle trend and recruited the rest of them to come along for the ride. Eventually the pace became too hot and melted the band back down into a bubbling liquid of noise.

The fourth and final tune was the most straight-forward and predictable playing of the night. I wondered what style would be next and we got a head-on R&B-ish rocker that beckoned Maceo Parker with Zorn's killer playing. Again Ribot's style coupled with the funky beat characterized the music. Ribot took his versatility one step further by funking it up with a little wah-wah-type grooving. As I said, Jon Zorn blew the hell out of his saxophone building the tune with churning energy. Following the pattern of the first three songs but still taking a new slant, Medeski's turn on the organ was next and he continued the highly dancable song. Ribot finished again playing some blistering lead and bringing the band to full rock and roll hilt.

I was very much blown away by how well all the musicians worked together. Whether they were out on Jupiter squonking away in the most cerebral of musical galaxies or getting downright nasty with it back in the Lower East Side, there never seemed to be a moment where any of them were "lost." When a band works that well together, each note and riff seems to take on larger meaning and creates a tangible intensity.

I wouldn't know how to describe the type of music they played. It was rooted in the jazz cuisine, certainly, but salty with ethnic flourish as well as meaty with chunks of the ubiquitous groove. Certainly not what I was expecting at all from the evening. The four songs took about an hour - an almost perfect amount of this music - and getting home by 10:30 is also a perk. Very good stuff. Emergency. What a wonderful time to be alive and seeing music in New York.

Aaron Stein
JamBase New York City Correspondent
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[Published on: 1/16/01]

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