Concert Review: The Red Microphone CD Release Show Performing Protest Songs

Date: April 17, 2013
Venue: ZirZamin (NY)

Review by Matt Cole

1360423124_red_microphone_cover_resized_600I saw The Red Microphone for the first time at their CD release show at ZirZamin for The Red Microphone Speaks!, and was thus happy to see that they were a quartet consisting of four members of the Dissident Arts Orchestra, who had created a fine improvised soundtrack to Eisenstein’s classic Battleship Potemkin a few months back. Specifically, The Red Microphone consists of John Pietaro on vibraphone and percussion; Ras Moshe on tenor and soprano sax, flute, and spoken words; Rocco John Iacovone on alto and soprano sax, and Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic on bass.

It can be a challenge for musicians to play free music in sync with each other, but The Red Microphone manages to be a very tight, cohesive unit. The music started with a driving baseline and ethereal vibraphone sounds, and soon the two saxes came in playing in harmony, at times sounding like they were in different keys that nonetheless created a good sound, not unlike what Charles Ives might have written had he anticipated the free music of the ’60s or the Downtown flowering of the ’80s and beyond. The overall sound was rooted in modern avant-garde jazz, leaning towards the free end; the sounds of rock, hard bop, and even a hint of modern classical also could be heard in the mix. Right away, I noticed that there was a lot of communication between the band members, enabling them to move together as a single unit, changing rhythms, feel, and tempo with ease (or at least it looked that way to Yours Truly, watching from the audience). Themes would appear, bounce around, make an impression, and vanish into the ether like a pair of virtual particles in sub-Planck time. The band members took turns taking the lead, with tenor man/flautist Ras Moshe playing bluesy, uplifting solos with a definite undertone of urgency just beneath (and often breaking) the surface. Throughout the set, the band showed a talent for evolving pieces, with individual instruments coming in and out over time as the music grew.

Among the highlights of the evening was a very idiosyncratic version of the “Internationale.” Right after that, the band played an adaptation of Langston Hughes’ “God to the Hungry Child,” in which Moshe recited lines from the poem, while Rocco John Iacovone played responses on the soprano over John Pietaro’s spare vibes. Following this, the band did a free improv for the recently deceased President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, during which bassist Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic displayed an impressive array of techniques (cascades of soft plucked notes, arco bass, using the end of the bow to make notes, and using the body of the bass as a percussion instrument), yet never wavered from playing in service to the music. Towards the end, the band played a bar song of German revolutionaries in the ’30s, “Song of the United Front” which was written by Brecht and Eisler; this was a very jazzy rendition which featured a more-spare-than-busy alto solo by Iacovone over a free rhythm laid down by Pietaro and Letman-Burtinovic. Ras came in underneath, and then the horns melted out over an Arco, overtone-y bass and fast, dreamy vibes before coming back to the head.

It’s easy to play flashy free music with little communication and cohesiveness. It’s tough to play freely together as a unit and make it mean something. The Red Microphone did a fine job of the latter at their CD release show, and I look forward to reviewing the new CD.

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