To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Sam Segal shares his perspective on Rez Abbasi’s Invocation. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
At the risk of sounding like an imperious jerk who wants to tell people how they should experience live music, I would like to make a suggestion to jazz audiences everywhere: don’t clap after solos. “Why?” you ask, “Clapping lets the musician know how much I dug their solo.” I hear you, but let me explain.
On Thursday night, guitarist and composer Rez Abbasi made his third appearance in nine years in the McGuire Theater. While he has accompanied groups led by saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa in the past, this was Abbasi’s first appearance at the Walker with a group of his own. After a fiery and all too brief opening set by Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition, the Abbasi-led Invocation sextet took the stage. The band opened with a tune from their recently recorded Unfiltered Universe. Flexing their dynamic sensitivity, the group journeyed through a wide range of emotional spaces, from pastoral beauty to mathematical claustrophobia.
Next, they leapt into “Turn of Events,” another lengthy piece that felt both tightly composed and phenomenally free. Pianist Vijay Iyer led with a solo that sounded like it contained seventy years of jazz history, jumping from the acrobatics of Art Tatum to the expressive decadence of Keith Jarrett and the heady percussive weirdness of Alexander Von Schlippenbach. Predictably, the sold-out crowd clapped when Iyer’s solo reached its obvious conclusion. The applause was understandable. Iyer is known as one of the greatest living pianists in jazz, and his solo was a miraculous display of technical inventiveness.
This pattern of interaction between musicians and audience continued throughout the piece. Mahanthappa let off another one of his scorching streams of Bird-meets-the-Carnatic brilliance, and the crowd acknowledged his efforts with claps and scattered hollers. The same went for Abbasi’s own solo of immaculate, fluttering guitar work. It was after a duet by bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and cellist Elizabeth Means when this solo-clap transaction started to become a problem. Improvising together, the two jump-cut from delicate harmonic tip-toeing to an intense crescendo. The duo’s playfulness sparked a loud applause that led to a sense of confusion as to whether or not the song had actually ended. When Iyer began a percussive pattern on his hand-muted piano strings, it seemed like the band may have entered the territory of a new composition. However, as the entire ensemble joined him, and the melody that opened the song fifteen minutes earlier returned at full force, I realized we were at the song’s peak. Unfortunately, the previous moment’s confusion had robbed the song of its emotional climax.
By clapping, we the audience had imposed our own structure on the music, and that structure was unfortunately out of synch with the one envisioned by its composer. Applause creates a narrative in which individual band members take turns showcasing their talents for our approval. That’s not the kind of narrative that suits a band as communicative and daring as Rez Abbasi’s Invocation. The anticipation of applause makes us listen only to be riled up into climactic excitement by the individual soloist. When we listen in that way, we miss the many interactions occurring between the supposed accompanist and the soloist, as well as those happening between the accompanists themselves.
Throughout the evening, drummer and tabla maestro Dan Weiss was constantly trying to create counter-narratives, shifting the ground that soloists tried walk on. He would move quickly from a stable swing into a cut-up funk or a head-banging rock beat, grinning to himself as if it were part of a game between him and the other members of the band. On the night’s closer, “The Dance Number,” Weiss added thick layers of fog onto Iyer’s piano solo, skittering away on only his cymbals. When the only story we’re paying attention to is the story of the soloist’s individual virtuosity, waiting to acknowledge it with our applause, we miss these kinds of moments of interplay.
One reason why we clap after solos is that we’re looking for a way to participate. Jazz is often the ultimate genre of unfiltered self-expression, and that is something we want to take part in as an audience. Allow me to offer an alternative. Instead of clapping, try dancing. Dancing can be hard when you’re bound to a theater seat, but you don’t have to be on your feet to allow your body to move in response to music. When done right, dance is an automatic response to the stimuli of the present. There is no anticipation of a soloist’s climax, because your body is reacting to the totality of the music in the moment. It’s hardly an original point, but it is worth repeating that jazz originally arose as dance music, its improvisation often attributed as a response to the needs of dancing crowds. I believe the music of Rez Abbasi’s Invocation still bears the danceable essence that exists at the heart of the music of King Oliver and Cab Calloway. The beat may be less stable, and its dissonances may have snuck their way to the fore, but this music can still move you, if you let it.