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LIVE REVIEW: Shabazz Palaces, Jazzhouse, 06.10.2017

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Shabazz Palaces live at Jazzhouse Copenhagen

With all the whispers that Shabazz Palaces were something akin to hip-hop meets Sun Ra, the expectations for what they were going to bring to Jazzhouse were high. Indeed as we waited for the set to begin, the individual stations, with their drums and electronics sitting neatly on draped colorful fabrics, suggested something vibrant or just more dynamic than what their albums bring.

The reality is about half true. The set starts off in total darkness and the lighting only improves to dim. There are hints of how wonderful their early 90s outfits must be, but it’s too dark to see the details. But what is immediately clear is that Shabazz Palaces sell themselves short on their recordings. The muted dub quality of the albums dampens everything from the vocals to the broad-ranging references, all of which come to life in their live set. Vocalist Ishmael Butler’s delivery has a lot more attitude and personality live, and the nuances of the percussion that are lost on the alums are laid out in a dazzling array: Drum machines, samplers, congas, snares, and a giant mbira among others. Percussionist Tendai Maraire quickly proves himself to be a multi-tasking monster.

Shabazz Palaces live at Jazzhouse Copenhagen
Photos by Morten Aagaard Krogh

With this apparent attention to detail, it seems likely that it was a conscious decision rather than an accident of the sound system that the sub bass creeps and in squashes the vocals flat. Those moments are frustrating, because Butler’s style, and the duo’s occasionally synchronized movements in the darkness literally pull the audience in (though the opening to “Welcome to Quazarz,” insisting, “I’m from the United States of America/We talk with guns/Guns keep us safe” is feeling particularly grim the week of a mass shooting).

If Shabazz Palaces are Sun Ra levels of insane on stage, they are at the very least an energetic duo; Butler would probably rocket around the stage if he didn’t have to keep reining himself in to go back to his synths and samplers. Maraire has more the approach of a marathon runner and clearly understands the need to pace himself if he’s going to get through the set.

The set itself does drag out for nearly two hours and it feels it. Because while Shabazz Palaces have an undeniably strong sound, the focuses on the sound often surpasses the focus on songs. And as there are peaks and valleys in dancing, maybe it’s question of location — if the duo continue to go for lengthy performances, then visuals might be helpful, or at least a seated venue.

LIVE REVIEW: Julie Byrne, Jazzhouse, 12.09.2017

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Julie Byrne live at Jazzhouse Copenhagen

No one expected a flashy set from Julie Byrne. It was anticipated from the beginning that the singer-songwriter would likely be alone on stage at Jazzhouse with her guitar. That she is joined by Taryn Miller of Your Friend on synths is already more activity than could be anticipated.

And yet Byrne is totally captivating. It’s not only that Jazzhouse is the perfect room for her voice; that it resonates over the packed audience is the most immediate selling point. It’s that Byrne herself is a striking presence. She’s swamped in a white robe that pools around her as she remains seated through her performance. She holds herself with a composure that emanates out from her being. Even while she’s singing, the room is quiet enough that you can clearly hear every time Miller hits a pedal.

The addition of Miller and their Korg synthesizer can’t be undervalued. There are a few moments of loud electronic noise washing over the room, but mostly the additional instrumentation is very understated, mimicking flutes or pedal steel in an intuitive, complementary way. Even just watching Miller as they shake their head enthusiastically while Bryne sings is such an endearing display of their rapport.

Miller helps to bring out a goofiness in Byrne that offsets some of her earnest New Age-y vibes. Bryne talks a lot about energies in the room and offering songs as prayers — if this had been a seated performance for the audience, I would have happily sat through a guided meditation with her. But then Byrne follows up the explanation that “Melting Grid” is about taking a risk at leaving a job for the sake of your spirit with a mad little “la la la” before singing the song. It’s a charming, off-script unpredictability that draws you in every bit as much as the songs.

