Point of Departure: Buffalo Collision at the Dakota

Mike Massey, working the door at the Dakota and looking pretty natty for a guy who prowls the stage as the howling frontman for Twin Cities gutter-blues band City on the Make, tells me that during last night's Buffalo Collision set an angry woman came up to him and demanded her cover charge back because, she said, "This isn't jazz."

Which makes me think: Can you imagine a similar scene over any other genre of music? That would be like going to the Turf for, well, just about anybody from Tapes n' Tapes to Dosh to the STNNNG to the Replacements and demanding your cover charge back because it's not the Dave Clark Five.

I mean, what is happening when a brilliant, forward-thinking, adventurous, tender, primal, beautiful band like Buffalo Collision is judged as being out of place because of an idea some patrons have about what the club they're playing should mean?

Not that I'm exactly unsympathetic. I'm not going to tell you that Buffalo Collision are easy, or that I can tell you a couple of things about them and you'll suddenly fall in love. In the Bad Plus, drummer David King and pianist Ethan Iverson make music that in some ways bears an outward similarity to the music of Buffalo Collision, but whereas the Bad Plus (and one of King's other projects, Happy Apple) actually play highly structured and rigorous avant-garde jazz, Buffalo Collision is much looser, closer to free playing.

On stage, it seems like this energy comes largely from Iverson and King's collaborators, cellist Hank Roberts and alto saxophonist Tim Berne. Roberts and Berne are a musical generation older than King and Iverson, having risen to prominence in the New York jazz scene of the 1980s. In 1996, Berne founded Screwgun Records, and Buffalo Collision's debut album (duck) is available through the site.

They begin the first set with just cello and piano, big, dark chords rolling out from Iverson's piano while Roberts slips around them. Berne keeps his back to most of the audience (although the Dakota's rounded stage make it impossible to completely turn away) and when he and King enter, the sound doesn't seem to get heavier or bigger. It stays delicate, but also elemental. Mournful, almost.

One of the mistakes that people make when looking at free jazz is to treat it as one monolithic thing that's just angry at you and more organized music in general. But Buffalo Collision as a whole couldn't be further from stuff like Peter Brötzmann's Machine Gun. Rather than eschewing form, Buffalo Collision seem to be creating form in a fluid way, each player creating patterns and then adapting or abandoning those patterns in response to the directions the others are taking. I could be wrong--I haven't gotten to listen to their album yet and so the songs may be much more structured than they appear. Such music demands a similar fluidity from the listener; perhaps the easiest strategy to listening is to follow one instrument's line as its built while keeping an ear out for shifts or responses in the other ones. Or you could just suspend your attention and let it happen in front of you, taking in whatever strikes you and leaving the rest. It isn't algebra, you know.

Buffalo Collision (l-r): Ethan Iverson, Tim Berne, Hank Roberts, David King

Buffalo Collision (l-r): Ethan Iverson, Tim Berne, Hank Roberts, David King

Abstract music doesn't demand you listen like you do to everything else but harder--it asks you to listen wider. You can unfocus your ears the way you might unfocus your eyes and treat it like meditation, letting thoughts and responses arise without following them. Or you can grab on when they fly by and follow a musician's melodic line or harmonic counterpoint for a while before grabbing on to another one.

Their first set is one unbroken string of music, although it seems to shift from a first composition to a second one somewhere along the way. Berne and Roberts take turns leading the group through different sonic territory, with King prodding from the drum stool. He's always such fun to watch. The man lands drum fills like Michael Jordan used to hit acrobatic layups: you think there's no way it's going in, or that there's no way he'll be able to contort his body to make it fall right, but then it just magically does.

Roberts' cello playing is equally flexible. Running it through a handful of effects, the cello can sound horn-like or, when Roberts begins bowing up near the bridge, create a cascade of fragile, beautiful harmonics. When Iverson and King drop back in on that sound, it's tender and open, the musicians not ignoring the possibilities of simple harmonic structures but re-purposing them for bolder, stranger work.

The entire night is a sea of little moments that reveal the musicians' sympathy and interaction, but the one that stands out comes when the group begins to quiet down around a long run of keening harmonics from Roberts' cello. As the high wail rings out through the club, you can just about see King hear something and a breath later he's up and grinding the tip of his drumstick into one of his cymbals, pulling a second cry from the metal to match Roberts.

It's an exceedingly small thing, and maybe that's not what some people showed up to hear last night, a Friday. For better or worse, jazz is an accessory for a lot of people these days. But on Saturday night, it felt good to listen, to be caught up, and to let go.