Point of Departure: Agartha at the Dakota
"I love it when a plan comes together." --John "Hannibal" Smith, The A-Team
Agartha--a project dedicated to the music of Miles Davis' electric period and the brainchild of guitarist Luke Polipnick--has been a long time coming. But then again, music as game-changing, challenging, and flat-out weird as what Davis and his revolving cast of musicians made from 1969 to 1975 is not something to be taken lightly. It begins with In a Silent Way and proceeds through a trio of live albums (including the one Agartha takes their name from) that are restless and forward-thinking. We're talking about the earliest, fiercest work of John McLaughlin, the most propulsive, funkiest playing of Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette and even some of the most beautiful and haunting solos by Davis and players like Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea. In short, musicians at the top of their game. And at the time, a lot of jazz fans disowned it as a desecration of their sacred tradition.
So for Agartha--led by Polipnick with brothers J.T. and Chris Bates on drums and bass, Bryan Nichols on electric piano, Patrick Breiner on tenor and soprano saxophones, and Paul Krueger on trumpet and flugelhorn--the stakes, to quote De La Soul, is high. Throw in the last slot of the night at the Dakota (following two sets that J.T. also played) and their even later start time thanks to the difficulty of getting Barbara Dennerlein's Hammond B3 and Leslie off the stage, and you've got a tall hill to climb to musical greatness. But all they really need to do is trust it.
As the group lays into "Pharoah's Dance," the lead cut from Davis' massive Bitches Brew, things seem almost a little stiff. This is, after all, the combo's first time on stage anywhere. It takes Miles a good two-and-a-half minutes to come in on the record, and when he does drop in, it's like the arrival of the king, even if he's kind of slipping in through the back door. That's an awful lot of pressure for Krueger to shoulder.
But they make it through "Pharoah's Dance" and then keep going deeper into Bitches Brew, and I'm reminded why it's a wonderful and rare thing to see a group play together for the first time. At some point, I'm struck by the sheer weight of the sound the group is making, J.T. more reined into straight timekeeping than I've seen before, his brother Chris playing the circular, simple riffs without embelishment. Somewhere into the third or fourth song--they bleed into one another and are hard to keep straight--I begin to have a new appreciation for how this music must have hit people when they heard it back in the '70s.
Nowadays, we receive it as canon. The revolutions in recording and composition brought on by In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew have been absorbed and refracted back into popular music. If anything, modern electronic music and rock are more informed by those records than mainstream jazz is, and now I can see why. The drums aren't fluid and responsive in that bop way; they still respond, but oftentimes they're almost argumentative. And the bass isn't walking through changes--it's anchoring the music down. Changing the bass and drums so fundamentally shifts the way the soloists play, and you can see it almost happening in real time.
You can feel the band begin to loosen itself from its moorings as the set unspools, and it reaches its crescendo as Breiner begins to pedal on a single note on his tenor sax before gradually building in more and more notes, eventually blurring them together and bringing the rest of the band along behind him. The music is demanding in a way that's not exactly technical, despite the players' obvious techincal expertise. The challenge here is not fluidity, or grace, or blazing virtuousity--the challenge is to inhabit the space, the music as fully as possible.
(l-r) Bryan Nichols, Luke Polipnick, Chris Bates and Paul Krueger
© John Whiting 2009
At the beginning of the set, Polipnick promised they'd play most of Bitches Brew and then a "special treat," which turns out to be the second cut from In A Silent Way, "In A Silent Way/It's About That Time." Polipnick's open, ringing tone evokes McLaughlin's on the original beautifully, but where producer Teo Macero cut analog tape by hand to make the medley in the studio, Agartha make it happen organically. They find their own way into "It's About That Time," stretching and pulling at the studio tricks that made the original possible and re-imagining it for the modern stage, and they do it without resorting to loop pedals or layers of effects.
In fact, the only overt nod to technology is a slight delay added to Krueger's trumpet, and the band spend a good five minutes getting it right before the set starts. At first, it's too fast and hangs around too long. Looking up into the stage lights, Polipnick entreats the soundman: "A little slower, maybe? With quicker decay?" Krueger plays another note and now it's too slow, dies too fast. "Split the difference?" asks Polipnick. Another trumpet blast reveals that nothing has changed. They wait. And then at last, Krueger plays a single note and it comes back to him just right, a couple ghostly notes fading into the air and, as one, the band members and the Miles fans in the audience cheer in unison. Some things we must find by feeling.
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