Photo by Morten Aagaard Krogh

LIVE REVIEW: The Black Heart Procession Play 1, Jazzhouse, 22.03.2017

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The Black Heart Procession live at Jazzhouse Copenhagen

The Black Heart Procession broke a three-year silence to mount a modest European tour celebrating 20 years since recording their debut album, the pre-search engine era 1. If you didn’t know this going into their set at Jazzhouse, then you didn’t find out until after they had made it through the album and were into the encore. They’re not a band to make a fuss or really chat all that much between songs.

Opener Sam Coomes, touring his debut solo album, brought a glitchier version of his work with Quasi. Perched on an amp in lieu of a piano bench, he’s got an analogue drum machine, loads of twiddly knobs to twist between songs, a stuffed vulture mounted on his mic stand, a rotating mannequin head with LED eyes, and more pedals underfoot than seems logistically reasonable — including an air synth, which effectively acts as a theremin he can operate with his foot. It’s more visually stimulating than you’d expect a guy at a keyboard to be.

Sam Coomes live at Jazzhouse Copenhagen
Photos by Morten Aagaard Krogh

It’s not a competition for obscure objects to trot out during the show, but the Black Heart Procession begin their set with frontman Pall Jenkins playing a saw. And while it’s a neat party trick, it’s also a detail that demonstrates why 1 has aged so well in 20 years. The current line-up of the band, augmented by accordion and violin as well as drums and synths, is mostly built around organic arrangements not subject to technology’s fads or evolution. It also emphasizes the band’s range of dynamics in a way that is lost on their albums: Everything on the recording always sounds very mellow and delicate, and it’s surprising just how loud a song like “Release My Heart” can be.

The encore is less orchestrated: “A Cry for Love” (because it’s curiously popular on YouTube), “The War is Over,” and the treat of an unnamed new song. The new song is introduced with a brief speech from Pall, who explains that the song is about borders and refugees and how the rhetoric in the US is uncomfortable for two guys who grew up near the Mexican border. And while the Black Heart Procession doesn’t seem like the sort of band to get political, the new song is undoubtedly one of theirs. If this marks a new direction, it won’t take fans far off course.

LIVE REVIEW: Cate Le Bon, Jazzhouse, 09.11.2016

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Cate Le Bon live at Jazzhouse Copenhagen

We were charmed when we first saw Cate Le Bon live at Roskilde this summer. But her show at Jazzhouse was the performance we really wanted from her. If that initial set left us wanting, it became clear that it was only ever a matter of translation.

As distinctive as Cate Le Bon’s ramshackle indie rock is — in particular her tuneful, quirky approach to Nico’s iconic vocal delivery — she’s not a very flashy performer. As a headliner, however, her personality comes through clearly. It’s in small touches, like the yelp at the end of “Duke” or the way the guitar outro on “How Do You Know?” deteriorates into an imprecise grind before springing directly into “I Can’t Help You.” It’s obviously well-rehearsed, but it’s a thrilling shot in the arm all the same.

Cate Le Bon live at Jazzhouse Copenhagen

Photos by Morten Aagaard Krogh

Because mostly what was lost in translation from the Roskilde performance was a question of energy. Cate Le Bon is understated in her performance, and her energy translates much better in Jazzhouse than on a Roskilde stage, where her little head tosses and subtle steps backward as she leans into a chord are lost to scale. And if we couldn’t infer that on our own, if we couldn’t see how much more comfortable she clearly is, she makes it pretty clear when she relates how pleased she and her band were when they arrived at Jazzhouse and saw the small stage near the bar upstairs. They were disappointed (or “terrified,” in Cate’s words) upon realizing they were playing in the main room.

But for this innate shyness, you can see the would-be rockstar, the guitarist who enjoys playing a solo. The frayed outro of “What’s Not Mine,” which unravels over the course of minutes, might not send her into spasms or even shake her from where she stands, but her absorption in clear. The details you can’t see from a festival stage that you can see from a few feet away in a tiny club is a reminder to us that the setting is an integral part of the experience. You can’t feel like you’re in on a secret when you’re standing in a field.

LIVE REVIEW: Jenny Hval, Jazzhouse, 29.10.2016

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Jenny Hval live at Jazzhouse in Copenhagen

Some artists have projections rolling behind them when they play live. Jenny Hval has a woman in a body suit rolling suggestively on top of an inflatable kiddie pool, drinking wine.

This isn’t shocking or perplexing for even a second. When you sign up to see Jenny Hval, you look forward to something a little weird. This time around at Jazzhouse, things are lower-budget, no video screens, only one backing dancer doing whatever it is she’s doing, and the sole video cued up on a laptop that definitely can’t be seen from the back of the room. But what’s great about it is that as serious as the tone of the music is — and Jenny’s latest, Blood Bitch, has a number of tense moments — the performance itself clearly isn’t. Everyone in the room is in on the joke. Jenny herself knows how absurd the plastic kiddie pool, the squashed up fruit, the strewn flower pedals that land in people’s drinks look, and that’s why it’s fun instead of uncomfortable.

The truth is that musically speaking, Jenny Hval’s live performance would be a one-to-one interpretation from her albums. It’s a function of her music being primarily electronic and her voice being solid and reliable. But she’s aware of this lack of variation in her sound and translates it to what could fairly be described as batshit crazy art school nonsense for her visuals.

There is more spontaneity on this tour, perhaps because it’s not so seamlessly scripted as when she toured Apocalypse, Girl. There’s more conversation with the audience about the songs and the props. There are explanations for the back row when Jenny and her companion sit pants-less in the pool with sunglasses on, rubbing their hands and legs with red dye. During “That Battle is Over,” the pool is flipped over Jenny, delighting the young children in the front row who peer through its translucent sides and wave at her (what parent thought it was a good idea to bring their children to this show, I can’t explain, but at least her visuals are on the side of suggestive that to an innocent mind would just be silly).

As the evening winds down and a lyric from “Kingsize” is teased before devolving into the cacophony of “Plague.” The kiddie pool, meanwhile, has been cast out into the crowd, with the backing dancer looking on in distress and trying to call it back. When it does make it back to the stage, they deflate it together.

If you’ve made it this far and are completely perplexed, all we can say is that Jenny Hval has been confirmed for Roskilde 2017. This is your advance warning: Do not sleep on that.

LIVE REVIEW: Kevin Morby, Jazzhouse, 10.05.2016

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kevin morby live in copenhagen

It’s not surprising that a musician who has released nine albums in seven years is an energetic guy. Kevin Morby, once of Woods and the Babies, tells the sold out crowd at Jazzhouse that he had a long drive from Berlin and only slept half an hour the previous night, but that doesn’t stop him from spending most of his set bouncing on his toes and shaking his curly hair back and forth. The main room is very hot, but while his backing band condescend to roll up their sleeves, Morby is committed to his gray suit and seems unencumbered by his sartorial choices.

Morby primarily plays songs from his latest album, Singing Saw, familiar enough to the audience now for “Dorothy” to be greeted with cheers from the opening chords. He treats the audience to a track written since the album, which bears resemblance to the more energetic songs on Singing Saw, as well as older songs such as the title track from his solo debut, Harlem River.

Jazzhouse is the perfect setting in terms of acoustics for Morby and his band. And his band is truly special. The grouping of two guitars, bass, and drums mean that some of the trimmings from the albums are stripped back. Where there were string arrangements or keyboards, now it’s just guitars doing their best impersonations, which brings out the bluesy aspects of the songs. The bass is very present but never intrusive, clear without registering a thud in your intestines. Morby’s guitarist and backing vocalist is very understated in her performance, drawing little attention to her fancy fretwork. By contrast, his drummer looks like he’s going to burst apart every time the tempo picks up. And it’s more apparent live than in his recordings how much Morby’s songs rely on these shifts; the subtlety of the album is a jolt of energy live. And while his band emphasizes this, it’s clear when Morby plays “Black Flowers” solo that he is capable of relating the same effect on his own.

A lot of that ability to relate in his music come from the ease Morby projects on stage. He is comfortable with his audience and even a little goofy, at one point requesting the house lights be brought up so he can take photos. It’s easy to reconcile that man with the man who bounces around the stage. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the whole package.

LIVE REVIEW: Morton Subotnick, Jazzhouse, 21.04.2016

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Morton Subotnick

It’s safe to say that we never anticipated the audience rushing the stage of an 83-year-old electronic artist’s performance, but Morton Subotnick has always been a man of firsts. The electronic music pioneer played selections spanning his landmark albums Silver Apples of the Moon and A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur at Jazzhouse in low-key, minimalist style.

Minimalist in terms of presentation, that is — in terms of gear, Subotnick has enough hard drives in his set up to run a major ticket-buying operation and enough wires to be a legitimate fire hazard. But otherwise he sits behind a table, brightly lit but with no projections (though it takes at least 15 minutes before we register this point), the flashiest thing perhaps being his neon sneakers.

This is one of those rare occasions where you could conceivably hold a conversation over most of the music, yet no one is. The sounds come in whispers and the odd wave of noise, but mostly maintain a serene, therapeutic level. These are not note-perfect representations of the albums, either, which in many ways comes as a relief. Working with laptops instead of primitive synthesizers, it’s far more exciting to hear the music reinterpreted with modern technology than to hear a facsimile of what it was. From a technical perspective, this means that the higher end, for example, is far less harsh sounding, which is a favor to anyone with tinnitus if nothing else.

Morton Subotnick

This modernization doesn’t take away from the intent of the original works, though. It is still clear that Subotnick’s work is unlike what we have come to know electronic music to be. Even contemporaries like Kraftwerk who embraced the machine aspect of electronic music still don’t have the Space Age quality of Subotnick’s work. It’s choppier, more robotic, and brings to mind the proto-electronic work of tape splicers like Delia Derbyshire more than any New Waver. To underscore this, and the evolution of his own compositions, Subotnick ended the evening with a newer piece that fits more comfortably with contemporary abstract electronic works than much of his catalogue.

After his set, Subotnick came out to take away his gear, but didn’t get far. People were already on stage, looking at the labyrinth of wires, and immediately cornered him into conversation. More people followed suit, filling Jazzhouse’s small stage. Maybe the fresh news of the loss of yet another music legend had made people more brazen, and the artist took it in good humor. It proves that the fascination with his weird sounds is as real now as it was nearly 50 years ago.

LIVE REVIEW: William Basinski, Jazzhouse, 07.04.16

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William Basinski

With a show at Jazzhouse sold out a week in advance, William Basinski’s place in contemporary avant-garde music clearly hasn’t gone unnoticed with the local audience.

Opening the night was Danish sound artist Lars Lundehave Hansen. His equipment was set up next to Basinski’s centre-stage desk, on a small round table covered with a sumptuous red lit tablecloth. Taking the place at the table dressed in a sleek suite and occasionally waving his hand through the air, Hansen gave away an impression of a magician. His music, however, did not quite live up to its magical setting. In spite of some interesting moments, the opening set was mostly made up of decent if slightly dull and rather conventional drone.

Having seen William Basinski perform a few times before, what first struck me as unusual (apart from his rockstar looks that one can apparently never get used to) was the absence of the projection screen. In place of sedative sea-like projections screened on Basinski’s previous tour, there were lights shining around him in different colours and patterns. Change can be good, of course, but bright, lollipop lights were hardly a match for the comforting ambiance coming from the PA.

Putting the unanticipated visual component aside, Basinski’s performance was pretty much all one would expect it to be. That is not to say it can be described in terms of good and bad; it was simply true to the music he’s known for. With two portable reel-to-reel tape decks as his faithful companions, Basinski patiently highlights the gradual decay of sound. Short sounds from the tape are elongated in feedback loops washing over the space, drawing the listeners into meditation.

In a live setting, Basinski’s familiar approach and fragile sound forms feel even more tangible than on recordings. The general mood is rattled by the occasional look to the stage in all its light-show glory. Curiously, that only seems to underline the point – this is the sound of all things inevitably fading away, no matter how shiny they may appear.

LIVE REVIEW: Arnold Dreyblatt and the Orchestra of Excited Strings, Jazzhouse, 18.02.2016

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Vinterjazz follows on the same trend of Jazzhouse itself: There’s some jazz, but they’re not especially strict or picky about following certain guidelines. The loosely thematic program scheduled in February is an excellent excuse to put outfits together on the same bill that have only the vaguest ties to one another. Jazz purists would surely be horrified. But it’s excellent.

Stephen O’Malley is best known for his work with SunnO))); Randall Dunn is best known as a producer who sometimes works with SunnO))). Their opening set does not sound like SunnO))) and does not pretend to. It’s primarily a thick, ambient mass of guitar and keyboards, and yeah, it’s loud, and there’s a bit of that familiar rumble, especially when Dunn fills in the bass with a Korg. There are actually times when you can distinguish the guitar, and even individual notes, particularly an interlude where O’Malley strums a series of stuttered notes. It doesn’t take long before he jabs at the pedals set up before him with a finger as though he’s gotten annoyed at how quiet things are. It’s not an all-consuming volume, and there’s no smoke machine to gas you out, but it’s clear that the men know how to lull an audience even without extreme low frequencies.

Arnold Dreyblatt

The minimalism of Arnold Dreyblatt’s opening song is shocking in its contrast. He spends 15 minutes whacking out harmonics on his bass with a bow before being joined by the Orchestra of Excited Strings.

If his opening song is demonstrably and performatively avant garde, then what follows is practically pop music. Despite being joined by a tuba player, a guitarist whose right hand scarcely touches the strings and a drummer who also plays robotic guitar (rigged to a laptop — more of a party piece than a looping pedal, but every song starts and ends with it), the rhythms are conventional, the overtones are warm, and the songs are upbeat and accessible, no matter how creative the musicians’ methods are. By the end of the set, people are dancing in the doorway, crowded out of the main room by chairs.

With such wildly different performers, there was a noted shift in the audience from one set to the next. But if you showed up late or left early, you definitely missed out.

LIVE REVIEW: Anna von Hausswolff, Jazzhouse, 22.01.2016

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Low frequency sounds and thunderous bass aren’t always associated with relaxation, but Anna von Hausswolff’s sold out Jazzhouse performance could have been billed that way. From the beginning of opener Berg’s set, the evening was one filled with a resonance humming mildly in the air, lulling the audience into a meditative state (though Berg might have taken it too far by burning patchouli incense on stage).

But it’s not a smooth transition to Anna’s set. She takes the stage with her band in an unassuming way, situated on a platform, sitting behind her organ, far removed from anyone in the audience. This means that when she crouches behind the instrument, we can’t see what she’s doing. And it seems like she’s ducked down for a long while when she finally announces that her sub-bass has blown out, and she’ll be back in about 10 minutes, leaving us with a light drone.

True to her word, it is only 10 minutes, standing in pulsating blue lights that remind you of being in an aquarium. While the glitch has robbed Anna of any bold introduction, the now-repaired sub-bass has the shock value of making your teeth rattle in your head. Despite this, it’s very soothing. Because there is so much emphasis on the lower end, the guitars are a whispery afterthought; the myriad pedals before the two guitarist contribute nothing to noise.

Anna herself can shriek like a banshee, but it blends so easily with the arrangements that, regardless of her pitch, there’s no harshness. And the way that she sways — in big swooping motions with her hair trailing behind her — suggests a different atmosphere and a different music, a playfulness and nonchalance out of step with the avant garde.

Given the technical delay, this is one night when the perfunctory leave-the-stage-to-denote-an-encore could have been skipped. Von Hausswolff returns very quickly for a solo performance of David Bowie’s “Warszawa” before her band rejoins her for the final number. It’s an up-beat, almost pop number, different from the rest of the evening that she closes her set with. It’s past midnight, and there’s an air of fatigue in the room now, but it’s a wise decision to send us off with one last burst of brightness.

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